One hundred and thirty-seven years ago, Ulysses S. Grant was beginning his second term as president. A severe economic depression was spreading across the country, devastating the businesses and workers in its path. And a young millworker was laying down the roots of a company that would still be standing nearly a century and a half later.
The Early Years
Born in 1851, a young George J. Rothan moved to Peoria in 1873 after spending his formative years in Cincinnati, Ohio. Just 22 years old, he established the Rothan Planing Mill the same year, putting to use the high-quality woodworking skills he had learned from his German forebears. The business that he founded 137 years ago has remained a constant in the Rothan family ever since, as has the building that originally housed the Rothan enterprise, beyond a multitude of modifications and add-ons.
During those early years, Peoria had become known as the "Whiskey Capital of the World," with distilleries, breweries and taverns up and down the Illinois River creating no small number of fortunes. The George J. Rothan Millwork Company stepped into this promising market, building ice boxes and other bar fixtures for the burgeoning industry.
But when Prohibition swept the nation in 1920, many Peoria businesses were hit hard, and Rothan was no exception. In 1924, George J. Rothan passed away, and his son Charles took over the reins of the company, shifting its focus to his newly designed line of restaurant fixtures and residential millwork. Charles passed away just 10 years later, leaving the family business to his sons George H. and Wilbur L. Rothan.
Making Their Mark
Under George and Wilbur’s leadership, the company thrived. From 1934 to 1960, when George passed away, the third generation of Rothans left their mark on the Peoria landscape. Having evolved again to concentrate on architectural millwork for homes and commercial buildings, the Rothans’ hand is evident in many of the city’s finest structures, from numerous buildings at Bradley University to St. Philomena Church and School and the former Sears building.
Wilbur Rothan continued at the helm until he retired in 1974, having seen the centennial anniversary of his family’s business, and George J. Rothan and Richard G. Hammond became the fourth generation of family to manage the company. In 1988, George J. Rothan, Jr. (JJ) started with the company, representing the fifth generation, while Hammond retired a decade later.
Today, Rothan’s continues its tradition of high-quality craftsmanship, specializing in the custom manufacturing of fine wood products, including casework, cabinetry, commercial and residential fixtures, countertops and other architectural products—“one-of-a-kind treasures for your environment.” George and JJ Rothan continue to run the business, serving as CEO and vice president, respectively, while JJ’s brother, Chris Rothan, is also on board as project manager.
A Home for Growth
The Rothan Company has left its mark not only on Peoria, but throughout the nation. Their work can be seen in libraries from California to Massachusetts, and the company recently constructed 117 lockers for the University of Missouri football locker room, having mastered the art of designing customized millwork for sports facilities. The company is currently at work on Illinois State University’s new recreation facility in Normal; other current projects range from a remodeling of the chapel at Methodist Medical Center to work at various churches, banks, schools and retail shops throughout central Illinois.
These are just a handful of examples of what the Rothans have created out of their century-plus-old building. For a company that has played a key role in the design and manufacture of such renowned structures, they work out of a relatively discreet facility. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood on West Johnson Street in Peoria, the building, aside from numerous additions over the years, looks much as it did when the first George J. Rothan set up shop here. At its center lies the original frame, still holding the structure intact. In spite of the modern machinery scattered throughout, it’s not difficult to imagine the young millworker of 1873 within these same walls, sizing up a countertop or other fixture for one of the old Peoria breweries.
Team of Craftsmen
But the story of the George J. Rothan Millwork Company is not simply about a single family. For scattered throughout the shop are the company’s highly-skilled employees, with more than 250 years of combined experience among them. Over half have been with the company for 10 years or more, and some have worked here for nearly four decades. With that experience, they are able to design, fabricate and deliver just about anything their customers request.
Rothan’s dedication to old-world craftsmanship is a key factor in keeping this team intact. Another is the diversity of their projects. “[They are] given the opportunity to do a lot of different things and showcase their craft,” said JJ. “We still have some equipment that is fairly old, where they’re able to use their skills and not just rely upon machines.” Employees are cross-trained both within and across departments, allowing them to see a project from many different points of view. Teamwork, creativity and problem solving are essential aspects of the Rothan culture.
And then there is the dedication of the company to its employees. “Our main responsibility,” says JJ, “is making sure that the people who work for us have jobs.” This a theme to which he repeatedly returns, noting his focus on the day-to-day decisions that impact the company’s employees. While both Rothan brothers express how fortunate they are to see their father every day, they make it clear that this business was built on the foundation of these hard-working employees, who stick by the Rothans just as they stick by them.
For a business with such a long and venerated history, a single phrase uttered by Chris Rothan about their long-standing facility sums it all up nicely: “They don’t build ‘em like they used to.” iBi