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Ralph Kipp at 95: A lifetime of business in Chester

  • Ralph Kipp in the home he's lived in all his life.

    Ralph Kipp in the home he's lived in all his life.
    Gwendy Garner photo

  • Ralph Kipp, in hat, stands in the doorway of his new Ben Franklin Store in Chester in 1972. At left are Jack Shepar of WHCO Radio and Bonnie Kipp. At right, Mayor Deitz Helmers cuts the ceremonial ribbon.

    Ralph Kipp, in hat, stands in the doorway of his new Ben Franklin Store in Chester in 1972. At left are Jack Shepar of WHCO Radio and Bonnie Kipp. At right, Mayor Deitz Helmers cuts the ceremonial ribbon.

By Gwendy Garner
Contributing writer
updated: 4/21/2021 10:48 AM

Ralph Kipp has lived in Chester all 95 years of his life. On April 18 he celebrated that milestone birthday with his family, but just a few days earlier, while visiting him at his home, I learned a great deal about his life, from the very earliest days, through raising his own family and since his semi-retirement. Through all of those years he has been involved to some extent in local business.

Ralph Kipp was born on his family's milk farm in 1926 on the northern edge of Chester, to Gottfried and Hermine Pestor Kipp. He still lives in the house in which he was born, though it has been remodeled. Electricity was added to the home the year he was born.

Kipp's paternal grandparents, William and Laura Kipp, bought the roughly 120-acre homestead around 1893. William Kipp suffered from but survived the flu pandemic of 1918.

The farm was always a family business. They purchased a milk delivery business in 1929 from E.A. and Nora Welge. Prior, the Kipp family had supplemented the Welge's milk supply, but did not do delivery themselves. Ralph remembers at 3 years old being in his family's Dodge touring car with his father and grandfather on April 1, 1929 when they made their first milk deliveries in Chester.

Later, they made deliveries in a Model A truck. At first the signage on their vehicle read Gottfried Kipp, Chester, Illinois, but later the signage was changed to Kipp's Dairy.

As he grew, Ralph helped his family on the farm, milking cows and doing myriad jobs. His mother supplied local residents with chickens and turkeys, particularly at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Ralph helped her prepare the fowl for sale.

In 1951 the family ceased on-farm milk bottling and converted to selling bulk milk to Prairie Farms and delivering their New Era milk products.

In August 1952 Ralph slipped and fell into a conveyor while cutting and storing sileage. The accident crushed his leg, and while local surgeon Dr. Milton Zemlyn was able to save the leg for a brief period, subsequently the leg had to be removed. Kipp was only 27 at the time, and has lived most of his life with a leg appliance, but nothing has caused him to slow his personal or professional progress.

In 1953 Kipp began at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale -- the first student to enroll in the school's Small Business Institute, where he graduated in 1957 with a degree in Accounting/Small Business. In 1958 Ralph bought the Sani Cream restaurant across the highway from his home.

He married Bonnie Barthel in 1960 and what a partnership they had! In 1961 the couple ceased all on-farm milk production and sold their dairy herd. That same year they added a dining room to what became a year-round restaurant. The new name was Kipp's Family Drive-In Restaurant, a business that operated under their management and

others, until 1977.

Ralph and Bonnie's sons, Dale and Lyle were born in 1961 and 1964 respectively, and as they grew they too became very involved in the family businesses.

To expound on the many, many businesses owned and operated by the Kipp family through the years would be almost impossible. And to say that Ralph Kipp has been an entrepreneur would be quite an understatement. Many times he and his family opened businesses and provided services that otherwise were not provided in Chester.

Kipp was instrumental in bringing the Shell Oil station to Chester, which operated on his land but was owned and operated by Herman Bockhorn and later John Bert. It was on the Kipp property where Chester's Moore & Wittenborn Thriftway Market was opened. The Bonnie Maid laundromat, owned and operated by the Kipp family, opened in 1968.

Through the years the Kipps were involved in opening the Pizza Hut Restaurant, Highland Village mobile home park, Chester's first Radio Shack franchise, Wide's and Fina truck stop, a mobile home sales, a Braille Center and many more.

The Friday after Thanksgiving in 1972 was a big day for Chester when the grand opening of Kipp's Ben Franklin store was held. The large store was the first of its kind in Chester. Mayor Dietz Helmers cut the ribbon and the ceremony was covered by WHCO radio of Sparta. A large crowd came to watch.

Several of the businesses mentioned above have been located on a tract of land not included in the original farm homestead, but purchased in 1957 by Ralph Kipp. That property is now under the title Chester Center LLC, owned by the Kipp Family and Joe Koppeis, and includes Rozier's Country Market, ACE Hardware, Tequila's Restaurant, Asia Garden, Lucy's, Napa, the Verizon store and several more businesses.

Bonnie Kipp died in 2008, and Ralph's activities are somewhat limited now. But to say that he has fully retired would not be accurate. He stays as involved in life and in his current properties as he is able. He is a lifelong member of St. John Lutheran Church in Chester and is a member of the Chester Chamber of Commerce, the Chester Rotary Club and a Rotary International Paul Harris Fellow. He is also fittingly a member of the National Association of Milk Bottle Collectors.

At the conclusion of our time together, Kipp stressed how genuinely he appreciates family and community support through the years. He believes that Chester has been a great place to live these 95 years and certainly seems to have done his share to make it a better place for all of us to live.