Charlie Barenfanger has a strong understanding of Vandalia. A natural storyteller with a keen memory for historic details, he saw the town when it was ‘busy’ and when work was plentiful. He’s also seen times he’s described as ‘unkind.’ Times when there were too many individuals fighting for too little work, and as a result, few prospered. Charlie understands life’s booms and busts, running businesses during thriving times, as well as economic and agricultural recessions. He’s survived multiple cycles, understanding that ebbs and flows are part of the process.
Find and Fulfill
With the mind of a historian, he’s poured blood, sweat, and tears into the local economy with an understanding that a rising tide lifts all ships. He prospered and struggled, taking in the cyclical nature of economic tides. But through it all, he’s proud to be a Vandalia Vandal. Class of 1968, to be detailed and precise, as Charlie often is.
Charlie admires the community that raised him. “I grew up in a good town where people help other people. I think the thing about Vandalia and towns like Vandalia in downstate Illinois is that they’re good, livable, safe towns where people help each other.”
Charlie spent some time working for the fire department and witnessed the community’s generous spirit, adding, “If someone’s house burned down, someone in their family would take them in. And if they didn’t have family, someone from the community always stepped in and helped them. It’s a good town.”
As we talk, Charlie starts from the beginning. He shares that one of his ancestors immigrated from Germany, only to get thrust into the Civil War, spending time as a prisoner of war. His family eventually traveled west, settling first in Evansville, Indiana, and eventually branching out to Salem and Vandalia, Illinois. Charlie relishes sharing their story with a keen understanding that their story is his story, just as his story will one day be a large part of his children and their children’s stories to come.
Charlie’s father graduated from the University of Illinois with a civil engineering degree, in the forties. His grandfather, father, and uncle founded a construction company. Charlie says he ‘followed in his father’s footsteps,’ obtaining a master’s degree in civil engineering at U of I in 1972. Upon graduating, he returned home and worked for his family’s construction company, describing the time as ‘very busy.’
While the company mainly focused on state infrastructure contracts such as road and bridge work, he says they also dabbled in residential and commercial building development. He smiles as he shares that his company built over one hundred local houses. “I can drive around town and pick them out; there’s just a certain look to them,” says Charlie with pride.
Charlie also talks candidly about periods of struggle, sharing that his family chose to step away from the construction industry rather than fight through a recession in the nineties. At the time, he says, several contractors were bidding over limited contracts in a tough environment. Some didn’t get the work, and others took the work but likely didn’t make any money; Charlie shares this with a knowing look, adding that it was rough for everyone.
Charlie views his family as lucky enough to have the resources to pivot, developing rental properties and leasing buildings before eventually transitioning to the short-line railroad business. But what Charlie describes as luck also entails a great deal of intelligence, an understanding of where the world is and where it’s headed. Sure, luck is an ingredient; it always is. But so is a keen insight, hard-earned through experience and applied intellect.
“We had several industries in Vandalia that needed a rail service, so that’s how we got involved,” shares Charlie, adding, “We had a plastics company that employed seven-hundred people. They needed rail service to bring in raw material.”
Seeing a need, Charlie and his brother filled it, providing for not only their families but countless other local families as a result. With the railway came the opportunity to give several growing companies an open path to their customers and the world at large.
Fulfilling a need is also what Charlie believes the Vandalia school system provided for him in the sixties, as well as today’s youth. He shares that he has twin children, first-year college students—one at ISU and the other at U of I—both recent Vandalia graduates. He grins as he admits he became a father late in life but suggests that little had changed over the decades regarding quality education and that his children seamlessly transitioned from high school in Vandalia to college at two of Illinois’ most vital colleges. Charlie can’t help but connect the dots, comparing his high school experience to that of his children.
“When I went to high school, we had an excellent physics and chemistry teacher. When I got to U of I, I had no problems with math, science, or chemistry. School is very important, and we’re very happy with our kids’ education. We have a lot of young people doing great things, and I’m very happy with the school system here. I’m very optimistic about Vandalia. We have an excellent town.”