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Power House

The scions of the Carus family of La Salle-Peru have a hell of a tradition to contend with: every generation so far has changed the world.



By Jeffrey Felshman

Despite the new porch and sandblasted facade, there's no denying that the Hegeler Carus Mansion in La Salle, Illinois, looks like the house in The Addams Family--only larger. Much larger. Large enough to make the mansion across the street look like a tract house.

The 57-room behemoth, completed in 1874, was once capital of an empire. In the 60s the empire moved out, and for almost 30 years the house sat neglected, primordial forest reclaiming its formal gardens, grime accumulating over its four stories. Today its sole resident is 99-year-old Uncle Alwin, the oldest living Carus.

The Carus family is a bit mysterious to the people of La Salle-Peru, known locally as the "twin cities." The Caruses are German and well-to-do, and they have a reputation for eccentricity. Rumor has it that there's a secret tunnel to the mansion across the street, which was built for one of the family, who lived in it for only a year. Other rumors put Buddhist shrines in the hallway, Nazis in the closets, and ghosts in the attic. People in the area say that every night at midnight you can see Old Man Carus hanging from a noose in an upstairs window--though which Old Man Carus they're talking about exactly is unclear.

Alwin Carus's great-niece, Inga Carus, lives ten miles away, in Ottawa, where not as many of her neighbors know the Carus name. That suits her fine. Her brother, Andre, has characterized himself and his two sisters as "weird." Inga disagrees; she says she's the normal one.

Inga and her siblings are the fourth generation of Caruses, but the family legacy really started five generations back, with her great-great-grandparents, Edward and Camilla Hegeler. Their daughter Mary wed Paul Carus and gave birth to Inga's grandfather Edward. The true fourth generation is her parents, M. Blouke and Marianne.

The once vast family fortune has been in a gentle decline since 1910. The zinc business started by her great-great-grandfather, now managed by her cousins, is on its last legs, in Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the third or fourth time. But the family has other businesses. Open Court Publishing, which had its offices in the mansion for 80 years, spawned an umbrella company, Carus Publishing. These days Open Court shares an office building in Peru with Cricket magazine, six other children's magazines, and two book-publishing businesses, all under the aegis of Carus Publishing. In the same building are the offices of Carus Chemical, where Inga is a senior vice president of sales and marketing. Carus Chemical manufactures potassium permanganate, an oxidizer and hazardous chemical used to purify water, among other things. Her grandfather started the company in 1915 in a barn behind the mansion, and the factory is still within sight of the sitting room.

In 1995 the Hegeler Carus Mansion was put on the National Register of Historic Places. But though the Caruses are still substantial citizens in La Salle-Peru, they certainly don't have the $10 million it'll take to renovate the mansion. So Blouke Carus founded the Hegeler Carus Foundation to raise the money and revive the mansion's reputation as an important cultural and historical site.

Inga sits on the foundation's board, and she'll occasionally take brochures advertising mansion tours over to Starved Rock. But she doesn't visit the mansion much: she's too busy working and raising her infant daughter, Nicola, whom she adopted from China last year.

All children have to confront the challenge of finding their place in the family mythos, and the current generation of Caruses is no different. They have a lot to contend with: a family tradition that expects each generation to change the world.

The Hegelers of Bremen were prosperous merchants when Edward was born in 1835. They owned a trading company, and Edward's father, Hermann, was a diplomatic consul who'd traveled a bit and noticed the opportunities waiting in the untamed wilds of America. One of his sons, he decided, would go there. He picked Edward, his youngest, and planned out his education accordingly.

Edward never really knew his mother, who died from a fever in 1838, but his father watched over him like a hawk. He was sent to the Academy of Schnepfenthal, boarding school in Thuringia, the Hannover Polytechnical School, and then in 1853 to the School of Mines in Freiburg. There he fell in love with Camilla, the daughter of his favorite teacher, Julius Weisbach, whose work on hydraulics is still influential today.

In 1855 Edward's father, diagnosed with incurable colon cancer, threw himself into the Weser River. Though Edward wrote that he didn't blame his father, he didn't attend the funeral. The following year, at the age of 21, he set out for America to start a zinc business with his school chum Frederick Mathiessen. After scouting locations for almost a year, they wound up in La Salle. "They located here for three reasons," Inga says: "the river and canal, the coal nearby, and the zinc."

Refining zinc into a usable commodity required a smelter, and a smelter required coal. There was low-grade zinc in Wisconsin, but the closest coal was in La Salle. The partners decided it was easier to ship zinc than coal. They set up business in 1857, and within four years the Mathiessen & Hegeler Zinc Works was supplying zinc for armaments used during the Civil War. By 1880 Mathiessen and Hegeler owned the largest zinc company in the United States.

Hegeler was naturally restless. In 1872 he invented the Hegeler furnace, which greatly increased the smelting capacity of his plant (and later others); in 1881 he invented a new type of roasting furnace that generated sulfur dioxide, which in turn led to the manufacture of sulfuric acid. Like the Hegeler furnace, the roaster became standard in the industry and is noted as Hegeler's most important invention.

As zinc built his fortune, it also built the mansion--literally and figuratively. The house had zinc-lined cabinets and closets and zinc gutters and rainspouts, which funneled rainwater to a zinc-lined water tank feeding ten bedroom sinks. Edward and Camilla Hegeler (who had married in 1860) had indoor running water before anyone else in town, not to mention the rest of the world.

The rumor regarding the secret tunnel between the two mansions is false, but there were tunnels built between the mansion and the zinc factory, so that steam from the factory would help heat the house. To boil water for the piles of laundry created by his growing family, Hegeler ran a line bringing steam to a sink in the laundry room, where an early version of a clothes dryer was added in the early 20th century.

In 1905 Hegeler built the mansion across the street for his son Julius. In 1906 they had a falling-out, and Julius and his brother Herman moved to Danville, where they started their own zinc business. "My father suspects that the falling-out had something to do with Edward C. being a bit of a dictator, but he's not sure," says Inga. Whatever the cause, they must have come to an understanding, because Edward Hegeler ended up investing in the Danville business.

Hegeler wasn't your average 19th-century robber baron. While Du Ponts, Carnegies, and Morgans were seeking immortality by buying old masters and endowing museums and universities, Hegeler mostly put his money and energy into Open Court, started on the ground floor of his house in 1887. With his magazines Open Court (started in 1887) and the Monist (1890), Hegeler hoped to provide a forum for the world's scholars to debate and synthesize questions of religion, science, and philosophy. The company moved into book publishing after Hegeler hired another German emigre, Dr. Paul Carus, who shared his vision. Very soon after he was hired, Carus "did a very smart thing," Inga says. "He married the boss's daughter."

The boss's daughter was no slouch. When Paul met Mary she had recently become the first woman graduate of the School of Mines in Freiburg, where she had studied chemistry, and she was on the board of her father's zinc works. Later she became president of the company. Paul and Mary married and moved into the mansion in 1888.

Carus and Hegeler were Lutherans, but they were open-minded. Noting the missionary efforts of Protestants in the Far East, they wondered if that sort of proselytizing would work in the other direction. If one put the religions of the East and West on equal footing, whose would be best? They attended the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893, where they met some Japanese Buddhists. The Germans invited the Japanese to visit La Salle, and they found an instant affinity; Paul Carus maintained contact with the Buddhist abbot Soyen Shaku for years.

In 1894 Open Court published Paul Carus's book The Gospel of Buddha, which is still in print today. The word "gospel" in the title was used to bring Western readers to the subject, but the book was well regarded by Eastern readers as well. It's been used in training Zen Buddhist monks in Japan and throughout Asia for a century. In 1897 Carus hired a young Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who was a student of Soyen Shaku to be his assistant at Open Court. Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (better known as D.T.) spent 11 years translating Buddhist texts into English from Chinese, Japanese, Pali, and Sanskrit for Carus to publish. Suzuki went on to become a published author (Essays in Zen Buddhism, Manual of Zen Buddhism, Studies in Zen) and a revered scholar.

Though Carus wrote and published extensively about Buddhism, he never became a practitioner. He wrote over 70 books, and frequently corresponded with some of the leading intellectuals of the time--Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Mach, and Bertrand Russell, to name a few. They didn't always get along. A letter written to a dying Carus from Ezra Pound, demanding the return of a manuscript, was reproduced in a Hegeler Carus Foundation newsletter in 1998: "You are supposed to be ill. I hope you are. And what is more, I hope you die of it. In the mean time return my mss. and crawl out of the thief category, and make your peace with whatever diseased deity is provided for such bacilli as yourself. Damn you again, and three boils for your infected liver." The letter is signed "Yours candidly, Ezra Pound" and dated 26-6-1918.

Edward and Camilla Hegeler had ten children, Paul and Mary Carus six. Though as large as a good-sized apartment building, the mansion was full. Suzuki and Carus worked out together in the gymnasium. Musicians were brought in to give recitals on a small balcony over the front stairs. Alwin, Paul and Mary's son, remembers parties celebrating the night-blooming cereus, which flowers only one night a year. "We had quite a collection," Alwin recalls--approximately 100 plants. "We had a day's notice when they were about to bloom, and friends from town and family were invited." The last night-blooming cereus party Alwin remembers took place in 1910, the same year that Edward Hegeler died.

Camilla Hegeler had passed away in 1908. Paul Carus died in 1919. Mary Hegeler Carus continued to manage Open Court with her daughter Elisabeth until her death in 1936. After that, Alwin says, the mansion emptied out.

"We kept a cook for a while, but only one," he says. "One brother stayed off and on, and a man from the chemical business, you know." When Open Court finally moved out, the house began its slide into disrepair.

Even so, the place was a treasure. Practically nothing had been changed since the 1880s. The light fixtures, the furniture, the wallpaper: once it went up, it stayed up. Hardly anything was ever thrown out; the lightbulbs that first lit the gymnasium in 1892 were still in their sockets in 1995, and amazingly they still worked.

Five years after Hegeler died, his namesake and grandson, Edward Carus, founded Carus Chemical.

In 1915 Germany was the major producer of potassium permanganate in the world, and though the U.S. hadn't entered the war, its supplies from Germany had been cut off. Edward was in school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison when one of his professors told him there was a great opportunity waiting in domestic production of the purple crystals, which were an essential element in manufacturing explosives.

So Edward went home to La Salle, dragged a bathtub out to the horse barn behind the big house, and mixed solutions until he'd taught himself how to make the stuff. The process he used to make it wasn't efficient, Inga says, "but it worked.

"My great-uncle Alwin, 99, remembers the day in 1915 when my grandfather came home carrying the first permanganate crystals in his hands, after many months of work trying to figure it out."

Edward wasn't the only American to begin manufacturing the chemical. More than 20 other companies produced the stuff before and during the war. After the war, when cheap permanganate from Germany flooded the market, Edward stopped production for a few years to get a PhD in mathematics at the University of Kansas. Then he reopened. During the 20s and 30s, all the other U.S. producers went out of business, but Edward stayed afloat. Carus Chemical, still the sole American producer of potassium permanganate, is now also the largest producer of it in the world.

Edward's son Blouke met his wife, Marianne, just after World War II in Freiburg, where they were both students. They met at a dinner gathering, where he asked her if she liked jazz. She didn't. But Marianne felt she could relate to Blouke. Maybe it was because she had her own strange family history to contend with.

During the war Marianne had been drafted into Hitler Youth, and she worked at the western front, peeling potatoes for the soldiers digging trenches. Her father, an eye doctor, was also drafted--into the Nazi Party. After the war he spent a year and a half in an English prison camp then returned to his practice and his family.

Blouke and Marianne were married in 1951. Blouke hadn't planned to go into the family business, but his father asked him to come up with a new manufacturing process for permanganate. So the newlyweds moved back to La Salle, and Blouke and his brother Paul spent ten years working out the kinks in their new process.

At the same time he was modernizing Carus Chemical, Blouke decided to reform American education. The idea was planted after the family went to Germany for a year, the year that Andre started school. On their return, Andre went into the first grade in La Salle and was given a stack of books to bring home. When his father saw them he was appalled; Andre had a reader from his German school with more words in it than all the books he brought home in La Salle combined. This was the problem with American education, Blouke thought.

That was the start of the Open Court Reading Program, which combines phonics with movement--words are both acted out and sounded out--and emphasizes high-quality children's literature. McGraw-Hill bought the program in 1996, renaming it SRA/Open Court Reading. It was adopted last year by the Los Angeles public schools and has been lauded for turning around reading scores in desperate schools around the nation.

In the meantime, Marianne built a children's publishing empire of her own. Now in her early 70s, she still edits and publishes the seven magazines that make up the Cricket Magazine Group: Cricket (founded in 1973), Cicada, Muse, Ladybug, Babybug, Spider, and Click. The awards for excellence won by these magazines cover a wall in the Cricket office.

Growing up in an atmosphere dominated by children's education was both stimulating and daunting. All the Carus children served as guinea pigs for their parents' theories, and dinner conversations around the family table in Peru were all business--either chemical or literary.

The late Clifton Fadiman--Simon & Schuster editor in chief, New Yorker book editor, and longtime host of the 40s radio quiz show Information, Please--was Cricket's first editor. Though Inga says it really helped to have his name, he didn't do much work. "He was sort of a pompous ass," she recalls. Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was on Cricket's board of directors, was the other side of the coin. He once dined with the family at their house in Peru, entertaining the children with Jewish jokes and old-world stories. A young-adult Inga--she was around 20, she thinks--made dinner. "He was a vegetarian, and I was too at the time," she says.

Inga's father had always told her she could do whatever she wanted to; he also let her know that it would make him very happy if she chose to work in one of the family businesses. She liked science, she liked literature, and she thought she might like the life of an academic. She really wasn't too sure--plenty of doors were open, and she walked through a few of them.

After studying and working in Wales, Champaign, Chicago, and Norway, Inga ended up as a salesperson for a large corporation in Germany in the early 90s, at the same time the family was looking to acquire a business there. She saw a good opportunity: she could work for the family and stay in Germany. But the deal fell through. She returned to the Illinois Valley in 1993 and took her place at Carus Chemical.

Though some might deride the area as a flyover, Inga, who has a pilot's license, says it's a great place to fly over. She counts off the advantages of living in small-town Illinois: it's clean, safe, and there's plenty of parking. Inga purchased a small house in Ottawa that needed a lot of work, began to fix it up, and moved in in 1994. Renovations on the mansion began the following year.

Inga has found that she loves the hurly-burly of the permanganate business, and plans to keep her family's company on course. Carus Publishing is another story: her brother Andre probably won't take over when their mother retires. He's currently working on his doctoral thesis in philosophy--he has a PhD in history already--and he prefers writing to the business of publishing, says his sister.

Inga also has plans beyond business. Though she hasn't approached him yet, she'd like to arrange for the Dalai Lama to visit La Salle. "The germ of an idea that we have is to use the mansion for a seminar or conference for the Parliament of World Religions," she says. The Dalai Lama spoke at the gathering's 100th anniversary in Chicago in 1993. And given the Carus family's affection for philosophy and Buddhism, she thinks it's not entirely out of the question.

Stranger things have happened. A few years ago Peter Mathiessen, a practicing Buddhist and the author of At Play in the Fields of the Lord, The Snow Leopard, and Nine-Headed Dragon River, visited the mansion. A great-grandson of Edward Hegeler's partner Frederick Mathiessen, he came in search of his family roots. "He was amazed to learn of the Buddhist tradition that Hegeler and Carus had brought to the U.S.," says Inga. Their familial partnership renewed, Mathiessen now sits on the advisory board of the Hegeler Carus Foundation.

To commemorate their parents' 50th wedding anniversary, Inga and Andre collaborated on a film about the family, part serious documentary and part spoof. Andre wrote it, gathered family archives, picked the music, hired the producer; Inga edited the script and coordinated the interviews.

On March 3 they threw a party at the University Club in Chicago. Two hundred guests watched as former Cricket art director John Grandits played on-screen narrator: "Hello. I'm Professor Dr. Johann Egbertus Grandits of the Vienna Coffee Circle Institute. And I'm here to tell you today that you too can change the world. Just follow our easy 11-step program, and you'll see that changing the world is no more difficult than losing weight or making a million dollars on the stock market, or many other things you do every day.

"A lot of people want to change the world. Some of them may even genuinely be committed to it. But no one has given them the tools. The Vienna Coffee Circle program changes all that; it puts those tools in your hand. Here are the simple steps we'll show you how to follow:

"One: Be German--or Buddhist--or both.

"Two: Marry a German.

"Three: Settle in a midwestern small town.

"Four: Figure out a revolutionary new way of making potassium permanganate, and get it all over you.

"Five: Have some weird children.

"Six: Reform American education.

"Seven: Celebrate your parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

"Eight: Keep the business going.

"Nine: Start the world's leading children's literary magazine.

"Ten: Start more and more of the world's leading children's literary--and other--magazines.

"Eleven: Go on changing the world until you're blue in the face."

Andre's script, Grandits's delivery, and some humorous visuals had the audience at the University Club chuckling. Then footage of a Nazi rally appeared on the screen, and the audience fell silent. They didn't know how to react. To some it seemed disrespectful of the children to let the Nazis out of the closet.

Blouke and Marianne Carus loved it. They understood that everyone has to overcome their parents.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.

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