Chili (‘chilli’) in Springfield

The Dew in the 1950s

The Dew Chili Parlor in the 1950s (Sangamon Valley Collection)

Springfield’s idiosyncratic two-L spelling of the dish that goes elsewhere by the spelling “chili” was institutionalized when Joe Bockelmann and Thomas McNerney opened The Dew Chilli Parlor in 1909.

Although The Dew apparently was the first restaurant to spell it “chilli,” Les Eastep’s Springfield Illinois: A Chilli History (2012), on which this entry is partly based, notes that many prepared chili producers used the two-L spelling earlier.

Packaged chili was being sold in Springfield by at least the 1890s, and a number of roving vendors peddled chili and tamales on downtown streets starting about the same time.

The first might have been Ed DeCrastos. He certainly was the longest lasting. What Illinois State Journal columnist Emil Smith called DeCrastos’ “baby buggy pushcart” was a familiar sight downtown from 1899 until the 1940s. Originally, DeCrastos sold chili in tin pie pans  in an alley behind Allen’s Cigar Store at Sixth and Monroe streets; customers ate standing up.

Chili, in both packaged and chili parlor forms, became a Springfield staple in the 1910s and ’20s. By 1923, 11 chili parlors were listed in the Springfield City Directory.

Chili operators and recipes came and went frequently during the 20th century, but several names stick in Springfield memories.

*The Dew Chilli Parlor operated on South 11th Street and downtown for more than 40 years. The restaurant finally moved to an addition constructed on the front of Bockelmann’s home at 1216 S. Fifth St. in 1953. The Dew closed in 1995, but new owners reopened the parlor in the same location — and reproducing much the same decor, inside and out — in 2014. (For more on Bockelmann and the Dew, see Dave Bakke’s column in the March 28, 2014, State Journal-Register.)

*The  DeFrates family first made Port’s Brand Chili (named after Walt “Port” DeFrates), in jars and bricks. Port’s Brand was advertised as “complete chilli, except for the beans.” Ray DeFrates began canning Port’s Brand in 1933; he changed the name to Ray’s Chilli in 1936. Ray’s Chilli was sold to Kelly Food Products of Decatur in 1985. It went out of production in 1995, when Kelly went bankrupt, but output resumed in Decatur in 1997.

*Joe Rogers opened his The Den Chili Parlor at 1125 South Grand Ave. E. on Dec. 31, 1945. Rogers offered chili at five levels of spiciness. His marketing touch was the superhot Firebrand; any customer who finished a bowl could sign his name a poster on the wall; two bowls got a gold star next to the name.  Rogers’ daughter, Marianne, sold The Den in 1985. After the new owners went out of business in 1999, Marianne Rogers — who had opened her own parlor in 1997 –regained ownership of the name.  The Den continued to operate, under different ownership, at 820 S. Ninth St. as of 2013.

joe defrates*Joe DeFrates, Port’s son, opened his own company, Chilli Man, in 1953. He sold the company to Milnot in 1971, and production was moved to Litchfield. DeFrates himself began competing in chili cookoffs in 1969 and won the first of his two International Championship Chili cookoffs in 1973. He died in 2001.

Springfield’s Ansar Shrine continues to hold the Joe DeFrates Memorial Regional Chili Cookoff annually.

More information: Springfield Illinois: A Chilli History, compiled by Les Eastep, published by the Sangamon County Historical Society, 2012; available from the society.bridge

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37 Responses to Chili (‘chilli’) in Springfield

  1. Michael Johnson says:

    I enjoyed this article on Chilli in Springfield, IL. Although born in Decatur, IL I was adopted by my parents, Colonel and Mrs. Jesse M. Johnson at birth. I was then raised by my parents and traveled extensively throughout the world with them except for World War II. I do remember however the fondness I developed for the many chilli parlors in Springfield including the DEW and LAWSONS TAVERN and other small restauranteurs whose names I have forgotten. Thank you for the information in your article and I would be interested in Les Eastep’s Springfield Illinois: A Chilli History if I knew how to obtain one. Again, many thanks for sparking my memories of Springfield during the 1940’s and 1950’s,

  2. Michael De Frates II says:

    We are all proud of Uncle Joe. His brother Michael (My Dad) WON a few first place prizes here in San Diego, and surrounding counties.

  3. I can’t find any records of Al Hilmer’s chilli parlor. Loved his chilli! My family went there in the ’50’s. I would like to know what happened to him, the restaurant & his chilli recipe! Does anyone know or remember? Hilmer’s chilli parlor was on 11th street, just north of South Grand on the West side of the street. The buildings have been torn down.

    • editor says:

      Kurt: Al Hilmer had a long chili (he spelled it “chilli,” of course) career. He first opened a chilli parlor/restaurant at about 8th and North Grand sometime before 1921. He moved to 11th and Ash in the early 1920s and finally settled at 1325 S. 11th sometime between 1927 and 1931. Aside from chilli, tamales and burgers, he sold chilli-to-go in pints and quarts and, for a time at least, had a soda fountain and sold candy as well. His spice mixture and chilli blocks also were available through several area grocery chains — Tolly’s, Gundy’s, etc. It’s not clear when he closed, but he had the business up for sale in 1963 — cash only, “will teach you — Chilli”, the ad said. He apparently got no takers. Al (b. 1895) died in 1966, and his wife, Floy (1900-77), had the chilli parlor and furnishings auctioned off in 1969. He is buried at Camp Butler; Floy is buried in Decatur.

    • Jim Albert says:

      My parents had two short-lived restaurants in Burnham and Calumet City, Illinois in the early 60s. Mr. Hilmer taught them his recipe and sold them the jars of spices. After they sold the business, my dad heard Al died and went to Springfield to pay his respects to Al’s wife. He asked if he could get the spice recipe because we all loved the taste so much. Dad gave her $20 for her trouble; but she never responded to him. Apparently his recipe came from an army buddy who was from Texas. It was made with kidney suet and ground sirloin tip. The spiced meat was served over twice-cooked beans. They also served a chilli mac, with the meat over spaghetti, and a 3-way version that also had beans. I was at Al’s once, and recall he served his chilli in old tin plates. I have never had a chili (or chilli) that came close to that great taste.

    • Steve Ashcraft says:

      Al was a very good friend of my step father. He had been to our house the night he passed away. He had a heart attack after he went home. His wife and him were divorced but still worked and lived together. My step father tried to buy the recipe from Flo along with the Parlor but she refused to sell it. I was young but if I remember right they had son but he didn’t have anything to do with the Parlor and left Springfield.

  4. Delores Jean Isringhausen says:

    I am looking to buy Ray’s Chilli Brick for many year’s I used Ray’s Chilli Brick added to the other ingredient’s it was the best chilli to be found anywhere..
    Is it possible it can be found somewhere..
    Thank you .

    • editor says:

      Ms. Isringhausen: Based on the products listed on the Ray’s Chilli website, I suspect you’re out of luck. But the guy to ask is Les Eastep, who wrote “Springfield, Illinois: A Chilli History.” I don’t have his email address any longer, but he’s on Facebook. I’d try there. Good luck, and thanks for reading.

  5. Mike Neff says:

    Ray’s Chilli is the best canned chilli I’ve ever had, and I’ve tried many. I cannot find it in the Kansas City area anymore but I have 1 can of it as a collector’s item in the pantry. It will never be eaten. Just a reminder of the time I lived in Springfield.

  6. AlF says:

    Mike Neff,

    A friend of mine sends me both Ray’s and Chilli Man’s spice mixes, which are sold in stores in Springfield.

    That might be a great start for you, if you want to try to make your own versions of either or both of those “chillis”.

  7. Rich Taylor says:

    I remember Joe DeFrates well. His place was almost next to our meat packing plant in Springfield on Miller Street between the tracks(10th St) and 11th Street. Joe loved steam locomotives and my office was right next to the tracks. Often when Joe heard a steamer coming he was outside my office window holding two ice cream cones and inviting me to come out and watch the train go by. I believe he also made a input toward making packaged frozen onion rings. I remember the family around a barrel device he dreamed up to coat the rings before freezing them. Not sure what happened to that idea. Great guy, so proud to have known him. Still buy his chilli by the case and think of him every time we open a can.

  8. Roxee Markert says:

    Joe was the most genuine person you’d ever want to meet. There were so many who called him friend. He always stopped in the store where I worked in the ’90’s with a happy “hi ya doll”. I told him that I wasn’t a chili eater, which was unheard of to him. He gave me some ideas to make it taste better to me. It was great! His is the only chilli I eat. And that’s why he’s the only ‘chilli man ‘. He was the best!

  9. Rich wagoner says:

    My father was a butcher and supplied suet ( fat) to the early chili parlors. He said the best chili was made with kidney suet and the secret was kept by Mr. DeFrates.

  10. Charles t Anderson says:

    I just read les estep’s a chilli history. It indicates tha scullys chilli parlor at 1131 n first street was opened in 1962. I lived my parents at 1042 north first street and attended Enos elementary school for 3rd and 4th grades from 1953 to about 1955. During this time I ate at scullys with my father at least 1 or 2 times per week. I don’t believe the opening date of 1962 is factually correct.

    • Les Eastep says:

      Re: Chilli Parlour at 1131 North First Street; Springfield, IL

      Prior to 1951 the building at 1131 N 1st was rented by the State of Illinois for storage.
      In 1951 John Andrew and his wife, Regina, were serving chili at their tavern at 716 East Enos Street. The cook preparing the chili was known as Scully.

      In 1951 or 1952, Frank R. Andrew opened a chili parlour, known as Scully’s, at this location.
      In 1960, he opened Scully’s #3 at 205 W Cook Street. In 1961 Mr. Andrew opened another chili parlour at 2232 South Sixth Street. This was closed a year later.

      In 1962 a chilli factory was opened at 1732 South Seventeenth Street; they were canning Scully’s Firebrand Chilli.

    • April Smith says:

      My grandfather wrote a jingle for Scully’s Chilli. He won a bike for my dad.

  11. Carolyn Johnson says:

    This is the only mention in the link I can find of Allen’s Cigar store. I am researching info about it prior to 1944. Can anyone help?

    • editor says:

      Ms. Johnson: I haven’t done an entry on Allen’s Cigar Store (though it’s not a bad idea). But have you tried looking through the Illinois State Journal online? It’s available and searchable at either (free through your local library) or (available to anyone for a small fee). I’d start there. Good luck, and thanks for reading.

  12. Phil Shadid says:

    I remember eating chilli at Scully’s at least in the 1950s. My dad, Sam Shadid, also had a great chilli that he served in the restaurant he ran on North 6th Street, just south of today’s Union Station visitor center. It was called the “U and I Cafe.” He ran it until about 1945.

  13. Dennis Pennng says:

    I ate Scully’s Chilli and Tamales from about 1956-58 when I moved away. It was delicious ?

  14. John Rekesius says:

    Does anyone remember Texas Jack’s Place?
    A book I am reading (A Bowl of Red) makes
    reference to it. It seems to have been
    a forgotten chilli parlor of Springfield, Il. from the early 1900s era

    • editor says:

      Mr. Rekesius: I’ve never heard of it, and local newspapers from the time don’t mention any local restaurant/cafe/chili parlor by that name. I kind of think A Bowl of Red is wrong. But your best bet is to contact the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library (Springfield’s municipal library). If anyplace can help you, they’re the best bet. Phone 217-753-4900, ext. 5934. Good luck.

  15. Art Lawson says:

    Ray’s chilli is now in Decatur —- Jay Nicole purchased recipe/name and sells full line of products Ray’s Brand Chilli, inc to look on google. Because I live in Florida and unable to get here, I purchase cases of chilli and seasoning GREAT GUY and great chilli!!!!!

    • Rebecca Cochran says:

      I just found them online about a week ago….my husband and I grew up in Springfield and ate most all of the chili or chilli’s of the time…Rays was always a favorite. I placed an order from Ray’s (in Decatur) online and had it delivered to our beach address and it arrived about 3 hours before we did…I was super impressed as it was so perfectly packed with the spices and hot dog sauce I also ordered..really amazing packing. Plus I got a significant refund on the mailing as they fit it all in one box….so I opened the box to a nice letter and a partial refund for the shipping. A real class act for the folks carrying on with Ray’s Chilli. Guess what we had for supper?!!! I’ll order again. It is not sold in any stores in North Carolina.

  16. My aunt Mate and Uncle Joe DeFrates lived in Springfield and made chili and tamales in their home. Every morning, around 4am, they arose and began. Two washing machines, one for clothing and the other for “corn shucks” in which they wrapped the tamales. A strange device with two tubes into which the corn and tamale substances went. Turn the handle – out came tamales. Daily, Uncle Joe made the rounds of restaurants/taverns delivering his products. I believe their home address was somewhere on 11th(?) – not sure. Mate was my Grandmother’s sister, one of the Van Dykes. Not too sure about uncle Joe. I know for sure that anytime a relative visited, either from Chicago or Milwaukee, that relative home with Chili and Tamales. Much loved couple.

  17. John Earl says:

    I grew up in Springfield and I remember when Ray’s had a half inch thick congealed topping of grease. Delicious!
    We live in Ariz now and when we are back in the Illinois area we load up on Ray’s to bring back. Chili isn’t chili mac unless its Rays.

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  20. Meg Andrew Grguric says:

    My Dad was Frank Andrew and he and his Dad owned Scully’s. The restaurants were closed and the canning business sold, in part, due to Frank Sr’s death and the fact that my Dad then had growing family to support. He missed having restaurants and was trying to open a restaurant in Naples, Florida shortly before he died in 1984.

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