The Peoria Automobile Club
by Norman V. Kelly
Peoria, Illinois has many clubs and organizations today, but that tradition started far in the past. Members passionately promote the things they love and folks flock to our city to enjoy them. There were several horse clubs, bicycle clubs, boating clubs and literally dozens of other local clubs that were branches of National clubs and were highly attended here in Peoria.
I thought I would start with the huge motor fraternity that did so very much to promote the use of the automobile and spent time and money on promoting better and safer roadways in this area. Actually they were founded here in 1912 and the following year they leased land seventeen miles up the river from Peoria to build a beautiful and functional clubhouse. At the time it was the Shore Acres Park and Club House. This area along the river was part of 54 acres of a popular picnic area called The Columbia Park. The initial land the club people leased was 2.2 acres and soon went by the name Peoria Automobile Club. It was opened and dedicated on September 6, 1915. The first President was W.E. Johnston, and John Bontges the first Vice-President of the newly formed auto club. The final costs of the building designed and built by Hotchkiss and Harris was in the vicinity of $30,000.00, including the formal boulevard. The club was a gleaming white, stately mansion indeed, and folks flocked to get a glimpse of the club and walk the pathways along the river.
The club house was a large building in Classical Revival style and given the address of 100 Park Boulevard, Chillicothe, Illinois. The front entrance was a beautiful sculptured flower area on the edge of a magnificent broad boulevard that led to the front entrance of the building. There were plenty of parking spaces for the automobiles that flocked there from all over the area for years. Folks out for a Sunday horse and buggy ride pulled in to marvel at the new contraptions with such names as Glide, Packard, Winston, Chandler and Duisenberg. The Corinthian-style columns gave the building a mansion-like look, but were replaced in 1955 by box-style columns due to some structural flaws. From the very first day the club made sure that one of their mottos was “Good Roads.” I wonder if it surprises you that by 1900 there were 8,000 automobiles registered in the United States, but only 600 of those were registered in Illinois. By 1915, with support like Peoria’s Automobile Club that were spread across the United States more than two million cars were registered including the 174,000 from Illinois.
Although the automobile was the center piece for the members they had many other activities for members as well and the place became a special area for picnics and outdoor fun of all kinds. The amenities included a swimming pool and by the 1940s a golf course was part of the property along with tennis courts and lawn games. The club was 55 feet wide and just over 100 feet long with an elegant four two-story supporting columns. The ball room featured spectacular murals and huge brass and wood chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings. The long full length porch where meals were served was a favorite of all the members and guests. The Club became a social Mecca for all types of dances and functions since the place was available to rent out to the public. The income from the rentals helped the maintenance costs to stay within the club’s budget. Available were meeting rooms, a gorgeous ballroom, as well as private dining rooms for private parties. There were also several sleeping rooms available for special occasions. The double fireplaces highlighted the main meeting room, and were the site of many weddings over the years. The club member championed the automobile and the building of new roads promoted the club and brought hundreds of new members into the club as the popularity of the automobile grew. The local club lobbied Springfield and had numerous fund raisers to spotlight the dangerous roads that were being used here in our area. The auto club joined forces with the powerful bicycle clubs and were successful in getting funds from the state to improve roads and bicycle paths for local use. The groups were well organized and became a political force to reckon with which resulted in better roadways for everyone across the United States. The Peoria Auto Club flourished through the innovative and passionate members and officers from 1915 until it closed its doors in 1935.
The truth is they were very successful, but the novelty of the automobile wearing off becoming commonplace set in motion the decline of the club. As the attendance dropped the auto club was renamed the Peoria North Shore Country Club and most folks belonged to the club to swim and play golf. The Club was still a beautiful gathering place but folks had other places to go and other things to do. As a result the Peoria Automobile Club declared bankruptcy in 1935. The property and the buildings were purchased by Mr. Frank Myers in 1939. He named it Shore Acres and ran it as a recreational Park.
In 1945 a colorful man, some considered a character bought the building and grounds. His name was BoBo Stone and he had different ideas for the place. It was considered nothing less than a Bordello shortly after he took over ownership of the place. There were a lot of other names connected with Stone’s place and I will leave it at that. I remember seeing it when I was a kid and my uncles who were called The Peoria Ramblers played and sang there on occasions. The place was the center of a lot of bawdy talk during that time and just after WW11. The place closed in 1948.
After 1948 the Chillicothe Park District regained control over the property and later installed their offices within the building. They maintained the swimming pool and added baseball diamonds, playgrounds, basketball courts and a beautiful river walkway. The park board took advantage of the roadway that ran past the building that had been obtained by the efforts of the Auto Club Members way back when it was called the Peoria to Henry Road. In all efforts by the clubs all over America resulted in 854,000 miles of improved roads in the United States.
On September 12, 2015, the nice folks in Chillicothe, Illinois had a great celebration centering around the 100-year-old Peoria Automobile Club. They celebrated from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. with an antique car show, wonderful food, music and a tour of the incredible building.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria Historian and author. firstname.lastname@example.org