Civic pride found expression in parks and playgrounds, in schools and libraries, in orchestras and art galleries–in things of the spirit, according to the introduction to a 1922 publication, Peoria Book of Verse.
"By its publication, Peoria attains a position of leadership among American cities in the vitally important movement toward community consciousness in the arts," wrote John T. Frederick, founding editor of a major regional literary magazine, who selected the poems. The small volume "serves to unify one city’s aspiration and achievement in one of the arts, that of poetry," he wrote.
In Peoria in the fall of 1921, a group of men and women gathered to consider ways and means of stimulating wider interest in poetry. The Manual Arts Press of Peoria printed Peoria Book of Verse for The Peoria Allied English Interests–the singularly unpoetic name the group gave itself.
To cultivate the poetic muse among the people of Peoria, the group solicited contributions from residents and former residents who were known to have written verse. The local newspapers assisted, "Every cordially," we’re told, and in a short time, the committee had about 200 pieces. Having screened them, they submitted their choices to Frederick, who selected 64.
The pieces represent 43 authors, including several married couples and a few local students. "Writers among the most distinguished of their time in America, who have made Peoria their home, appear here with others who have remained unknown even in their native city outside a narrow circle,"Frederick observed.
Among the luminaries are Robert G. Ingersoll, "famous as a lecturer and writer against the Christian religion" and Most Rev. John Lancaster Spalding, consecrated bishop of Peoria in 1877 and essayist, poet, author of works on religion and education, and one of the founders of the Catholic University of America. Ingersoll’s manuscript of his ode to Scotland and Robert Burns hung for many years in the librarian’s office in the Peoria Public Library.
A number of newspaper writers and editors included poetry among their endeavors. George H. Fitch, editor of the Peoria Transcript from 1905 to 1913, wrote several books, some hearkening to his days at Knox College, as well as stories for The Saturday Evening Post, Collie’s, and American Magazine. He served as president of the American Press Humorists’ Association, giving a clue as to his take on life. From 1913 to 1915, Fitch served in the Illinois legislature.
Claude Holland (Chi) Gamble and W. Kee Maxwell, two Peoria editors, also belonged to the press humorists and contributed to magazines, in addition to writing poems. Newspaper writer and humorist Robert J. Burdette still brings a smile with the saga of his first cigar: "No viler torch the air could scorch….."
Haskell Armstrong spent eight years newspapering before going into life insurance. He was founder and first president of the Lions Club of Peoria.
At least eight women were teachers, including Elizabeth Worthington Denison, the principal of the Pettengill Seminary, established by Moses Pettengill.
Julia Proctor White, a leader in Peoria cultural activities, named one of her poems "The New Building," a tribute to the Peoria Life Insurance Building (now Commerce Bank downtown). She extols architect Frank Emerson’s work, observing, "It is a prophecy of cities new and fair, Of better, happier times When strength shall flower in beauty everywhere."
Julia Kempshall Clark founded the Inter-Church League in Peoria and the As You Like It Club, authored the book Out of the Ruts, and contributed to religious and other magazines and newspapers.
Katharine Hart, a music teacher born in New York City, moved to Peoria when she was 25 and was one of the founders of Peoria’s Amateur Musical Club. She wrote children’s stories, poems, and magazine articles.
Rev. William J. Leach, a Methodist minister who served during the Spanish-American War and was in France during World War I, authored a volume of Poems and War Letters.
Mr. and Mrs. William Hawley Smith shared writing interests. Ellen G. Smith was also a painter, a charter member of Peoria Women’s Club, and for many years an officer in the Peoria Art League.
Dr. Arthur G. Smith, a dentist, edited the Bulletin of the Illinois Dental Society, helped start dental clinics in public schools when he was on the school board, and, along with his wife, Bessie, another of the poets, helped organize Peoria Players.
In all, they were a group brought together by poetry, enhancing the lives of fellow Peorians in myriad ways. The Peoria Public Library still treasures their work. AA!