American Wilbert Vault Co., a company whose origins stretch back to Forest Park’s founding, recently vacated its headquarters at 1015 Troost St., after 93 years.

Although, the 18,000 square-foot property is for sale, and is listed at $379,000, no one can put a price on the memories of the workers, or what the company’s legacy has meant to Forest Park.

Chairman Emeritus Gregory Reichle spent 45 years at the facility and hates to see it go.  The antiquated plant, however, no longer fit the company’s needs. Production has been shifted to other plants, and headquarters has been moved to Bridgeview.

“I have no idea what will happen to the building,” Reichle said, “It’s really built solidly. It would be easier to renovate than tear down. It would be great for someone who wants to live above their business.”

One of the plant’s unique features is the two-bedroom apartment that sits above the executive suites.  General Superintendent Bruce Leeseberg lived there for 18 years.

Leeseberg and his wife raised their two sons in the apartment. It kept their living expenses down, while he earned a rent reduction by fielding phone calls from funeral directors during the night.

A welder by trade, Leeseberg was hired at 19 to produce metal forms for the vaults. “It was a big job,” he recalled, “We’d start with a drawing and the form would take two weeks to make. The specs were very tight.”

Leeseberg and his family later moved across the street to 1020 Troost St. The home was one of several purchased by Wilbert Haase to house workers. Leeseberg continued to answer night-time calls at the house, until the company went to an automated system.

Automation also reduced the company’s workforce over the years. There were over 100 workers at the plant when Leeseberg started there in 1965. Now only half that many are required to manufacture the burial vaults.

The modern vault was pioneered in Forest Park in 1880, when the son of founding father Ferdinand Haase formed the L.G. Haase Manufacturing Company. Leo Haase was only 17 but had already found many uses for concrete in the cemetery. He manufactured lot markers, benches and concrete boxes that were used as outer receptacles at his family’s Forest Home Cemetery.

“Imagination is the greatest force outside of gravity,” Leo used to say. Inventions and new patents flowed from his mind, as he continually improved the company’s products.

Leo Haase retired in 1913 and the firm was taken over by his 21-year-old nephew, Wilbert, who eventually bought the business from them for $19,000. Business later boomed when the influenza pandemic swept the world in 1918 and Wilbert’s company was the only vault manufacturer with the capacity to keep up with demand.

Wilbert was a life-long aviation enthusiast who flew a series of aircraft, including a seaplane he docked at his vacation home in Fond du Lac. Ever the adventurer, Wilbert set out on a trip around the world in the 1920s. A visit to Egypt inspired him to create a burial vault that would rival the pyramids.

The famous Wilbert Vault employed asphalt to create an airtight seal. Late luminaries like Louis Armstrong, JFK and Elvis are all resting in Wilbert Vaults. He also designed a device called the WilbertWay, which required only one worker to lower a vault into a grave. During his tenure, the company expanded beyond the boundaries of Forest Park, building manufacturing facilities in Chicago, Des Plaines and Broadview.  He also oversaw the franchising of the Wilbert Vault process to plants across the country.

Wilbert’s son was more interested in flying planes than running the vault business, so Wilbert chose his right-hand-man, Richard Reichle, to succeed him.  Richard’s son Gregory later took over the business. Now, David Reichle is the third-generation of his family to head the company. He and CFO Eric Urbano discussed their memories of the former headquarters.

They had a sentimental attachment to the place and hoped it wouldn’t be torn down. David envisioned the executive offices as a suitable site for the Forest Park Historical Society. He donated the book “Service & Innovation” to the Society. It details the rich history of the company.

David admitted that even the vault business hasn’t been recession-proof. He noted that they’ve run into some financial “headwinds.” The cost of materials has gone up, while receivables have slowed. The vaults range from $1,100 to $20,000 and many customers are opting for the lower-end models. Regardless of economic trends, there’s a warm family atmosphere at its new headquarters.

Wilbert Haase certainly fostered that family feeling. In 1947, he addressed the Wilbert Manufacturers Association and said, “I don’t have my family involved in this business, so therefore I’m going to consider you my family . . . and make you owners.” He received a standing ovation.

Wilbert died in 1959 and was laid to rest in the cemetery that was founded by his family.

The land occupied by Forest Home Cemetery had been a burial ground for centuries. Native Americans were not unlike the Egyptians in their internments. The dead were preserved in burial mounds and surrounded with artifacts that would serve them in the afterworld. These mounds, like the pyramids, fell prey to thieves and scavengers. So, it’s fitting that the vaults produced here in Forest Park surpass even the pyramids in protecting loved ones with dignity.   

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.