Sunday, September 26, 2004
The Original Sin City
Peoria was a good-times town. Before Prohibition, Peoria was the whiskey-making capital of the world. Blessed with an ample corn supply and river transportation up to Chicago or down the Mississippi, Peoria was ideally situated to brew sourmash. The Painted Ladies, a neighborhood full of grand Victorian homes along High Street in Peoria, were once the homes of the Whiskey Barons, those feisty distillery owners that put Peoria on the map.
During Prohibition, things turned more seamy. Legal distilleries went belly up, and bootlegging booze from Florida or Canada became big business. In Peoria, the bars operated openly, and gambling and prostitution establishments had no reason to hide their businesses. Mayor Woodruff, a tolerant mayor if there ever was one, said "Peoria likes its vice," and City Hall profited from the "fines" levied on the illicit businesses run all over town.
To find out more about Peoria's speakeasy days, Randy and I attended a lecture by Taylor Pensoneau, the author of The Brothers Notorious: The Story Behind Southern Illinois' Legendary Gangsters. The Shelton Brothers were the best known gangsters in Illinois outside of Al Capone in Chicago. They ran gambling parlors, bootlegging operations, and labor racketeering all across Southern Illinois. Any illicit activity in this part of the state, they had a hand in it. Their exploits included gang wars with the Klu Klux Klan, and they resorted to using a makeshift tank to patrol their territory. In one colorful tale, they actually dropped homemade bombs on a rival gang lord's farm house.
A couple of handsome gents
In 1941, after Prohibition ended, gambling operators in Peoria invited the Shelton Brothers to town to offer protection from Chicago gangsters. Soon the Shelton Brothers were running everything in Peoria. They owned fine homes on Knoxville Avenue, and horse ranches out on the country. Until two of the Shelton Brothers were assassinated by rival Chicago gangsters, the saying was in Peoria you couldn't "spit on the sidewalk with out the Shelton's permission."
Fascinating stuff. One of Peoria's high schools is named after the Mayor Woodruff, the elected official who welcomed the gangsters into Peoria's front door. According to Pensoneau, the assassination of the Shelton Brothers was front-page news across the country. The timing of the assassinations, along with general disgust with the open operation of crime gangs in the state, may have spurred the election of Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois governor who cracked down on organized crime and later ran for president.
Peoria is building a new history museum on the city's riverfront as a part of downtown rejuvenation efforts. I'm sure there will be plenty of space in the museum dedicated to Caterpillar, the largest employer in town. And there will be the obligatory quilt display, I'm sure. Let's hope that Peoria's checkered past is not glossed over. Local museums want to point out what's best about an area's past, but Peoria's gangster days would certainly add some color to what could be a very bland museum. Instead of a sentimental look at the good ol' days, knowing that the city has overcome some serious flaws merits a museum in itself.
So what does this have to do with knitting? Hey, I knit my way through the lecture, and I'm going to try my hand at knitting and reading the book this afternoon. The story about Roaring Peoria should be a page-turner.