Peoria: A Bawdy, Lusty Town
by Norman V. Kelly
For twenty-seven years I have researched the bawdy, somewhat seedy side of Peoria, Illinois, and wrote books to perpetuate those stories. I began reading about Peoria from the records of 1845 all the way through 1950, and believe me there is a lot of history within those 105 years. Beside the books I wrote a hundred or so stories that I never tried to publish. The truth is I sought out those bawdy, murderous stories because I was certain that folks would rather read that material than the bright side of Peoria’s history. I thought that I would just pick the year 1913, since it seemed to be a typical year here in our town and fill you in on a bit of historical facts about this great river city. Sorry gangster fans, but I’ll get back to murder and mayhem soon enough.
I was immediately struck by how organized, sophisticated and cosmopolitan our city was way, way back during the 1800’s. Think of it, I believe that there are 32 other towns, villages or cities all along the Illinois River that could have grown into a major city like Peoria, but that never happened. We grew head and shoulders above all the rest and it does not take a historian to tell you that we did that on the shoulders of whiskey and beer. We became known as “The alcohol capital of the world,” and were proud of it. The ‘do-gooders’ put a stop to all that during Prohibition, but they could not stop Peoria’s growth.
Peoria was fortunate to have strong leaders - among them Mayor Woodruff who served the city eleven different times for a total of twenty-four years. A lot of local writers depict the mayor in a bad light but I know better. In 1913 I found the greater Peoria area to have a total of 120,996 souls, with 88,429 of those folks living within the city limits. We had eleven distilleries perking away along the Illinois River, and one of them claimed to be the largest in the world. There were 5 major breweries in town and our railroad system was envied by many large cities. Along with small manufacturers Holt was making what would soon be called Caterpillars and Peoria was a bustling, bawdy town that was still on the grow.
Folks from all over came to Peoria to shop and play. We had theaters and live entertainment that centered around 77 downtown restaurants. Our hotels were among the most luxurious, and a Grand Opera House that was rated among the top most beautiful in the United States opened in 1882. Vaudeville would soon become king in Peoria, and we reveled in being the center of entertainment of all kinds. Farmers had a ready market here in Peoria, and they soon discovered that they could sell every bit of produce they could grow. The breweries and distilleries paid top dollar for their grains, and life was good here in the heart of Illinois.
We had 177 doctors registered here within our city limits, along with dentists and every kind of professional known to mankind. If you could not find what you were looking for here in town then we assumed you did not need it. Would you believe we had 100 music teachers listed in our phone book along with 38 newspapers? That’s right, thirty-eight if you list all of them, irrespective of their size. I cannot imagine what Peoria needed with 366 Notaries, but they were here. We had a dozen shoeshine parlors and 38 shoemakers in town. Want a cigar? We had dozens of retail stores and 44 cigar-makers in town. Do you think Peoria could sustain 78 gardeners or 155 poultry breeders? Well, we did.
Within a twenty-mile circle of Peoria we had 321 saloons, or taverns, bars, saloons, cabarets and dives, but the concentration of them within our city limits was unprecedented. For you religious folks we had well over a hundred churches and 10,000 kids attended our fine schools. There appeared to be a grocery store on every corner, adding up to close to 400 hundred of them. Peoria’s downtown was a busy, busy place indeed and our entire population centered their activities there. The shopping was incredible and folks would have to travel to Saint Louis or Chicago to even come close to the beehive of activity here in town. Streetcars covered every square mile, and crossing the street could be an adventure in and of itself.
Ninety percent of the folks that lived here in 1913 were born in America and we had the most diversified ethnic mix you could ever imagine. Folks here loved their ‘Old country’ foods and drinks and the local taverns flourished.
Peorians were hard working, God-fearing loyal Americans and they loved their country and their town.
Our park system, especially Grand View Drive drew folks from all parts of mid-America, and the weekends found them filled to the seams. Every carnival, circus or traveling show made Peoria a prime destination, and folks flocked to them. There were horse and dog racing, motorcars, and boating during the summer and Peoria welcomed them all. We were a boisterous, bawdy, lusty river town with a hometown flavor. Sure we had our vices, but believe me when I tell you Peoria was a gem… a pearl along the Illinois River.
Editor’s Note: Norm’s books are available in the Peoria Public Library and he welcomes your comments.