Harry Sickmeyer inducted into The Randolph Society

Harry C. Sickmeyer

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Harry Sickmeyer, a visionary who worked hard to make rural electrification a reality, will be inducted into the 2023 class of honorees.

Harry Sickmeyer was born in the small town of Welge in Randolph County on September 25, 1892. He was the fourth of seven children of Heinrich Sickmeyer and his wife, Caroline Welge Sickmeyer, both of whom were the children of immigrants from Germany. He left school after finishing the eighth grade and went to work on his family’s farm. Life for the German-American farming community changed rapidly in the years that followed.

When Harry was 24, the United States entered World War I. He enlisted in the army in June 2018 and served as a corporal with the 20th Company of the 159th Depot Brigade. He was honorably discharged in April 2019 and returned to the family farm near Campbell Hill, but his time in the army had broadened his horizons. He became deeply interested in technological innovation, experimenting with new techniques like terracing his fields. In 1922, he married Pauline Huch in Wine Hill, and they settled down on their own farm together, raising four children in Shiloh Hill.

Harry never lost the desire to make farming life easier for himself and the other residents of the area. By the 1930s, a new avenue for improvement was becoming a reality: electrification. It is difficult to imagine how much harder farm life must have been before electricity. No lights, no machines, no tools that required power. Tasks that seem simple now, like keeping milk fresh on its way to the consumer, took immense effort. Residents of nearby towns like Steeleville and Chester were already enjoying the benefits of electrification, and Harry was keen for power stations and lines to be extended into the county’s rural areas as well.

In 1934, Harry joined a forward-thinking group that included his brother-in-law, Theodore Kueker, with the goal of bringing electricity to the rural parts of the county. Four years later, the organization officially became the Egyptian Electric Cooperative. Harry spearheaded the Randolph County membership drive that allowed the cooperative to secure an REA loan and begin construction on power lines and substations. He navigated challenges like cost concerns, language barriers, and arguments about property and easements as he successfully reached the cooperative’s goal.

The first rural substation was located on a plot near Bremen. There, in September 1939, Harry was one of the leaders at a large celebration marking the beginning of the project’s construction. Eight hundred people came from the surrounding area to watch the first power pole’s placement. After several complicated months of construction, with obstacles like salary disputes, bitterly cold weather, and the ongoing war, the cooperative was finally ready to electrify the lines.

As president of the cooperative, Harry was appointed to flip the switch that officially brought electricity to rural Randolph County in April 1940. Soon, more and more county residents were clamoring for electrification. Over the next several years, Harry and the cooperative worked to make it happen for them. “We had no idea our little cooperative would grow into one of the largest in the state and would be serving such a large variety of member-owners,” Harry remembered later.

For the rest of his life, Harry remained devoted to the cooperative and its vision for a connected, empowered population. He served in various roles on the board of directors, including terms as president, vice-president, and secretary-treasurer, every year from the cooperative’s formation in 1938 until his retirement in the spring of 1973. He stated that May that he was stepping down after “seeing the fulfillment of my early efforts and dreams.” By that time, the cooperative had grown to more than 8,000 members and 1,800 miles of power lines. He died four years later at the age of 82. Harry’s foresight, his leadership, and his dedication to the cause made it possible for rural Randolph County to enter the modern era with the flip of a switch.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Harry Sickmeyer.

Katie Fiene inducted into The Randolph Society

Katie Fiene Birchler Heires

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Katie Fiene, a pioneering journalist and food historian who documented the local past and present, will be inducted into the 2023 class of honorees.

Katheryn Rae Rosendohl was born on March 9, 1917, in Willisville. The daughter of Henry Ray Rosendohl and Maude Smith, Katie was raised in rural Perry County alongside her three sisters. After three years of high school in Steeleville, she completed her senior year at Cleveland High School in St. Louis. In 1938, 21-year-old Katie married George Edison “Judy” Fiene at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Steeleville.

Their early years of marriage were, like so many others, affected by war. Judy enlisted in the army in March 1943. Katie was inspired to do her own bit to improve the morale of the young men from the area who had joined the service. During the war, she began publishing her first column, called “Dear Boys,” in the Steeleville Ledger. The column was written like a letter from home, sharing all the latest news to make the soldiers and sailors feel like they were hearing from a friend.

After the war, the Fiene family grew to include two children: a daughter, Cassandra, and a son, Kent. Stories of family life often made their way into Katie’s columns. By this time, Katie had been hired to write for the Sparta News-Plaindealer. Her “Katie’s Kolyum” became a mainstay in the paper for the next three decades. She also began making regular radio appearances on WHCO and KSGM, reading her columns and broadcasting special events during a regular 10-minute show. For years, she was WHCO’s radio host for Steeleville’s annual Fourth of July Parade, and she also served as the director of advertising and public relations for First National Bank of Steeleville.

Katie covered an enormous range of topics in her column—“everything from the Twist to the church bazaar,” she told a fellow columnist in the 1960s—and she was always on the hunt for good material. She wrote about a little of everything. But some subjects were particular favorites. Along the way, she incorporated two of her greatest interests, history and cooking. She was an active member and president of the Randolph County Historical Society. She was also elected president of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1976, becoming just the second woman to hold that position.

When she began sharing recipes and stories from her kitchen, the reader response was overwhelmingly positive. Katie found her regular baking ritual to be a soothing and essential part of life. She became so proficient at bread-making that she won a blue ribbon at the Du Quoin State Fair. For three decades, her readers mailed in their favorite recipes. Katie tested and tried them, sharing her favorites with the public in her column. By the 1980s, she had amassed such an interesting assortment of dishes that she decided to publish her own cookbook featuring many of the recipes. She also shared recipes and cooking tips from her own family, especially her mother, and added a historical angle by including techniques and dishes from Randolph County’s past.

In 1977, Katie’s husband, Judy, passed away. She surprised herself by finding love again. She married state representative Vincent Birchler in Chester in 1979. They shared a dedication to public service. Katie was as a member of numerous boards, including the Randolph County Welfare Service and Southern Illinois Incorporated. She did a little bit of everything, from emceeing local fashion shows and judging county fair cookbook competitions to delivering keynote speeches and volunteering with elementary school programs. She also received numerous awards for both her writing and her cooking.

Katie lived to the remarkable age of 100, passing away on Christmas Day in 2017. As a member of a small pioneering group of local female columnists, she demonstrated that a woman’s viewpoint—the phrase she used to describe her column—was more than worth reading. In a letter to a friend who had decided to try her own hand at writing, she wrote, “I’m so happy you are taking up journalism. It’s such fun … and you never get over the whole bit. I always say that when I cut my finger I don’t see blood, but ink!”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Katie Fiene.