Thursday, August 19, 2004
The Famous and Original Bar Smasher
Peoria used to be a good-times town. Located on the Illinois River, the city hosted large numbers of sailors and bargemen on their way from Chicago to St. Louis or New Orleans looking for wine, women, and song. And with the twin assets of large grain supplies and river transport, Peoria became one of the largest whisky manufacturers in the country before Prohibition.
One day while walking through downtown Peoria, my eye caught a plaque posted on the side of a old brick storefront. The sign said that Carry Nation, the famous tolerance activist, had burst into a bar that was located on this spot back during the turn of the last century. I imagined Carry using her famous ax to smashing the bar to smithereens.
My curiosity about Nation lead me to the Kansas State Historical Society's online exhibit about the crusader. Come to find out, Carry lived with an alcoholic husband before her reign of activism. Her protests against taverns and bars began peacefully after her husband died in small-town Kansas, but she soon discovered "smashing" success by tearing the places to pieces. Her national fame grew, and she branched out to other states. She garnered supporters and enemies along the way and spent some time in jail between attacks. For ten years, Carry smashed bars and spoke on the lecture circuit about her staunch beliefs.
She wrote an autobiography called The Use and Life of Carry A. Nation. I find this to be a strange title--like Nation is trying to convince herself that her campaign was worth it. According to her autobiography, she did indeed visit a Peoria saloon, but unfortunately she left the place intact.
I went to Pete Weis' place, one of the most expensive dance halls I was ever in. I spoke for the hundreds of poor, drugged and depraved men and women. There was a large picture or rather statuary of naked women among trees which I said must be smashed, Mr. Weis treated me very kindly and said: "I will have that boarded up," and so next day he did.
Drat! I rather liked the image of her bashing her way through Peoria pubs and taverns. Taking the bartender's word sounds much to tame and polite for Carry. Smash, I say! Smash!
Nation's parting comments about Peoria are not so flattering: "I never saw so many ragged children or dirty streets, as in Peoria." Things have cleaned up a bit from the riverboat days, but it is interesting to note that the downtown area where Nation visited is still home to a large collection of bars and stripclubs. The more things change...