Peoria’s Great Farm Debt

by Marvin Forssander-Baird

We all know that Peoria was once the greatest whiskey city in the world. Even the most history-blind among us knows at least that fact. Old Peoria was blessed with the perfect attitude and ingredients to make whiskey king and from the 1840s until the crush of Prohibition in 1920, profit poured abundantly from the distilleries lining the banks of the Illinois River. When other states prohibited brewing and distilling, Peoria’s leaders had the vision to open their arms and take a chance. Along with the progressive attitude was limestone filtered spring water, an abundance of oak trees to provide barrels, and an incredibly masterful knowledge of brewing and distilling brought by an influx of Irish and German immigrants to the area. The key component that tied everything together and made it all happen was the vast fertile farmland that fanned out across the windy prairie like a blanket of prosperity.

Often, when we think of historic preservation, we think of the city as a distinct unit, apart from the countryside and within that city, we tend to think of specific structures as being those worthy of saving for future generations. However, there is a lot more to the city than boundaries and buildings. Without the support of our surrounding farmland in the outlying townships, Peoria would not have grown from village to city. There is history oozing from the earth past the modern suburbs.

A quick trip to Kickapoo Township, for example, is a trip back in time. Of course, the town of Kickapoo has its share of buildings such as Saint Mary’s Church and the wonderful old stores along the main streets. But, on a par with the buildings, are the land, the baseball field and the roads that stretch into the countryside like fingers beckoning us onward.

Going onward into the countryside, you will find farms as old as Peoria and even older; some still in the same families since the first stumps were pulled to plant the first grains of golden corn that helped to create so much wealth just mere miles away. Passing down those roads, you will find houses built of bricks made with hand fired kilns from the very earth that they still occupy. You will find friendly people who are proud of their history and you will find people who are concerned for its future as the ever-expanding suburbs creep indiscriminately closer and threaten to devour 180 years of heritage.

Journey further into the township and you will find the remarkable Jubilee College and the wonderful old Saint Patrick’s Church which is the oldest Catholic church in continuous use in Illinois since it was consecrated in 1839. The names of those who built Saint Patrick’s, who farmed the land and who provided the corn and wheat that built Peoria are buried right there in the same earth they once tilled. Names like Heinz, Best, Cunningham, Casey, Mullican; they are all out there and their descendants still make up part of our present population.

Take a quiet trip out there. Feel the energy of the earth and touch the layers of history that have been laid down in the furrows of time. Breathe it in and remember that this is the true source of what made Peoria a prosperous city. But, do it quickly. Just over the horizon, the vinyl footsteps of the suburbs are growing loudly as they approach without mercy. Once gone, the land that loved us can never return.