By Norman V. Kelly
It was a warm Saturday night in August of 1930 in downtown Peoria, Illinois as the busy shoppers were rushing home after the stores closed. Peoria was the center of shopping for many miles around, and Saturdays in Peoria were so busy that just getting across the busy streets was a major task. Prohibition was still the law of the land and once the ordinary shoppers cleared the streets nighttime Peoria and its denizens took over.
Peoria did not have speakeasies because we did not need them. That’s right…none. What we had, thanks to Mayor Woodruff were well over 200 Soft Drink Parlors. Now these revived taverns could not legally sell booze, beer or wine, but that did not stop the incredible number of customers that thronged to these places. In September of 1917, the Wartime Food and Fuel Conservation Act made it illegal to use foodstuffs to make alcoholic drinks of any kind. Imagine that in Peoria, Illinois the city that boasted of being the alcohol capital of the World. What that really meant to the folks of Peoria was that ALL of the breweries and the distilleries in town were forced to shut down. Keep in mind that was 1917, not 1920 when Prohibition became law and that meant a loss of our major places of employment.
Right after Prohibition started, January 16, 1920, the Roaring Twenties officially began. Now, ask yourself, how could there be a roar in the Roaring Twenties without booze? Not to worry, here in Peoria if you wanted a drink all you needed was the money to pay for it. On Saturday night in Peoria the Flappers, the Jazz, the gambling and the wild times were all downtown waiting for folks to ‘come on down.’ And…come down they did.
Remember, Prohibition shut down all of our taverns and I can tell you that that was devastating news for Peorians. We had a tremendous number of taverns then, and they were called local or neighborhood taverns. Peoria was a mixed bag of people and these taverns served all kinds of ethnic foods and drinks and this law upset a lot of people. After all our taverns were important to us in a social function as well. Of course the closure of the taverns and the loss of jobs at the breweries and distilleries initially was devastating. Like always, Peoria and Peorians over came all this and we managed to flourish. During the first ten years of Prohibition Peoria’s population rose just over 18,000 people. That is impressive indeed.
Let’s go back to Saturday night in Peoria and the Soft Drink Parlors. These taverns turned parlors had to be careful how they sold booze to their customers…but actually it was easy. Woodruff told Peorians that the city was loosing about $170,000 a year in liquor license alone and he meant to do something about it. He allowed the taverns to reopen as long as they bought a Soft Drink Parlor License. Well…they did and the fun really began. It started a whole new soft drink business and as booze flowed down from Canada the soft drink parlors flourished.
As folks returned to the Soft Drink Parlors, the booze flowed, the live music and entertainment came back to downtown, and life perked up during those Prohibition and Great Depression Days. Saturday night in Peoria…it was the ‘Cat’s Meow.’
As the crowds grew hundreds of young men and women began appearing at their special parlors. Think of it, the parlors were not supposed to sell booze, so the young people could hardly be turned away. It was the time of the new Jazz craze the new dress fads and of course the ‘crazy flapper.’ These young women turned this old town up side down, smoking cigarettes, carrying flasks and wowing the young men.
Of course we had so called ‘Dry Agents,’ but they were busy chasing stills and bootleggers. Believe me, Saturday night in Downtown Peoria, Illinois during Prohibition was one constant party. Of course the youngsters were not allowed anywhere near the gambling tables, but they had their own game to play. Things cooled a bit during the dark days of the Great Depression, but once Prohibition ended, Peoria got back up on its hind legs and began to howl even louder than before. By 1934 Hiram Walker announced they would build the largest distillery in the World right here in Peoria, Illinois. It opened in 1935 and Peoria was back on track.
The wild times rolled on as the gambling got more and more entrenched, all the way up until the beginning of WW 11. Once the war started there were many, many changes downtown as the town welcomed the soldiers from all over including Camp Ellis. The gambling grew along with the prostitution and Peoria took on a festive look. We had 242 taverns within the small confines of the city limits, some of them running 20 and 22 hours a day. Peoria took on a decadent reputation and finally on September 6, 1946 it all ended. 1946 in Peoria was one of the most important years in the reputation of Peoria, Illinois. But…that’s another story.
Editor’s Note: Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org