By Norman V. Kelly

I have written a lot of Peoria stories that I was personally aware of like the one I am telling you about today. It was April 24, 1948, the day that I became sixteen years old and wore myself out watching this spectacle unfold. It all began that cool, windy Saturday morning way out in the boondocks. I lived in El Vista at the time, and after we got a ride to the old Dixie Café, we walked the rest of the way to a place they called Exposition Gardens. Every Peorian knows where that is but way back in the ‘olden days,’ it was something new and exciting. Anyone that watched the birth of Expo Gardens will never forget that sensational achievement.

We walked up just as the opening ceremonies started when Representative Everett Dirksen, a ton of local businessmen, Mayor Triebel and local dignitaries headed up by General Raymond A. Wheeler raised the flag and made a few remarks. Some fireworks were fired off and quickly one of the biggest, most exciting earthmoving shows in the United States began. There had never been anything like it in America and it all happened right here in Peoria, Illinois.

I wonder if you can imagine the roar of 150 earthmoving machines of every size and shape, and hundreds of skilled volunteers digging and shoveling all at the same time? Add to that the dozen or so small airplanes carrying photographers and spectators circling above, as the fuel and water trucks zipped about the 160 acres of land. It was like a giant circus including the seven tents that housed the mess tent and makeshift offices off to one side. All of this was a massive effort by folks that lived in the Heart of Illinois, and commanded by Lt. General Raymond A. Wheeler. What a spectacle, and it all started with a dream and five years of planning. It was truly amazing.
Never in America’s history had so many citizens engaged in a project like Exposition Gardens, and the volunteers from unions of every description offered their equipment, skills, time and labor to complete it within the forty-eight hours they were allowed. They all met out there and in short order they began to convert the grassy meadowlands into Peoria’s dream come true. A civic center, some folks called it, and the plans were all aimed at bringing people together.
My friends and I expected to get up real close to toss a few dirt clogs, maybe sneak a sandwich or a Coke, you know…the usual. Well they had closed off Northmoor Road and a total of 65 state troopers handled what little traffic they allowed through…including us. Still, we walked around and spent the day watching history in the making. The work went on in six-hour shifts, into the evening and through the night. They stopped on Sunday for twenty minutes to attend outdoor religious services, and the mighty roar began again.

The Exposition Dream
Edgar K. Bill let the public know about the dream that he and his friends had been talking about for a few years in a brochure entitled Exposition Gardens, dated July 10, 1946. By then they had collected $40,000 and hoped that the local citizens would help out and help they did. Eventually over 24,000 people bought into the plan with donations and the dream became a reality. One hundred and sixty acres were purchased from Walter Poppen and the massive undertaking to turn the empty land into a cultural and entertainment center for the folks in the Heart Of Illinois began.

There were so many local leaders from at least three counties involved in the fund raising and planning of this dream that naming them would be impossible. But I can tell you it was a giant, community effort and once the non-profit organization was formed, the project got off the drawing board and on to the land we now know as Exposition Gardens.

So on April 24, 2010 the grand old lady will turn 62 leaving behind it a history of entertainment, combined with civic and community pride that carried her through some very rough financial times. Mistakes were made, some projects were foolish, but still Expo prevailed. Eighty acres were sold to make room for Richwoods High School, and later the United States Army Reserve center was built. Still, the integrity of the land was never lost, and now the Heart Of Illinois Fair is proud to call Exposition Gardens its home. To this day Exposition Gardens sustains itself through the years with many different types of events, still living the dream of bringing people together. Happy Birthday dear old lady, may you see many, many more. When the time comes, and that may be soon to buy you a new outfit, let’s hope today’s Peorian responds like those civic minded folks did way back in the 1940’s.

Editor’s Note: Norm is a true Peoria Historian.