Anybody who’s eaten a McDonald’s hamburger in Springfield has feasted on a bit of local Lithuanian-American history involving a family aptly named “Mack” (Lith: Makarauskas). McDonald’s first local franchisee, John Mack, Sr., was born in Lithuania in 1912 of parents Stanley and Agnes Makarauskas. He was a coal miner before operating Mack’s Food Store at 1501 Keys Ave.
In 1957, John, Sr. and his wife Mary (Gidus) Mack had the foresight to make the leap from their corner grocery to the brave, new world of fast food. After a personal call from McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and then being turned down by many banks, a $100,000 loan for the Macks from Illinois National Bank finally came through, and John and Mary opened their first restaurant on S. Sixth St. at the perfect location: just outside the gates of construction machinery factory Allis Chalmers, where two shifts a day of hungry workers could appreciate a 15-cent burger with 10-cent fries. (The AC workers only got paid $1 an hour back then.)
At the peak of their McDonald’s empire, the Macks were exclusive franchisees of 8 McDonald’s all over Springfield, including the Old Capitol Plaza and White Oaks Mall, according to the State Journal-Register. (There was an additional McDonald’s in Jacksonville.) It is said that John Mack, Sr. was the first politically active Lithuanian-American in Springfield. His son Tom recalls that John, Sr. was a member—perhaps a leader– of the Progressive Miners of America (see The Mining Life and The Mine Wars pages on this site). Over and above that, John, Sr. was famous for providing groceries on credit to under-employed and striking miners–most likely from a home-based “commissary” during the Mine Wars and later from his corner grocery.
On page 92 of Benedictine University Professor Carl D. Oblinger’s history, “Divided Kingdom: Work, Community and the Mining Wars in the Central Illinois Coal Fields During the Great Depression,” Progressive miner Tom Rosko says, “He ‘carried’ them all in Springfield, John Mack!” (In the lingo of the time, store credit was referred to as being “carried” or being “on the book.”)
Back in the 1920s, coal miners opening corner stores seemed to be a trend. Former miner Paul Kasawich opened a grocery/tavern next to his home on East Reynolds. My own Hungarian immigrant grandfather, Joseph Kohlrus, was a coal miner before he opened Kohlrus Foods on Converse at the RR tracks, not far from Mack’s Food Store on Keys. It must have looked like a good way to give the family a solid alternative to dangerous, sporadic—and disappearing—work in our local mines. The violent “Mine Wars” that accompanied mechanization and massive layoffs, locally, by Peabody Coal (1932-36) that are detailed in Oblinger’s book sadly proved these miners-turned-grocers correct.
After John, Sr. died in 1974 at age 61, Mary Mack (1911-1990), daughter of Lithuanian immigrants George and Anna Posiponka Gidus, continued to operate all the “Mack McDonald’s” in Springfield and Jacksonville with her sons Tom and Jim, daughter Mary Ann and son-in-law Gary Butts until the family sold its franchises in 1989, again, according to the State Journal-Register. (Mary Mack also was the founder of Springfield’s Ronald McDonald House.)
In 1988, the couple’s son Tom Mack went on to become the founding and long-time president of the Lithuanian-American Club in Springfield. Son and Lexington, Ky-area businessman John Mack Jr., 70, died in 2008. He and his ex-wife Beverly had three daughters: Leslie Preuss of Florida, Carole Mack-Joefreda of Lexington, Ky., and Marilyn Mack of Virginia; and a son, John Mack, III, of Nicholasville; Ky, who carries on a proud family name.
For more information, see “Here’s the Beef / How Springfield Got its First Fast Food,” by Dave Bakke in the April 27, 1999 State Journal-Register.
Many thanks to Elaine Alane, Bill Cellini, Jr. and Hannah, one of John, Sr.’s great-granddaughters, for assisting with this post.