A Gift from the Detweillers

by Norman V. Kelly

It’s just a guess on my part, but I would bet that the average Peoria family rarely thinks of our park system or even visits ours parks except to take their kids to a soccer game. I can tell you that parks were a big part of our lives back when I was a kid, especially Bradley and Glen Oak Parks. Detweiller was too far away to even consider visiting, so most of us kids from El Vista played in what is now called Schmoger Park. Of course in those days we called it ‘Our Woods.’

I want to tell you about Detweiller Park and give you an idea how Peoria managed to obtain such an incredible bit of acreage. Let’s start with Captain Henry Detweiller, a man born to the river as surely as the fish that swim below its murky waters. He was born in Larraine, France in 1825 and as a teenager found himself living here in Peoria, Illinois in 1837. He had a few jobs as a teen, but his heart and soul belonged to the Illinois River. He finally landed a job on one of the steamboats he loved so much and spent his life working on them, from deckhand to pilot to owner, becoming a local hero during the Civil War. In 1874 he finally retired from the river and went into the ice business here in Peoria, Illinois. Henry and his wife Magdalena had seven children but only three of them survived to adulthood. Henry amassed a sizeable fortune as well as a lot of valuable land. His son and two daughters inherited all of the Captain’s assets, and set out to donate most of it to charities and the City of Peoria.

Thomas Hunter Detweiller took over his father’s business, and in consultation with his two sisters donated Detweiller Park to the Peoria Park District on July 23, 1927. The total land grant was 745 acres, and today the park board lists Detweiller Park as 601 acres. The gift later included some valuable riverside property where the old ice business once stood and an area set aside for a playground for children. Today there is a Marina within that land, and historians tell us that that was not the intended use of the Detweiller property.

The park was dedicated with pomp and ceremony and a grateful city received a gift that to this day serves not only Peorians, but people from surrounding towns and counties as well. The Detweillers were truly a wonderfully generous family and Peorians benefited from their generosity beyond measure. A memorial was once there for visitors to read:

“This memorial erected in memory of Captain Henry Detweiller, a pioneer Peorian and early day pilot and captain, a veteran of The Civil War and a former treasurer of the City of Peoria.” The inscription went on to remind us how important it was to remember these pioneers during the time when the river was rich in romance and glory. Each Peoria census reminds me how many new people move into our area knowing little if anything of our city. I hope our newcomers will spend some time visiting Detweiller and our other parks. Perhaps it is time to rededicate Detweiller Park? Editor’s Note: Norm welcomes your questions and suggestions for future stories.