The end of an era

Armbruster, the tent company, is closing after 149 years

click to enlarge The end of an era
Hellar Armbruster, the fourth-generation owner of Armbruster Manufacturing Company since 2005, stands by an original tent sewing machine from the 1800s.

A 149-year-old family manufacturing business in Chatham is closing its doors in early June and an unrelated, but well-known, national franchise business will move into its space along Interstate 55.

Armbruster Manufacturing Company will close and its 33,000-square-foot facility will be the new home of the central Illinois Roto-Rooter franchise. The sale of the legacy business and its property had not been contemplated until recently, when owner Hellar Armbruster received an offer that was too good to pass up.

"We weren't listing it for sale or anything," said Armbruster, the fourth-generation family owner of the business. "They just approached us and we said yes."

Armbruster's ongoing tent contracts are being passed on to other tent companies in the Midwest, including Traube Tent Company from Columbia, Illinois, which will service the Illinois State Fair starting this year.

Many of Armbruster's approximately 50 employees will retire while the rest will seek work elsewhere, Armbruster said. The Roto-Rooter operation will employ 40 people and house 25 vehicles on-site.

Armbruster said the timing of the sale offer was fortuitous because he was faced with an aging, skilled workforce that was going to be hard to replace in the next few years.

"We've had some people who have been here their whole working lives." Armbruster said. "We had an aging workforce that was wanting to retire, but they hung on because it is hard to replace that experienced workforce with younger workers who were willing to come into the business."

John Howard is the owner of Chistopian Services, doing business as Roto-Rooter, and is based in Chatham.

"I had reached out to Hellar about a year and a half ago regarding something that was completely unrelated," Howard said. "He made mention in passing, joking really, that he was worried about his aging workforce and may have to think about selling the business at some point."

After that conversation, Howard began working with the Roto-Rooter company and quickly realized that the local franchise needed a lot more space to accommodate its growing workforce.

"I recalled the conversation I had with Hellar and followed up with him," Howard said. "I told him I had an opportunity, my business needed a much larger footprint than what we currently have, and I asked if he might be looking to step out of the business, and if so what the timeline might be."

Armbruster and Howard began the sale process in August 2023.

"We will use that space as our launching pad to continue to grow within the area," Howard said. "Every time you drive up and down I-55, it's going to be my goal that you see a Roto-Rooter sign. It gives us easy access to the areas we serve."

Howard's Roto-Rooter franchise serves an area roughly bordered by Lincoln, Decatur, Litchfield and Petersburg. The firm performs drain and sewer line cleaning, residential and commercial plumbing, flood and fire restoration, sewer excavation and lining, and basement waterproofing.

"It's a little bittersweet for us because we hate to see a longstanding business like that go out of business," Howard said. "But we are also happy to be able to fill the building with employees and equipment so it will be put to good use."

Armbruster has manufactured tents for clients around the world, from state fairs to movie sets. The company came a long way since it was founded in Springfield in 1875 by Rudolf Herman Armbruster, a German immigrant who built canvas covers for the Conestoga wagons used by the westward pioneers.

Armbruster has made circus tents since 1890 and about 15 years ago began to produce tents for the motion picture industry. Many of the firm's long-term employees still use vintage machines to help join the heavy pieces needed to create tents.

Armbruster is currently the oldest tent-making company in America, a distinction that will soon go to another firm.

"I cannot say enough about the dedication and skill of our employees and the support we have received for 149 years from the Springfield community," Armbruster said. "It has been an honor to be a part of this community for so long."

David Blanchette

David Blanchette has been involved in journalism since 1979, first as an award-winning broadcaster, then a state government spokesperson, and now as a freelance writer and photographer. He was involved in the development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and more recently the Jacksonville...

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