Monday, December 21, 2009

1918: It's Over Over There



It was a glorious day here in Peoria, Illinois when news that the War To End All Wars was finally over. Our local boys marched off to war after the United States declared war on Germany that bleak day of April 6, 1917. Peoria city and county sent 5,500 of our finest men to ‘Fight the Hun,’ and now they would be coming home. Sadly not all of them returned since 211 were killed fighting for freedom.

It was 1:52 A.M. November 11, 1918 when the local newsrooms first received the incredible news. They were skeptical since THE STAR printed prematurely that the war had ended a few days earlier. It was a hoax and the newspaper owners apologized and sent a check for $375.00 to the local Red Cross. Was it true this time?

Indeed it was and as the newsmen called home the word spread all over the city. Even before dawn Peorians were milling about the city hall and the courthouse greeting folks with hugs and handshakes. As soon as the streetcars began running people came by the hundreds. Most of them had something to ring, bang on or honk. A few of the stores were inundated as folks came in looking for noisemakers.

There was pandemonium in the streets within an hour and more and more people flocked downtown. They walked, they ran, they rode anything that had wheels to Downtown Peoria. Long parades snaked through the streets with folks holding hands and yelling at the top of their lungs. Organized bands from all over met downtown, formed up and went marching off with patriotic music filling the entire downtown area. Excited revelers fell in behind them in joyous celebration as the throngs of people grew.

At 7:30 in the morning the mayor opened up the city hall and had a proclamation tacked to the front door. He ordered all taverns and stores to close by noon and requested that all Peorians come on downtown. The streets were now jammed packed with cars stopped on every street. Folks climbed on them banging on the roofs and honking horns. The military bands were now in full swing as the merriment reached its peak. Right at noon every church anywhere near the downtown area began to ring their bells, as marchers yelled even louder, banging on garbage cans, toy drums and whatever else they could find. From the taller buildings downtown folks threw everything they could get their hands on down upon the delighted folks walking below.

Many folks surrounded the churches joining hands, bowing their heads in thanks for the glorious peace they were celebrating. Of course no politician in his right mind was going to pass up this opportunity to speak. At the courthouse Woodruff spoke and invited everyone to attend the parties at the Coliseum and the Shrine Mosque. Finally as they day wore on folks began to make their way to these places, mainly to find a place to sit down.

As the older people headed to the Shrine and the Coliseum the younger ones, some fueled by alcohol, continued the frenzy in the street.
Still, it was a happy crowd, and police reported very few incidents that needed their control. Around midnight, the scene of the wild demonstration was pretty desolate. The wind blew the confetti and toilet paper around the empty streets of Downtown Peoria, Illinois. World War 1 was over and Peoria was looking forward to getting its sons back home.

What was coming down the pike for Peoria was the closing of its breweries, distilleries, saloons and taverns. But that’s another story for another day.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Home In El Vista

My Home In El Vista


Norman V. Kelly

People like to talk about and listen to stories of the Roaring Twenties here in Peoria, Illinois. Truth is they are really interested in booze, speakeasies, gangsters, flappers and our wild nightlife. After all, I guess Roaring Twenties has to have something to do with booze and getting illegally drunk…you think?

I have written a lot of those stories and I can tell you they are fun to think about. Truth is, that here in Peoria during the 13 years of actual Prohibition, we were a lot tamer as a city than most people realize. Don’t get me wrong, this was the hot spot to be, don’t ever doubt that.

I think the biggest myth that I have heard over the past 28 years that I researched Peoria history were the stories about speakeasies. You see the truth is we didn’t even have any here in town. I can hear the readers of this article calling me an uninformed fool…and a lot worse I am sure. The fact is that those readers that know all about speakeasies here in town got all that information from their father’s and grandfathers. Truth is…our dad’s and grandpas were supposed to tell us stories…and they did. How many folks living here today were alive in 1920 and old enough to even know what rotgut whiskey or bootlegging was let along have knowledge of a speakeasy? Truth is what the average ‘oldster’ knows about speakeasies he or she learned watching the movies. I did it the hard and tedious way…by researching the printed word. Remember I am talking about Peoria, Illinois…understand that. My point being if you were twenty in 1920 I have this sneaky suspicion that you have checked off this mortal coil by now. That is, of course, unless you can still tell us lies at age 109.

Actually Prohibition in Peoria began in September of 1917 here in Peoria when the Lever Act shut down all of our distilleries and breweries. This phony Conservation Act, perpetrated by the Temperance people led by Wayne Birdwell Wheeler cost this town a ton of jobs. The ACT forbid the use of foodstuffs to make alcoholic products…it was that simple. It was all phony because when WW1 began in April of 1917, we did not need to conserve. America’s farmers could easily feed America and its troops, but that did not stop the DRYS. We lost those distilleries and breweries but at least the taverns stayed open…that is until January 16, 1920.

I have pretty much covered the effect of Prohibition in other stories so I thought that I would just fill you in on what it was like here during the first two years of Prohibition. Maybe some statistics are boring, but remember this is your town, and believe me the folks here, some of them your relatives, were far from being bored, I can tell you that.


Peoria is now at the ripe old age of seventy-five, a sturdy, growing young lady to say the least. Our population was 76,121 souls by then and we had a bustling, extremely busy downtown area that encompassed a massive nine square miles. Think of that, only nine square miles. To the east of us was Averyville just a small town of its own with 5,000 citizens all wanting to stay out of the Peoria city limits. A vicious battle, both legal and illegal finally brought them under our rule by 1927, ratified by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1926. Across the river was East Peoria and they sure as hell did not want to ‘Come join us.’ To the west was proud Bartonville, and just northwest of us was independent West Peoria. Up north of us was the Village of Peoria Heights, and they, like all the rest did not want to be part of our city limits.


Sure our mayors and our aldermen wanted Peoria to expand, and they tried like hell to get the job done. But…in the end we grew a bit up to 9.3 square miles within the city limits, but only slowly did we expand our limits. Never I might add did we get any of those villages I mentioned except Averyville. Still our downtown grew with leaps and bounds and made us into a ‘Gem on the prairie,” and a “Pearl along the Illinois River.”

Not to worry, Peoria was a strong-minded little town and irrespective of our space limitations we decided to grow anyway…and that is what we did. Jobs and more jobs is the secret to any town’s success and thankfully for us, the war presented an opportunity for a lot of jobs here in town. Even though initially we lost the brewery jobs and the jobs connected with the taverns. However we had well over 200 small manufacturing companies in town that produced almost 1000 different products. Many of those companies began making wartime products from tractors to gloves, and those men that needed a job found one.

Once the war began and our 5,500 men went off to ‘Fight the Hun,’ an awful lot of other men and their families moved into Peoria. That helped our growth and during the first ten years of Prohibition just over 18,000 people moved within our city limits. Of course our county grew as well, swelling our ranks within a ten-mile area to just over 105,000 people. Wow…from a little trading village to that number of folks was indeed amazing indeed.


Of course we can trace our growth to booze and beer, but the fact that we lived in marvelous farming country cannot be underplayed. Truth is farming is just not much fun to read about. Our stockyards grew as a result of our railroads, and the fourteen train companies that served this city round the clock help this city immensely. Our truck terminals, auto producers, and bike manufacturers also played a major part in our growth. Our incredible boat landing areas served us since 1845 and once the paddle wheels gave way to barges, the growth increased. All of this was in full swing in 1920 only to grow as the decade raced on.

Most people want me to talk about gangsters and prostitutes, which were certainly part of our history as was gambling. In 1920 gambling really took hold here and by the end of the Roaring Twenties it was deeply entrenched in our downtown life. It continued to grow reaching its peak during WW11. Every year the number of taverns grew but came to a screeching halt that miserable day, January 16, 1920 when the dark cloud of Prohibition raced over our forty-eight states. It was a dubious gift from the religious folks that were convinced that the root of all evil was alcohol. What resulted was thirteen years of the most vicious, dangerous, violent era ever know to the United States, excluding our Civil War, of course.


Ask anyone that is at least seventy that lived in Peoria or say within 50 miles or so what they thought of Peoria in the 40’s. Go ahead ask them, truth is you would really have to be at least eighty today to have experienced this town’s nightlife .But…that would not stop the younger ones from telling you handed down stories of Peoria’s gambling, gangster and bawdy past. Think of it, I was born in 1932, making me all of nine when the war broke out. Now how much do you think I really know or knew about what when on downtown dduring the war. Get my meaning. For twenty-eight years I interviwed aat least a hundred ‘older folks,’ and from them I got the real answers. After that I started in 1846 simply reading every printed word about our town. As for the crimes and murders I also read police reports, coroner’s reports and of course the newspaper articles. Even at that, I am only as accurate as the information I gathered. Take a person who is repeating a story from his or her dad or grandfather…which is apt to be more accurate?

My point is Peoria’s reputation today is nothing but silly stories passed on by a lot of folks that believe what they were told. I found a red line of truth in most of the stories but most of them were just perpetuated myths. Oh, they were entertaining but most of it was just gossip. Always…I might add, about murders, gambling and gangsters. As to our real history…nobody talked about it, that’s where we so-called historians come in…well, some of us.