By Norman V. Kelly
People like to talk about and listen to stories of the Roaring Twenties here in Peoria, Illinois. Truth is they are really interested in booze, speakeasies, gangsters, flappers and our wild nightlife. After all, I guess Roaring Twenties has to have something to do with booze and getting illegally drunk…you think?
I have written a lot of those stories and I can tell you they are fun to think about. Truth is, that here in Peoria during the 13 years of actual Prohibition, we were a lot tamer as a city than most people realize. Don’t get me wrong, this was the hot spot to be, don’t ever doubt that.
I think the biggest myth that I have heard over the past 28 years that I researched Peoria history were the stories about speakeasies. You see the truth is we didn’t even have any here in town. I can hear the readers of this article calling me an uninformed fool…and a lot worse I am sure. The fact is that those readers that know all about speakeasies here in town got all that information from their fathers and grandfathers. Truth is…our dads and grandpas were supposed to tell us stories…and they did. How many folks living here today were alive in 1920 and old enough to even know what rotgut whiskey or bootlegging was, let alone possess knowledge of a speakeasy? The truth is what the average ‘oldster’ knows about speakeasies he or she learned watching the movies. I did it the hard and tedious way…by researching the printed word. Remember I am talking about Peoria, Illinois…understand that. My point being if you were twenty in 1920, I have this sneaky suspicion that you have checked off this mortal coil by now. That is, of course, unless you can still tell us lies at age 110.
Actually Prohibition in Peoria began in September of 1917 here in Peoria when the Lever Act shut down all of our distilleries and breweries. This phony Conservation Act, perpetrated by the Temperance people led by Wayne Birdwell Wheeler cost this town a ton of jobs. The ACT forbid the use of foodstuffs to make alcoholic products…it was that simple. It was all phony because when WW1 began in April of 1917, we did not need to conserve. America’s farmers could easily feed America and its troops, but that did not stop the DRYS. We lost those distilleries and breweries but at least the taverns stayed open…that is until January 16, 1920.
I have pretty much covered the effect of Prohibition in other stories so I thought that I would just fill you in on what it was like here during the first two years of Prohibition. Maybe some statistics are boring, but remember this is your town, and believe me the folks here, some of them your relatives, were far from being bored, I can tell you that.
The Dawn of 1920
Peoria is now at the ripe old age of seventy-five, a sturdy, growing young lady to say the least. Our population was 76,121 souls by then and we had a bustling, extremely busy downtown area that encompassed a massive 9.1 square miles. Think of that, only nine square miles. To the east of us was Averyville, a small town of 5,000 citizens all wanting to stay out of the Peoria city limits. A vicious battle, both legal and illegal finally brought them under our rule by 1927, ratified by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1926. Across the river sat East Peoria and they sure as heck did not want to ‘Come join us.’ To the west was proud Bartonville, and just northwest of us was independent West Peoria. Up north of us was the Village of Peoria Heights, and they, like all the rest did not want to be part of our city limits.
And So We Grew
Sure our mayors and our aldermen wanted Peoria to expand, and they tried every way they knew to get the job done. But…in the end we grew a bit up to 9.3 square miles within the city limits, but only slowly did we expand our limits. Never, I might add, did we get any of those villages I mentioned except Averyville. Still our downtown grew with leaps and bounds and made us into a ‘Gem on the prairie,” and a “Pearl along the Illinois River.”
Not to worry, Peoria was a strong-minded little town and irrespective of our space limitations we decided to grow anyway…and that is what we did. Jobs and more jobs is the secret to any town’s success and thankfully for us, WWI presented an opportunity for a lot of jobs here in town. Even though initially we lost the brewery jobs and the jobs connected with the taverns. However, we had a lot of small manufacturing companies in town that produced almost 1000 different products. Many of those companies began making wartime products from tractors to gloves, and those men that needed a job found one.
Once the war began and our 5,500 men went off to ‘Fight the Hun,’ an awful lot of other men and their families moved into Peoria. That helped our growth and during the first ten years of Prohibition just over 38,000 people moved within our city limits. Of course our county grew as well, swelling our ranks within a ten-mile area to just over 105,000 people. Wow…from a little trading village to that number of folks was indeed amazing indeed.
Of course we can trace our growth to booze and beer, but the fact that we lived in marvelous farming country cannot be underplayed. Truth is farming is just not much fun to read about. Our stockyards grew as a result of our railroads, and the fourteen train companies that served this city round the clock helped this city immensely. Our truck terminals, auto producers, and bike manufacturers also played a major part in our growth. Our incredible boat landing areas served us since 1845 and once the paddle wheels gave way to barges, the growth increased. All of this was in full swing in 1920 only to grow as the decade raced on.
Most people want me to talk about gangsters and prostitutes, which were certainly part of our history as was gambling. In 1920 gambling really took hold here and by the end of the Roaring Twenties it was deeply entrenched in our downtown life. It continued to grow reaching its peak during WWII. Every year the number of taverns grew but that came to a screeching halt that miserable day, January 16, 1920 when the dark clouds of Prohibition raced over our forty-eight states. It was a dubious gift from the religious folks that were convinced that the root of all evil was alcohol. What resulted was thirteen years of the most vicious, dangerous, violent era ever know to the United States, excluding our Civil War, of course.
It’s Not All Bawdy
Ask anyone that is at least seventy that lived in Peoria or say within 50 miles or so what they thought of Peoria in the 40s. Go ahead ask them, truth is you would really have to be at least 80 today to have experienced this town’s nightlife. However that would not stop the younger ones from telling you handed down stories of Peoria’s gambling, gangster and bawdy past. Think of it, I was born in 1932, making me all of nine when the war broke out. Now how much do you think I really know or knew about what when on downtown during the war? Get my meaning? For twenty-eight years I interviewed at least a hundred ‘older folks,’ and from them I got the real answers. After that I started with the history for the year 1845 simply reading every printed word about our town. As for the crimes and murders I also read police reports, coroner’s reports and of course the newspaper articles. Even at that, I am only as accurate as the information I gathered. Take a person who is repeating a story from his or her dad or grandfather, which is apt to be more accurate, a researcher or a hearsay expert?
My point is Peoria’s reputation today is nothing but silly stories passed on by a lot of folks that believe what they were told. I found a red line of truth in some of the stories but most of them were just perpetuated myths. Oh, they were entertaining, but most of it was just gossip. Always…I might add, about murders, gambling and gangsters. As to our real history…nobody talked about it, that’s where we so-called historians come in…well, some of us.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a true Peoria Historian. email@example.com