Want Fries With That?

Collinsville pours it on thick celebrating its beloved Catsup Bottle

Jul 3, 2002 at 4:00 am
June 18, 1987. Collinsville, Illinois. The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile drives into town, stopping in front of the Brooks Catsup Bottle water tower -- a historic meeting. A 70-foot ketchup bottle (atop a 100-foot tower) is confronted by a 27-foot-long hotdog. The theme from the film 2001 swells forth. This is what we have made. This is who we are.

The Wienermobile would return in 1994, on the eve of the completion of the biggest project in Collinsville since Native Americans formed 100 tall mounds of dirt 1,000 years ago. In '95, historic-preservation enthusiast Judy DeMoisy realized her dream of refurbishing the Catsup Bottle. The water tower, in disrepair, was professionally repainted to look like a 1949 bottle of Brooks Tangy Old Original Catsup, at a cost of $77,000, raised completely without government assistance. Each year on the Catsup Bottle's birthday, the natives worship it like apes at the monolith.

The story of the Catsup Bottle is one of company pride -- and of companies being bought by distant corporations, and the decay of the town symbol, and apathy turned to struggle by an outsider. It is the story of DeMoisy's dogged years-long fight against the mayor of Collinsville, the Collinsville Chamber of Commerce and even the company that manufactures Brooks Catsup -- entities that, at one or more times, lacked the vision to see that demolishing a unique roadside attraction would mean pissing away much of the character of Collinsville (and killing a marketing department's wet dream). Finally, it is the story of a giant faux bottle of ketchup, a humble condiment made into a god, thrust into the sky, as comical as that huge head floating through the movie Zardoz.

The Catsup Bottle was built in 1949 "because the ketchup plant needed a water tower for their processing," explains Catsup Bottle Fan Club president Mike "Big Tomato" Gassmann. "Back in the '40s, the factory would draw too much water from the city water supply, and residents often complained because they didn't have any good water pressure. The Catsup Bottle held 100,000 gallons of water."

The ketchup-making operation moved to Indiana in the '60s, and the famous water tower "wasn't appreciated," says Gassmann. "Since the factory closed, it probably sat empty and neglected for almost 30 years. It became an eyesore." The property was put up for sale in '93. Catsup Bottle fans panicked. Their beloved water tower was headed for the scrap heap.

DeMoisy then started her Catsup Bottle Preservation Group and, through fundraisers, sales of T-shirts and corporate donations, managed to save and refurbish the monument to ketchup in '95.

In a newspaper interview that year, DeMoisy summed up the intangible significance of possessing what she and her fellow preservationists have dubbed "The World's Largest Bottle of Catsup": "You know where you are when you see the Catsup Bottle, just like you know where you are when you see the Eiffel Tower."