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by Steve Stein | Photos by Ron Johnson |
The George J. Rothan Company building at 619 W. Johnson St., Peoria. Below, the company's early days at the same location
The George J. Rothan Company building at 619 W. Johnson St., Peoria. Below, the company's early days at the same location

The George J. Rothan Company has produced architectural millwork at the same location for the last 150 years

Products and people. That’s been the George J. Rothan Company’s recipe for staying in business for 150 years.

JJ Rothan is the president of George J. Rothan Company
JJ Rothan is the president of
George J. Rothan Company

“We’ve had to change with the times through the years, but we’ve remained committed to craftsmanship, quality and integrity,” said company President JJ (George J.) Rothan Jr., 56, the latest of five generations of Rothan family members entrusted with running the business at 619 W. Johnson St. in Peoria.

The company has survived and thrived through Prohibition, the Great Depression, two world wars and a worldwide pandemic to serve customers throughout the U.S.

It’s one of the oldest architectural millwork companies in the country. It uses raw lumber to create wood products such as custom casework, cabinetry, commercial, sports and residential fixtures and countertops. Established in 1873, during the second term of President Ulysses S. Grant, it’s also one of the oldest companies in the Peoria area.

Cabinet work being done at the George J. Rothan Company
Cabinet work being done
at the George J. Rothan Company

Interestingly, it’s just a few blocks away from another longtime family business, A. Lucas & Sons, established in 1857. Lucas, located at 1328 SW Washington St. in Peoria, is the oldest steel fabrication company in the U.S.

Evolving, but not

While the Rothan Company’s focus has changed through the years — the company now does about 95% commercial projects, Rothan said, collaborating with general contractors — its base of operations has not.

It’s still at its original location at with 14 employees, including eight union carpenters.

Carpenter Logan Mitchell
Carpenter Logan Mitchell

“Why stay in our original building? That’s a question I ask myself every day. It’s always on my mind,” Rothan said. “It’s tradition. It’s legacy. My father worked there for 40 years.

“It’s actually an amazing building. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s a neat place to stop by for a chat or just say hello.”

Amazing, but not terribly efficient. There are challenges, Rothan said, because production work is done on two floors.

“Production suffers a bit because of that,” he said. “It’s difficult to transport things from one floor to the next. But our employees do a great job doing that. They just roll with it.”

The company’s portfolio includes jobs for corporations, architects, universities, sports facilities, hospitals, religious organizations and not-for-profits.

Among the large projects the company has contributed to in the area are the Cullom-Davis Library at Bradley University, Salem Lutheran Church, Westminster Presbyterian Church and St. Jude Catholic Church in Peoria, CEFCU branch offices in the Peoria area and the State Farm headquarters in Bloomington.

Customer service is key

While employees of two of the general contractors that work with Rothan these days say they appreciate the quality work the company does, they point to customer service as another reason why they have a lengthy business relationship.

‘I’m continuously impressed with how quickly they come up with a fix if needed’ — David Marshall

“There are always problems, hiccups, in construction projects,” said David Marshall, vice president of Galesburg operations for Peoria-based Hein Construction since 2013.

“I’m continuously impressed with how quickly they come up with a fix if needed,” he said. “They know that in our business, time is money.”

Chris Lewis is an estimator for Peoria-based Mid-Illinois Companies, where he’s been for 10 years.

“If there’s a snag in a construction project, and there are usually snags, they’ll find a solution,” he said. “They’ll stop what they’re doing and get the problem corrected without delay. That’s important, because the millwork is one of the final steps in the construction process.”

Lewis has a personal connection with JJ Rothan. The two are friends, neighbors, and attend the same church.

“JJ is one of the nicest people I know,” Lewis said. “He’s very hard-working and he’ll do anything for you. He’s left samples on my front porch when I’ve needed them.”

Rothan deflected praise from himself to his employees.

“They have made the business what it is through the years,” he said. “They’ve always cared about the product and been very loyal. We’ve had many longtime employees.”

An extensive family tree

George J. Rothan, the founder of the company and son of German immigrants, was born in Cincinnati in 1851 and moved to Peoria in 1873, the year he started the company.

In 1888, Robert Anderson joined the business, which became the Rothan-Anderson Planning Mill. Anderson sold his share of the company to Rothan in 1892, and Rothan’s family has been the sole owner of the company since then.

In the early years, the company built ice boxes and bar fixtures for breweries as far away as Texas.

Rothan ran the business until he died in 1924. His son, Charles Rothan, took over. With Prohibition hurting the sale of bar fixtures, Charles pivoted to making restaurant fixtures and residential millwork.

Charles died in 1934. His sons, George H. Rothan and Wilbur Rothan, inherited the business and the company thrived under their leadership, producing architectural millwork for homes and for buildings at Bradley, St. Philomena Church and School, and the former Sears building.

In 1958, the company became a corporation.

George H. Rothan died in 1960. Wilbur Rothan ran the company until he retired in 1974. At that time, George J. Rothan and Richard Hammond took over. Richard was married to the former Barbara Rothan.

Hammond retired in 1998 and George J. Rothan retired in 2012. George’s sons, JJ Rothan and Christopher Rothan, started running the company in 1988 and 2006.

JJ Rothan and Christopher Rothan managed the company from 2012 to 2018 as president and vice president, when Christopher left to go into the real estate business.

Steve Stein

Steve Stein

is a longtime Peoria area print journalist