Saturday, December 24, 2011

Our Most Famous Citizen



It would be interesting to ask Peorians, whom, in their opinion, was Peoria’s most famous citizen? The answer would reflect the age of the person guessing, you think? Now I am talking 1845 to the present time. The guesses would vary from Fibber McGee and Molly, to Amos and Andy, to Richard Pryor to Dan Fogelberg, and quite a few others most folks have never even heard about. My choice, based on his incredible life would be Robert Green Ingersoll. For those few readers that know the name, all they could tell you was that he was a famous agnostic or even an atheist. So how could a guy like that be Peoria’s most famous citizen? Well…I’m glad you asked.

Born in Dresden, New York in 1833, he went on to be a teacher and finally a lawyer. He was known as the greatest orator of our time, and easily compared to Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster. He was referred to as the great infidel and the great agnostic, but to many he was much, much more. He came to Peoria, Illinois in 1857, remaining here until the middle of 1877. He was also the Attorney General of Illinois, 1867-1868. Ingersoll was a local hero here in Peoria during the Civil War. He gave himself the rank of Colonel, and organized a regiment of cavalry. The new colonel gathered his men out at Camp Lyons, where we now call Glen Oak Park. There is a monument there on Prospect Road to commemorate the setting. Colonel Ingersoll was captured during a battle with the Confederate Army but released, and came home to Peoria a hero.

The great man practiced law with his brother Eben, and became nationally famous when he nominated James B. Blaine for president at the Republican Convention in 1876. For two full decades after that he was known as “The premier orator of the nation.” He spoke on many subjects, but religion was the subject people flocked to hear. Here is what he said about religion. “Christianity was good when it taught the beauty of love and the kindness in man. It was bad when it carried a message of eternal grief and damnation.”
Known as a seeker of the truth, Ingersoll fought for free thinking and free speech. He confronted religious leaders pleading with them to seek the truth as well. They, on the other hand, looked upon him in many cases as the Devil incarnate. All anyone has to do is go to our local library and learn the truth of this most honorable, independent thinker, Peoria’s most famous citizen. Although he was a man of the world, he was proud of his connection with Peoria, Illinois.


On October 28, 1911 a large crowd gathered at Glen Oak Park to dedicate the Ingersoll Statue
and offer it as a gift to all Peorians. It was Eugene Baldwin, founder of The Peoria Star that labored long and hard to bring the Frederick Triebel monument to Peoria, Illinois. Baldwin opened the ceremonies by telling the crowd that they were there to “Honor the great apostle of liberty.” The statue stands to this day, even though vandals tipped it over in 1950 and during the war there was talk of melting it down for the war effort. It is still there, staring out over the beautiful park drive, not far from Woodruff High School.

Some quotes from the man himself. “The word of God is the creation we behold.” Billed as one of the world’s free thinkers, he said, “I have never denied the immortality of man. I have simply said, ‘I do not know.’ Hundreds of stories were written about Ingersoll, and during the ceremonies yearly in front of the statue, speakers reminded folks of the greatness of Robert Ingersoll. Baldwin said,
“He uttered nothing base. But his heart was all aglow for liberty, for freedom. For the emancipation of the mind and the redemption of the soul.”

Colonel Ingersoll came home to tell of his capture by the ‘Sesesh’, a word coined from secession during the Civil War. He then went on to practice law here in Peoria, which included some famous and important cases throughout the United States. Robert Ingersoll lived by his creed: “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

Ingersoll remained in Peoria until 1877 when he moved to Washington D.C., then on to New York,
where he died in 1899. Mark Twain said of Robert Green Ingersoll, after hearing the orator speak, “It was the supreme combination of English words that was ever put together since the world began.” In 1932 the ashes of Ingersoll were reburied with honors in the Arlington National Cemetery.
One biographer summed up Ingersoll’s speaking technique as follows: “The language of Shakespeare,
the tenderness of Burns.” Robert Ingersoll lived and worked right here in Peoria, Illinois, bringing fame to himself, and honor to this city. Gone now for so many, many years, his words still ring true. Robert Ingersoll was a great American, a loyal patriot and he was proud to call Peoria his home.


Here in Peoria, Illinois the news of the death of Ebon Clark Ingersoll, Robert’s brother and law partner reached the city here on June 3, 1879. Ebon was Peoria’s Congressional Representative after the Civil War, and a man admired locally in his own right. Robert Ingersoll delivered the funeral oration and as usual his words were considered among the finest ever spoken by any man in our history.
“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities.
We strive in vain to look upon the heights. We cry aloud and the only answer
is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead
there comes no word; but in the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening
can hear the rustling of a wing.

He who sleeps here, when dying, mistaking the approach of death with the return
of health, whispered with his last breath: ‘I am better now.’

Let us believe, in spite of doubt and dogmas, of fears and tears, that these dear
words are true of all the countless dead.”

As a historian of Peoria history I am often amazed at how truly wonderful this city was, from its beginnings as a trading post, to its peak as a small, cosmopolitan city in the heart of this great nation.
I am proud of the people that have lived here all or most of their lives and went on to fame, fortune and influence throughout this nation and the world. They were all influenced by what they saw and learned here in the heart of Illinois. Robert Ingersoll was just one of them.

Editor’s Note: Norm is a lifelong Peorian and author of ten books on its history.

How Peoria Grew

Ever wonder why Peoria, Illinois grew head and shoulders above all the other towns and village that were located along the Illinois River? Way back in 1845 when Peoria became a city all those other towns from Joliet, Ottawa, Chillicothe, Lacon and all the rest wanted to grow. Why did Peoria leave them in the dust? Why us?

A one-word answer could simply be whiskey. That’s right, alcohol, beer, good old Peoria whiskey. After all, although the numbers varied we had as many as 8 breweries here at one time or the other and 17 distilleries. Most of the time the largest distillery of the time was right here in River City. I’ve heard some so-called historians say they located here because of the ‘water.’ Well, hell, the other towns had water…after all we are talking about the Illinois River. I can imagine that all of those towns would have given most anything just to have one brewery…one distillery, but we seemed to have them all. Pekin always seemed to have one…but they are small now and they never grew anywhere near the proportions that we did.

Peoria was just another trading village like so many others. We have a colorful history of French, English and Indian influence here but I fail to see how that helped us in our growth. What did the Peoria Indians ever do for us? Nothing. The Peoria tribe was booted out of here in 1720 by another tribe of Indians and in early 1800 they were driven from the state. They ended up in Kansas and Oklahoma and I fail to see where the history people in our town consider the Peoria Indian our heritage. What a joke. They make a big deal out of our so-called full-blooded Peoria Indian Chief…George Finley. What a joke. He was never in Peoria and he was NEVER a full- blooded Peoria Indian. The Peoria Indian is our namesake. How did they figure in Peoria’s heritage? That’s just the local historical folks and the chamber of commerce at work attracting visitors to bask in “Our great Indian heritage.”


Number One: So the number one reason for our growth was the distillery.
One by one those distilleries were set up here for many reasons. The expansive river waterway, of course, helped us. Cheap and plentiful labor played a big role and the large number of farmers in Peoria County and surrounding counties helped us a great deal. The bountiful crops that supplied the distillery’s needs were available throughout our history. Peoria alone is 626 square miles and I think we are close to 28 miles wide. Just think of it all those farms, and all that crop production, and here in town a ready and eager market. Remember, all those farmers had about 72 years of selling everything they could grow to Peorians, our breweries and distilleries and as our population grew, the farmer flourished. They managed to survive because of the incredible success of Peoria, Illinois and a lot of back breaking hard work.

By 1850 Peoria had just over 6,000 people living within the city limits, which included only a little over one square mile..

So we have the distillery, the brewery, and the farm. Three ingredients for growth…believe me, it was a wonderful combination. Friendship played a major role in bringing in other distilleries to our area. Aggressive mayors and political representatives sold the idea to these companies and they bought it. In plain old Peoria jargon…we wanted them here…and they came.

Also…by 1917 when Woodrow Wilson enacted a temporary law…which ended up being permanent…THE WARTIME PROHIBBITION ACT…
There were already 20 states in the Union that were already DRY. Now where would you want to set up a distillery that was just kicked out of say…Iowa for example. You bet you would move it to a wet state and a city that welcomed you with open arms…namely Peoria, Illinois. So there were many reasons they came here…don’t buy into that phony ‘water’ theory the historians try to sell.

So here are the reasons again why Peoria grew.

l. Distilleries . 2. Breweries. 3. Farms. 4. Population growth, which meant job seekers. Job seekers in abundance meant that the industries would gather where the workers were plentiful and eager to gain employment. The more workers the cheaper the product is to produce. 5. Horses and Livery Stables. 6. Great waterway for Steamboats, paddleboats and other river craft. 7. We had railroads here in Peoria, Illinois. At one time we had 14 RR companies in and out of Peoria. 8. Peoria had a huge stockyard that flourished here in Peoria from 1842 until 1967. Early on we led the nation in livestock processing. It was said to have been a 26 million dollar annual business early on in our history and all it did was grow.

HORSES. We had 15 huge livery stables here in Peoria at one time and horses were KINGS. Peoria had a national and international history for breeding, selling and racing of horses. Peoria was loaded with thoroughbreds, trotters and pacers and lots of riding and workhorses. This was a massive business in Peoria, Illinois. All of that activity created jobs, which certainly helped the farmer and the city dweller as well. The farm business spawned tractor and farming equipment and eventually led to HOLT and then Caterpillar and Letourneau. Avery in Averyville flourished and soon Peoria annexed that town of 5,000 people. It was a battle that did not end until 1928 when the Illinois Supreme court ruled in Peoria’s favor. In Bartonville there was Keystone Steel and Wire Company but Peoria was unable to obtain that area.

All those jobs brought people into our city. During the Prohibition era according to the 1930 census, Peoria grew by 28,848 people and I am talking about the city only. Prohibition and the Wartime Conservation Act hit us hard here in Peoria since all the breweries and distilleries shut down. The next devastating blow was the closing of all of our taverns on January 16, 1920.

Peoria was a city on the grow and it can all be traced to Beer…Booze…Farms…Horses…Railroads…Stockyards, and early on, the
incredible steamboat. That’s how Peoria grew, and I can tell you there is a remarkable history connected within those years.

All that created a downtown that grew by leaps and bounds…hotels, restaurants, theaters and other small businesses popped up like mushrooms in early May. Peoria was the place to be. Located between Saint Louis and Chicago, we were the place to meet. Our Theater history was colorful and extremely active. There truly was no place like Peoria, Illinois.

We always had gambling and other vices, but it really got its hold during Prohibition. A gambling town, bawdy and wild, Peoria was the place that people wanted to visit. We were called a Podunk town, a country bumpkin town and maligned, but through it all we thrived.

We had a gambling, bawdy and even a gangster reputation…most of it more rumor than reality, but we loved to perpetuate it. Peoria, Illinois…meant DOWNTOWN. Once the do-gooders took over the city it simply began to disappear until there was a time when people simply stopped going downtown. Most of the restaurants were gone, along with the businesses…no doctors, nothing. Television pretty much single-handedly shut down our movie theaters and when Sheridan Village opened in March of 1954, that was the beginning of the end. Downtown Peoria, Illinois, is pretty much just a memory to most of us that are in our middle seventies. That’s okay with us, it’s like we have our own Brigadoon. All we have to do is talk about the way it used to be…and the city seems to reappear. It’s all a dream however, and as for me, Peoria will never be the same. Perhaps that is best…after all.