By Norman V. Kelly
Mayor Nelson Edward Woodruff had very little desire to see the world. Most of the trips he made he made under the guise of a fact finding trip. Very early in his life he became a cowboy in Mexico but came back home to take over his father’s ice and fish business. He could be seen all about town going to one function or the other. He was always either running for office, in office, or planning his next political battle. Most of his thinking and planning were done on board his boat. It was called “The Bum Boat,” and it was never in the water. It was just a houseboat up on the river’s edge where he loved to meet with his cronies and even his political enemies.
He spent fifty years living on North Jefferson Street. He did make a drastic move once, however, when he built a house across the street from where he lived. He was a loyal husband and father, having one daughter that he spoiled rather handedly.
1903 was his first term as mayor of Peoria, Illinois and from then on the man was smitten with the office. Of course, those terms at that time were only one year, so preparation to run again seemed to always be the first bit of business. The mayor had two businesses that made him a wealthy man,. Ice making and the fish business kept him busy.
Some of his early achievements were the improvements in the public sanitation and the formation of the public garbage collection system. He spent a lot of his political clout in bringing the Hotel Pere Marquette to Peoria, the Peoria Life Company and the Cedar Street Bridge. Still, he found time to be an active member in Masons, Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows and the Eastern Star Eagles. Of course these were the very basis of his political power and I can tell you that he never neglected any of them.
Twenty-Four years the mayor served, the last term being 1941 through April of 1945. The ‘War Years,’ probably did more to tarnish Woodruff’s reputation than at any other time. It was the year that Bernie Shelton and his brother Carl came to Peoria and gambling reached its peak. Of course we always had gambling and our share of prostitution even before Prohibition, but the war years increased all of it.
It was Mayor Woodruff, who said, “Some vice is bound to exist in every community. Under municipal control and regulations such activities could be required to help defray the costs of civic maintenance and improvement.”
If you truly want to know what Woodruff did as mayor as far as gambling and prostitution were concerned the answer is in that statement. If you want to gamble or have prostitutes then you WILL pay for the privilege. These casinos and taverns as well as madams understood precisely what that meant …and they paid.
Every damn dime of this money that was paid into the city coffers is part of the public record and was often discussed in open arguments at the Tuesday night council meetings.
The members were called aldermen and believe me most Peorians considered these meetings funnier than an old minstrel show with Mayor Woodruff as the Interlocutor.
Woodruff was a champion of and often said that he would “Protect the rights of people and safe guard them.” People called Woodruff a lot of names such as: ‘Little Napoleon”
“The Old Master”, “Old crooked neck” and “Old Ed.”
He cared little what people called him just so they voted him into office. He even left a mayoral race to run for governor, but he never made it to Springfield.
Woodruff often argued and defended his beloved city: “Peoria is one of the best regulated, most orderly cities
as well as the cleanest city in the United States. It is a city in which decent rights are respected.”
Mayor Woodruff spent his time early on as an alderman which put him a leg up on them when it came time to do battle with them. And…battle them he did, believe me. At one stretch as mayor he was elected to six two-year terms in a row. Later he lost an election or two but always bounced back to take over again.
Known for his ‘liberal policies,’ he could speak for policies that did not quite fit into his basic beliefs. What was best for the city and his chances of being elected were his two basic thoughts and for him it worked.
That was the name of the game and Woodruff often told reporters this about jobs. “The boys that can deliver the votes are the boys that get the jobs.” One of his often stated beliefs was this: “I want the people to get 100% value for their taxing dollar.” He stated that he would, “Guard the public morals by strict adherence to the statutes.”
The ‘Woodruff Machine’ was often talked about during his career and to Woodruff it meant that he was able to put together the men…boys as he called them…that could get the vote, appease the masses, and make a good impression. For Woodruff it was always do the job but look forward to the next election. As I told you before his thought was to be the mayor every year until he died. Period…end of statement.
He certainly was not a reformer. He had some very bitter defeats and loved the feeling of winning.
E.N. Woodruff was no scholar, he had a masterful command of the King’s English and could keep the interest of the crowd, and he faced many of them. He went to Peoria grade schools, and stayed at Peoria High School for three years. He took over his father’s business and became a wealthy man. Anyone who thinks he was paid ‘Under The table’ or anywhere else is simply uninformed and thriving on myth. Later in his career the press called him the ‘Woodruff Warrior,’ which he got a kick out of hearing. Speaking of Woodruff, the local high school was named Woodruff after the old warrior. Their nick name was…you guessed it…Warriors. Eckwood Park was named after him and a public works man named Eckley. Woodruff Field was named after him as well, but that name was often changed based on the political wind.
He moved to a new home across the street at 1025 Jefferson. From there he buried his beloved wife. He took wonderful care of his daughter and she was his only heir.
Mayor Triebel took over for Woodruff in May of 1945. He was not a reformer no matter what your grandfather told you. He came into office May 1945 and it was not until September 1946 that he make his famous “No Gambling In Downtown Peoria Speech.” He called Woodruff the “Little Warrior” and respected him as well.
E.N.Woodruff was beloved, respected and admired. He was also hated, despised and criticized… that was our old mayor. I believe a book as long as GONE WITH THE WIND could have been written about the old warrior but alas…we will never again hear his pearls of wisdom. His remarks are part of Peoria’s history and can be found in the old Tuesday Night bouts with the city council located in the history area of the Downtown Library. Rest in peace old fellow… we could use you about now.
Editor’s Note: Norm Kelly is a local historian and author and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org