Friday, June 19, 2015

Old Settlers Association

OLD SETTLERS ASSOCIATION NORMAN V. KELLY We have quite a few companies here in town that has been around at least 100 years and many of them are still thriving quite well. During Prohibition for some obvious reasons a lot of local Service Clubs formed and they too are still alive and kicking. Now Peoria became a city in 1845 and one group that began here in Peoria on July 4, 1867 was the Old Settlers Association who had its first meeting and from that brief get together in the Peoria County Courthouse The Old Settlers Association was formed. There were twenty-two original signers of the Constitution they agreed upon that day. However over the months hundred more signed up including the very first original seven men that permanently settled here in our area in 1819 and led by Josiah Fulton. The dues were to be a whopping one dollar a year and for the life of me I cannot see any written proof that they were ever raised. Actually they had a rather long winded title which was The Old Settlers’ Union of Peoria and Vicinity. This group became an association to honor and remember all the citizens who resided here in 1835 the very year that Peoria was incorporated into a Town. Mr. John Hamlin presided and the basic idea was presented to the group of twenty-two men present at the old courthouse. Thus began this remarkable association that built three cabins and a large stone monument as the group began to flourish and continue their long lasting organization that pretty much used the Glen Oak Park as their meeting place. Basically it was an annual picnic, meeting place and annual reunion of old friends that rarely saw each other at all except for the annual picnic they held to renew old friendships and meet new friends. They had a few rules as to who was eligible to become a member. Mainly the applicant had to be of good moral character and was a citizen that had lived in Illinois at least on or before 1935. They further stated that an applicant had to have lived here in Peoria County during the last ten years. The charter members at that first meeting amounted to twenty two members. John Hamlin became its first president and among the group were men that would eventually guide and lead this group for years to come bettering this community as they went along.
c. 1912

Lake at Glen Oak Park c. 1912
As the group grew into a more sociable, a more party-like group turned the one day a year into a day that thousands of folks looked forward to. Naturally the ladies took over the food aspect of the picnic as all kinds of competitive games were formed and in the early evening ‘Old Fashioned Dances’ were held as the day long activities kept every one happily busy. The original meeting place was where the zoo area is located today and just down the road was the small lake that still exists to this day. Horse drawn teams were parked among the shade trees, and folks came from all over the State of Illinois for the festival. The old men would get situated under the trees, talking of farming and the Civil War which was still a topic of interest. As the years changed our history there was always some major topic to discuses while the children played and the wives gathered to make sure there was plenty of food for everyone. Beginning in the early 1930’s yet another Abe Lincoln replica cabin was dedicated. They built it as closely to the original plans as possible. The cabin was to replicate the birth cabin of Mr. Lincoln, and all the labor and supplies were donated within the group itself: many of the members belonged to most of the local unions. From Stone cutters, carpenters and experts of all kind they worked together to build the cabin that drew folks from all over the State of Illinois to marvel at the workmanship and to discuss the popular Civil War President. For you that may have forgotten, the original cabin of Abe’s birth was in Hodgenville, Kentucky, circa 1809. On this day in 1930 past president of the Old Settlers, Historian and early Settler, Ernest East gave the dedication speech. I believe that the third and final cabin was dedicated on August 1, 1959. Each new cabin was begun with the demolition of the previous cabin as it grew old and unsafe. The builders stuck pretty much to the original plan, building the cabin seventeen feet long by thirteen feet and eleven logs high. The roof was shingle, which they called ‘Shakes.’ There was the front door, five foot eight and a space hone out for the fireplace. There was one two foot square window with the rest of the walls having no open spaces at all. Unlike Lincoln’s home, which had a dirt floor, the Settlers made the floor from gravel and a smooth concrete surface. As far as I can ascertain the three cabins were built during 1893, 1927 and finally in 1959. THE STONE MONUMENT Way back in 1812 President John A Bush suggested that the Old Settlers build a Stone Monument very close to the cabin and a discussion about the monument went on for several years. Sadly most of the men that originally planned the monument died and it was not until October 9, 1930 that the first stone was put into place and the shaft was not competed until November 15, 1930, On December 5, 1930 the Old Settlers Stone Monument was finally completed and dedicated. The site of the old cabin and the fresh new monument was a tourist attraction for decades and was even refurbished in the 1980’s. All the stones, in some cases boulders were collected from many Townships n the area. In all Just over 15,000 were part of the monument while thousands more were used for the foundation. The old monument can still be seen inside the ZOO compound over at Glen Oak Park. I have not seen it in years but it is still there. I wonder if it’s worth restoring? I used to know a lot of members of the Old Settlers group but sadly most of them are no longer with us. It certainly is part of Peoria’s history and I could have written 5,000 words about it, but magazine space is limited. At one time it was the oldest man made monument we had and it drew thousands of folks to the park over the years. Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria Historian, Author and true-crime writer. Norm is a monthly contributor to ASO.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


I was born here in Peoria in 1932 and thought that I would tell you what was going on here in our old river city. Prohibition was still going on, but by now it was old hat, and our soft drink parlors were all most nonexistent. Through the thirteen years of Prohibition Peoria managed to have all the whiskey they could possibly drink. The Great Depression was hurting many Peorians and life was not very easy here for many people. However, some folks made a lot of money during Prohibition and the depression so I called these two things the ‘Destructive Duo.’ When I was born I was the ninth child, wow, can you imagine that? How we got fed and housed is still a mystery to me. The good news, or rumor, or just plain hope was the FDR would repeal Prohibition and our mighty distilleries and breweries would open up and bring jobs back to Peoria, Illinois. History soon revealed that to be true. By 1935 Hiram Walker opened the largest distillery in the world here, and we were on our way back to the top. The jobs the building of that distillery created was like a gift from Heaven, I can assure you of that.
The local taverns were mostly out of the Soft Drink Parlor business and beginning to come to life as saloons and taverns. By April of 1933 they were open and by December of 1933 whiskey was being made and sold here just like in the ‘Good Old Days.’ Peoria was back on top and since gambling had gotten a very strong hold on downtown Peoria, Illinois, especially during Prohibition. It became much more entrenched in our local culture and of course grew as money began to jingle in a lot of pockets with the new jobs in the revised and revitalized ‘booze business.’
In early 1930 Peoria had a rash of kidnappings, mainly of rich gambling guys, but ‘gangsters’ also kidnapped Dr. Parker who was a Peoria dentist, and not a very wealthy one at all. His disappearance upset a lot of Peorians because of his occupation, you know, a dentist. We were used to trouble between the gamblers and the thugs, but the professional men and women had been pretty safe throughout our history. Kidnappings and bombings and threats of violence belonged among the local hoodlums. The kidnappers kept the good doctor for 18 days and all during that time the folks in Peoria were talking about Dr. Parker and expecting him to “Turn up dead or drowned in the river.” Not true: he simply walked back home across the bridge from East Peoria to Peoria. Later a jury convicted 12 people, including some family members and most of them from East Peoria, Illinois. A few of them were sentenced to forty-five years. It sure put a dent in the myth that gangsters were behind all the Peoria kidnappings.
Radio was our saving grace here In Peoria, Illinois with so many great shows, including comedy, mystery and a lot of folks like George and Gracie Allen and Peorians ‘Fibber McGee and Molly and Charles Correll. All those folks became household names later on in their careers. Music kept a lot of Peorians going, and dancing was very popular in Peoria. Songs like, Night and Day, I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, How Deep is The Ocean, Tiger Rag, 42nd. Street, and You Are getting To Be A Habit With me. Boogie Woogie was in and folks were dancing the “Big Apple” Peorians lit their ‘Fags’ with a ZIPPO lighter and eating MOUNDS, a popular candy bar. Open cars and touring cars were in and you could buy a Hupmobile for $795.00.
Chief Coy a local celebrity and strongman entertained the folks downtown by pulling automobiles along the streets by his teeth and tearing thick telephones books in half with his bare hands. The Annual Fall Festival was in Peoria and an estimated 60,000 people attended the festivities. The unfinished Cedar Street Bridge is attracting folks with suicide on their minds and is dubbed ‘Lover’s Leap.’ There are some folks in town that are very depressed, jobless and with little hope. Here is just a sample of one that the local newspapers wrote about a man that shot himself to death. Mr. Allen left a note telling folks that he was just tired of the way things were going here in town.
Homer Ahrends is our new mayor, nothing really happened while he was in as far as the city went, but it still was a great time to have lived here. Later, Ahrends would step off the curb into the street and was hit by a car. The driver of the car was a member of the city council. Billy Sunday is in town telling his followers what a great success Prohibition has been. Most people laugh out loud when they heard his idiotic statements. Over a one month period Peorians are scared to death of bombs that have been going off around town. The sheriff tells folks that it is “Just a scare tactic among gamblers and local thugs and no one will be injured.” He was right. Income Tax passed in Illinois here in October of 1932 and of course folks griped to high heaven, but the truth is that very few people had a job that paid them enough to worry very much about ‘income’ taxes. Lucky Strike has a big ad in the local newspapers telling folks that they have a filter that will stop all impurities from entering the smoker’s lungs. So…at least we had that going for us.
President Hoover makes a stop here in Peoria and thousands rushed down to greet him. All the hopes, prayers and rumors helped Roosevelt become President and it looks like most of Peoria rejoices in that fact. They are certain that FDR will appeal Prohibition. They were right and In April 1932 beer is the first to get back into production, less alcohol, but it helps and by December of 1933 good old Peoria whiskey back. Hiram Walker announced that they will build the largest distillery here in Peoria, Illinois and on July 4, 1935, 70,000 people visited the open house and Peoria is back on its feet once again. In 1932 Bradley Park is opened and soon Bradley Golf Course is named Newman Golf Course. Over on Sheridan Road they were building Buehler Home and life iwas good here in good old Peoria, Illinois. I stayed in diapers from April 24, 1932, until WW 11 began, but that is a different story for another time. Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria Historian and author and a monthly contributor to ADVENTURE SPORTS OUTDDORS.