My children would tease their cousins as they unwrapped Christmas presents. "It’s flat and kind of heavy and squarish. And it’s from Mom and Dad. Could it be? Maybe it is. Oh yes. I guessed it! It’s a book!"
Perhaps it was a book of silly poetry to be read again and again until they could repeat it from memory, or a guide to reptiles and amphibians that they’d pore over for hours and hours. Or the quest to find Waldo.
In any case, their comments didn’t dissuade me. They’ll find books under the tree for them again this year-ones I hope they’ll continue to treasure.
Recently, I purchased a pre-holiday treat for myself: Peorian Channy Lyon’s Women of Peoria, 1620 to 1920.
Released November 1 at the Peoria Historical Society’s Salute to Women, it features more than 50 Peoria women, grouped in such categories as pioneers and settlers, educators, organizers and leaders, caregivers, reformers, and creative spirits. The Ladies Art Society, the Peoria Women’s Club, the Peoria Negro Women’s Aid Club, and the Soldiers Monument Society are among the organizations highlighted. Photographs were used if available.
The book contributes to a valuable legacy of historical writing in Peoria. It also includes a useful bibliography, listing books by such contemporaries as Bill Adams, Judith Franke, Jerry Klein, and Monica Vest Wheeler, along with articles by various newspaper reporters, as well as library resources and unpublished work.
Lyons considers herself first of all a writer, telling stories from days past. Her subjects come alive in short essays capturing the spirit of the times, as well as the highlights of their lives. The format tempts a reader to pick and choose, starting at random, or with those highlighted at the fashion show: Bertha Boutin, who devised her own bloomers to facilitate her enjoyment of bicycling in the early 1890s, or Aunt Lizzie Aiken (an essay by re-enactor Sharon Atteberry), who nursed injured Civil War soldiers from the battlefields of Fort Donelson and Shiloh and ministered in Memphis after the regiment moved on to Vicksburg.
There are those like poet and leader Frances Brotherson; her daughter, Lucie Tyng, whose partial resume fills a page; Clara Parsons Bourland, a "super-woman," founder of the Peoria Women’s Club and remarkable force in literature, the arts, science, and education; and Lydia Bradley, whose philanthropy extended to the founding of Bradley University.
Today, the Internet allows people around the world to read Julia Proctor White’s writings recapping her Peoria childhood, as well as the 40 years from 1902 to 1942. Lyons’ book references that Web site, as well as her own at www.peoriawomenshistory.com, where she encourages readers to share stories of Peoria women.
"Since publishing the book, I’ve been approached by people suggesting women I missed," Lyons said. "The Web site opens opportunities for other stories to be told." She’s also guiding people writing family stories.
One can’t help but think of contemporaries while reading of our foremothers.
In her introduction, Lyons mentions feminist leader Betty Friedan, who grew up in Peoria, and also acknowledges Elizabeth Belcke, a civic leader, who loaned a historic photo for reproduction. "The 50 years from 1920 to 1970 would make a good sequel," Lyons said.
"The Peoria Woman has done a marvelous job of recognizing the women of today," Lyons said. Other attention has come from the YWCA with its Leader Luncheon and Legend awards specifically for women, and the 40 Leaders Under 40 program. Numerous other groups recognize leadership and achievement as the province of women as well as men.
At the November Salute, the Peoria Historical Society recognized long-time volunteers and dedicated historians Gloria LaHood and Alice Roffey. LaHood has been involved with all aspects of local history, particularly since Peoria’s TriCentennial Celebra-tion. She’s mentored not only writers and tour guides, but also the storytellers, television producers, and Web designers who celebrate Peoria’s story. She currently chairs activities at Flanagan House Museum.
Roffey midwifed the 1962 founding of the Elmwood Historical Society and for 30 years volunteered as curator of its museum honoring native sculptor Lorado Taft. Most recently involved with the successful restoration of the Phelps barn (part of the Underground Railroad), she received her award on her 90th birthday.
The stories of the women of Peoria history provide warm encouragement during Peoria’s cold winter.
Lyons’ book is available for $15 at Peoria Historical Society headquarters, as well as at Peoria Art Guild, Barnes & Noble, and Borders bookstore-a gift for yourself or a friend. AA!