Few Forest Park families compare to the Mohr clan in terms of deep roots, political prominence and business staying power. H. J. Mohr & Sons Co., the ready-mix concrete company at Garfield Street and Harlem Avenue, in Oak Park, is one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the state. It was started by H. J. Mohr in 1893.
“My great-grandfather was the last President of Harlem and the first Mayor of Forest Park,” Michael Mohr said. (Land that comprises what is now Forest Park was known as Harlem, in the 19th century.)
“After he lost his last election for mayor, he refused to vacate the office, telling people ‘See the name on the door?’ He had the loudest raspiest voice,” Michael joked.
Michael, who was 7 years old when his great-grandfather died, heads another faction of the family business: he is president of Mohr Oil, 7340 Harrison St.
Michael’s father, Howard R. Mohr, started the heating-oil company in 1950. “He borrowed $1,500 from my grandfather to buy his first truck,” Michael said. “People were converting from coal to oil and my dad learned how to install oil burners.”
After Howard bought his first tanker, “he knocked on every door in Forest Park, where they were using a coal chute,” Michael said. If he got a sale, Howard would shovel the coal out and install the storage tanks and oil burners. At the time, oil was quantum leap over coal: no more dusty deliveries, tending of the coal fire, and thick, black smoke pouring from the chimney.
At its height, Mohr Oil had over 3,000 home heating accounts. And when Michael started working there in 1971, this type of business still made up a good portion of the company’s profits. But soon thereafter, thing would start to change.
“In 1974, we bought out quite a few of our small competitors,” he said. “Natural gas had come [on] the heels of the oil-burner business and was reducing demand.”
Worse than any business setback, tragedy struck the family around that time, on the day his father retired from several terms in the State Senate.
“It was January 12, 1977; my dad was 55 years old. A couple of buses from Forest Park came down to Springfield for his retirement party,” Michael recalled.
Joy quickly turned to mourning when the senator suddenly succumbed to a massive heart attack during the festivities.
The Historical Society of Forest Park has preserved the chair Howard sat in while serving in the state Senate – a position he held while also acting as Forest Park mayor. The village also named its community center after the late public servant and businessman. To this day, Howard is the highest public office holder the village has produced.
Following Howard’s death, conversion to natural gas furnaces continued to reduce demand for heating oil. “We became less competitive with gas when the price of oil went up,” Michael said. “It was 19 cents a gallon when I started. Today it’s $3.30.”
Plus, the price of oil was very volatile. “Every night at 6 p.m., the price changed,” he added.
Oil was a hefty investment for a homeowner. They typically had one or two tanks with a 275-gallon capacity. At today’s prices it would cost almost $1,000 to fill a tank. As residential customers increasingly turned to gas, Mohr Oil courted the commercial market.
“We began building up our contacts with contractors and bus companies,” Mohr said. “Our bio-diesel fuel improves engine efficiency and cleans up emissions from trucks and busses.”
And Michael, who commonly works six days a week, said he is committed to the advancement and evolution of the company. “I love coming here to work,” he said, of the business. Michael was raised in Forest Park, but he currently lives in Chicago. Much of his family is still in town, though.
Michael’s second cousins operate the family’s concrete business, in Oak Park. Dolores “Dolly” Mohr, the family matriarch, said she is 81, but she looks more like 61. What’s more, she has the effervescence and energy of a 21-year-old.
Dolly is a life-long Forest Parker. “I still live in my ‘honeymoon house'”, she said, referring to the home she shared with her late husband, Henry “Bud” Mohr.
She was first wooed by “Nutty Buddy” after he was discharged from the Navy following World War II. “He lived three doors down and taught me how to drive his red convertible.” Bud went on to have a lifelong “thing” for red vehicles, she said.
He was also a business visionary. “Bud had an idea about introducing ready mix to the Midwest. It was a new technology,” Dolly said.
Ready-mix concrete is made in a plant and then delivered to a worksite by a truck. It is often preferred to concrete that is made on-site, because it often adheres to a strict recipe.
The couple married in 1949. “We used all of our wedding money to buy our first ready-mix truck,” she said.
The plant didn’t have a hopper for loading the rotating drum with sand, water, gravel and concrete. “We had to load it by hand,” Dolly said, referring to the 4,000 pound payload the trucks carry.
Today, the facility boasts a towering conveyor and hopper that are a familiar feature of the local skyline. Its prominence comes partly from what’s at the summit. “Bud wanted Santa Claus at the top of the hopper and a Christmas tree,” Dolly fondly recalled. “Santa was kidnapped once. We received a ransom note but he was safely returned. We have a spare Santa now, just in case.”
The plant is also home to relics, like a torpedo from Forest Park’s Ameritorp plant and an old horse trough. Vintage photos adorn the walls showing that the plant was there long before the homes that sprung up around it.
Dolly detects a certain coolness from their neighbors and the Village of Oak Park, though. As the only heavy industry in the neighboring village, the plant produces a degree of dust and noise.
“They made us re-paint the fence. They didn’t like the yellow. The village has all kinds of restrictions,” Dolly said. “But we were here before the houses.” She also pointed out that they contribute heavy property taxes to the village.
Five generations of Mohrs have worked at the plant. Dolly started as a dispatcher in 1973. “Bud had a few hippie drivers and some Vietnam Vets,” she said of that era. She now has the privilege of working alongside a younger generation of Mohrs, including two granddaughters.
As for the future, Dolly fields many offers to buy their square block facility from developers. “But we run this business with our hearts not our heads. We hope to always keep this in the family.”
Nick Moroni contributed to this article