Stehlin's Meat Market History
By Cliff Radel with John Stehlin
In the beginning, there was a flood. And, Stehlin’s Meat Market was born. Our story started in 1913. That’s when 21-year-old John Stehlin worked for Bill Espel as a drover, walking cattle to the Cincinnati stockyards. Then came the flood of 1913. The deluge plunged the stockyards under water. John had nowhere to go with the animals. So, he coaxed Bill Espel into allowing him to slaughter the cattle in a small barn off Colerain Pike. He sold the beef to nearby customers in Bevis, the present-day home of Stehlin’s Meat Market, hauling his products from door to door on a horse-drawn wagon. The rest is history. Our history. Over the past 100 years, our name has changed ever so slightly, from John Stehlin Meats to John Stehlin & Sons Meats, from Stehlin’s Meats to Stehlin’s Meat Market, reflecting the slaughterhouse and butcher shop sides of our business. But, our commitment to quality and our dedication to serving our customers remain unchanged.
John Stehlin’s fledgling business was barely off the ground when he enlisted at the age of 24 to serve his county in World War I. He went off to fight the Germans, serving in France and seeing combat in the bloody Battle of the Argonne Forest. When the war ended in 1918, he returned home on crutches with a severe case of trench foot. Caused by standing in flooded trenches, the frostbite-like disorder took time to heal. But, John was not to be kept down. He married his sweetheart, Eleonora Wullenweber, two days before Valentine’s Day on February 12, 1920. During the early 1920s, they built their business and began their family. Three sons -- Vernon, Ervan and Harold -- grew up in the business, working after school and any other time they were needed. Known by the nickname “Butch,” John used a slaughterhouse in Camp Washington to butcher cattle, hogs and sheep. He hauled everything back to Bevis where he had a store attached to his home. From that shop, he gained a reputation for selling fresh quality beef, pork and lamb chops. He also made a name for himself with his hickory-smoked hams, cottage hams and bacon. Tucked behind the store was a sausage room. That’s where Butch honed his skills as a sausage maker, crafting fresh and smoked pork sausage, liver pudding, goetta, head cheese and Johnny in the Bag. A simple phrase became his slogan: “Made its way, by the way it’s made.” Sandwiched around his sausage-making duties, Butch continued selling door to door, using a large truck known as the “Rolling Grocery Store.” Everything in the line of groceries and meat filled this truck. While he was on the road, Eleonora took care of the store at home. Butch was big on public relations. He belonged to such fraternal groups as the Eagles, VFW, American Legion, the Monkeys of Hamilton, Ohio and the Izaak Walton League. At their meetings, he would cook and serve his famous fresh sausage. The members would rave about how good it was. They became customers for life and their families have shopped at Stehlin’s for generations. During the Great Depression, it was common practice to help your neighbor. Butch would allow customers to run a tab for the meats they needed. He knew who would pay and who could not pay. He never turned anyone away.
World War II brought many changes. Vernon joined the Navy. Ervan and Harold were drafted. But, Butch convinced the draft board that having two older sons --Vernon and Ervan -- serve was enough. So, Harold stayed home to help keep the business going and growing. After the war, Vernon went on to a career in the diesel engine field. Ervan came home and rejoined Butch, Eleonora and Harold in leading the business. Butch’s nephew, Frankie Sunderhaus, stepped in and helped. Two more Sunderhaus family members -- Donald (Doc) and Alvin -- also worked at the store. Eddie Mohr began a 50-year career with the Stehlin family business upon his return from the Navy in 1945. Never at a loss for words and a seasoned wisecracker, Eddie pushed everyone to get the most work out of every minute. He taught the third generation more about meat cutting than any other person in the business. Many customers thought he was an owner because of his dedication to the family. As a matter of fact, he had a family because of Stehlin’s. He met his future wife, Stella Burwinkel, at work. She was a stocker and cashier. These dedicated people went about the everyday details of making Stehlin’s Meat Market a thriving Colerain Township business.
Butch always dreamed of having his own slaughtering facility. That dream became a reality in 1948. With the help of his brother, Bill, and many construction contractors he had become friends with through the business of selling meat, Butch built his slaughterhouse on the property behind his home. No longer did he have to travel back and forth to Cincinnati every week. Now he had everything right in his backyard.
Next, in 1952, came a new store. This was no small shop. It housed a three-section meat counter and four aisles of groceries including fresh produce, pop, snacks, beer and wine -- everything a family would need for its shopping convenience.
In 1954, Butch and Eleonora built a new home for themselves on the property next to the slaughterhouse. That house still stands. During the 1950s, Vernon returned to the business. The decade also saw the births of five grandsons and six granddaughters. A new generation of Stehlin’s workers was on its way. Everything had fallen into place. Butch incorporated the business in 1962 and made his sons stockholders. Around the same time, buying in quantity became a part of the scene. People purchased home freezers and bought sides of beef and whole hogs and lambs to fill them. Stehlin’s became the place to go for everything for the freezer and continues to be today. The store underwent a total remodeling in the mid-1960s. All new shelving and a new open-display freezer made for a more modern shopping experience. A conveyor from the basement made work easier for the employees. At the same time, however, Kroger, IGA and A&P were moving into the area. These chain stores were a major competition and were able to offer a wider variety of name-brand products. The grocery end of Butch’s business began to slide. It was time to consider alternative measures. But first, Butch had to battle the government on two fronts. In 1969, an Ohio state meat inspector gave Butch a laundry list of physical improvements -- tile walls in the slaughterhouse, smokehouse upgrades, etc. -- that had to be done for the business to continue. Butch told the inspector he would make those improvements one at a time. He could not afford to do all of them at once. The inspector told him if all of the improvements were not made, the state would lock the doors. Butch looked the man straight in the eye and said: “Only one man will ever lock that door. And, it sure isn’t you.” The state blinked. The improvements were made: One at a time. Before the battle with the inspector, planning began for Interstate 275. Blueprints routed the highway through Butch’s slaughterhouse. That path would have torn the heart out of his business. He appealed to township, county and state officials. The highway’s path was changed. A bend in the road saved Butch’s business. Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio) also helped. Sohio was looking for a location near the interstate for a gas station. The company came to Stehlin’s with a deal that would put a station where the store was located and move the family business into a new building back from the road and closer to the slaughterhouse. This allowed Stehlin’s to leave the grocery business and concentrate strictly on meat. In February 1972, the butcher shop moved into the store which is still in use today. Stehlin’s lost its patriarch in 1973 when Butch passed away while on vacation in Florida. His legacy of pride is still seen today in all the products made by Stehlin’s. He is remembered as a generous, fun-loving, proud and caring human being. Harold, Ervan and Vernon carried on his legacy by building the business. During the 1970s and 1980s, Butch’s grandsons began taking a larger role in the business. All worked at Stehlin’s through grade school and high school. Ervan’s sons, Ken, Ron and Dick, and Harold’s sons, Denny and John, all became full-time employees upon graduation from high school. Denny and Dick took up major roles in slaughtering and processing. Ron took on meat truck duty and later freezer beef processing while John took over running the store. By 1980, Ken had moved on to a career in insurance. Eleonora Stehlin, sweetheart, wife, mother, grandmother and matriarch, passed away in 1980. She is remembered for her love of the Cincinnati Reds. She rooted for every player to “hit a home run.” She also loved playing cards, of course, after all the work was done. She was never without a deck to play canasta, gin and 500. This Reds-loving card player was also known for being a kind, loving and generous person with countless friends. She worked as long and as hard as any other member of the business. She could lift a hind quarter of beef as easily as any man. She could cut meat with the best of them. She also always made sure everyone was fed. “Dinner” was at midday and she would put out a spread that was a sight to behold and feast upon. She was the best and is greatly missed. In 1988, the grandsons became Stehlin’s stockholders. Within a few years, Vernon, Ervan and Harold retired. Long before passing away -- Ervan in 1994, Harold in 1996 and Vernon in 2000 -- they had left the business for “the boys,” the third generation, to run.
This story would not be complete without noting some of Stehlin’s other loyal and longtime employees:
*Irene Wethington, from the early 1960s until her retirement in 1984. She was originally a check-out clerk and grocery employee. When we moved to the smaller, all-meat store in 1972, she learned to cut deli meats and kept all the customer orders straight.
*Rita Kraemer, with us for years as a grocery and check-out clerk until we moved into the all-meat store.
*Clem Frerrick, meat cutter and “cut up” until he died unexpectedly in 1976.
*Uncle Hap Wullenweber, Grandma’s brother, worked from 1976 until 1980.
*Ron Seger, hired in 1979 to replace Ken Stehlin. He is as loyal as they come. He stocks the meat case, waits on customers and creates party trays second to none.
*Paul Jaeger, joined us in 1994, fresh from selling his own family shop, Clifton Meat Market, in the Cincinnati neighborhood next to the University of Cincinnati. He has been a vital cog in getting some of our newer sausage products (most notably brats and metts) up and running.
*More recent veteran employees -- Paul King, starting in 1996, brought Buffalo chicken salad to reality; Steve Blank, 2002, a proven meat cutter in all phases, slaughtering, processing and retail; Bill Dorl, 2009, our imported meat cutter from Australia. As with the third generation, members of the fourth generation of Stehlins – Jim, Brian, Eric, Tony, Doug, Greg and Mark – learned the meat-cutting trade. Then, they ventured into other fields. Mark, John’s son, returned in 2010, making this a fourth-generation family owned business.
Today, Stehlin’s Meat Market is still going strong, maintaining its traditions, while looking ahead. Generations of customers still come to us for the centerpiece to their holiday feasts as well as the bacon and eggs for their breakfasts. They continue to line up during the summer for our renowned, hickory-smoked cottage hams to cook with homegrown green beans. Our family owned business has seen many changes over the past century. People’s tastes have changed as well as their eating habits. Because of this, we have introduced many new products. They join the fresh beef, pork, lamb and poultry our customers have long enjoyed. One thing, however, has never changed: The commitment to fast and friendly service our grandparents and parents taught us to provide. That is what our loyal customers have come to expect. That is what they deserve. And, that is exactly what Stehlin’s Meat Market has been honored to give them for 100 years.