My lecturing and serious writing days are over but I still enjoy reading about old Peoria, Illinois. I find myself researching myself, and that alone is reason to quit writing about it. Our history, since we became a town way back in 1835 is loaded with humor, politics, incredible growth, murder and mayhem and got even more interesting when we became a city in 1845. I especially liked the way our local newspaper editors created chaos and plain old common sense as they went about competing with each other politically and for the almighty dollar. Today every damn newspaper I pick up is slanted to the left and to tell you the truth it irritates me.
Peoria was always a God-fearing, red blooded American City and I miss those good old days.’ I thought I would give you a few examples of how we were influenced by them way back when. Although I always got my stories from public records, the newspapers were the initial source and they were very competitive. Up until 1917, April to be exact, the Peoria distilleries were producing one third of the nation’s supply of whiskey and since 1862 we were known as the whiskey capitol of the world. The anti-booze folks in town were trying to change all that and the letters to the editors made me laugh out loud. There was talk of WW1, and sure enough the ‘DRYS’ got their way when a phony thing called the Lever Act shut down all of our breweries and distilleries.
It was a Conservation Act to feed our ‘Fighting Doughboys,’ which we did not need and was a smoke screen. Of course it came from Wayne B. Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League, but it put a hell of a lot of Peorians out of work… I can tell you that. My favorite quote in the paper was from Mr. Greenhut who told thirsty Peorians that there was “enough whiskey and gin on hand to supply the nation’s thirst for at least three years.”
Truth is a major amount of it was stored in our warehouses along the river. It was not until August 3, 1933 that the first barrel of legally made whiskey here in Peoria was rolled out. Of course it was highly regulated and it was not until December of 1933 that Peoria began to make John Barleycorn legally once again. Happy Peorians heard the wonderful news in July of 1933 that Hiram Walker, Gooderham and Warts would build the largest distillery in the world right here in Peoria, Illinois. What an exciting day it was on July 4, 1935 here in Peoria, Illinois when over 70,000 showed up for the open house at Hiram Walkers. You know I never did learn if they gave out samples like they did at the Pabst Brewery located out in Peoria Heights. They called the bar there the 33 Room and I am certain we abused their hospitality. Hell, we even had a change of jackets in the car to help get us through the process and to that cold beer at the end of the bar.
FDR was elected and a lot of your relatives here in Peoria expected the President to do away with the despicable Eighteenth Amendment. Truth is it was one of his first acts and to this day I remember him saying, “This would be a good time for a cold beer.” Amen, Mr. President. At the turn of the century here in town it was not bad enough to have the ‘DRYS’ attacking our taverns and distilleries as the other ‘dogooders’ were going after our poker games and all of the other local vices our men were enjoying. Gambling had been with us since the Civil War and most of it was well out of sight of the ordinary citizen; but that was not good enough. Wheeler’s Anti-Saloon League was also behind that but I am happy to say they were not very successful in their quest to shut down everything. Prohibition turned out to be a big joke in Peoria and our Soft Drink Parlors, numbering over 200, made life tolerable here during those thirteen horrible years of Prohibition.
Tidbits of news that seemed to be used for filler more than anything else always interested me as I searched for historical stories to write about. Sometimes just a sentence would lead me to the newspaper where a major story had developed and later that led me to write my story. On July 10, 1878 the little sentence said something about the anniversary of the largest distillery in our history had opened. I looked into that and wrote a feature story about the Kidd, Francis and Company that was located here in Peoria down by the river. It turns out it was indeed the largest distillery in the world and believe me it employed a huge number of local workers. Peoria lost a sizeable number of big manufacturing companies, distilleries and breweries over the years and now we here in Peoria fear the loss of Caterpillar. We all know about the old saying that history repeats itself but it also reveals that the people in Peoria are a resilient bunch of folks and have been over the years.
– Norman V. Kelly