The Peoria Public Library's 125th anniversary this year recalls the commitment of Peoria's earliest settlers to culture, education, and, ultimately, the preservation of local history. A review of that history also shows the continuing struggle to grow and enhance that legacy.
Reading rooms, membership groups, and specialized libraries existed well before a state law provided for Peoria's 1880 founding of a free public library. In 1846, the Mechanics Institute here collected papers and periodicals in a reading room for members, according to a 1946 report in the scrapbooks of the Peoria Historical Society.
When the present Peoria Historical Society was reconstituted in 1934, librarian Earl W. Browning spoke at the first annual meeting in May, talking about the library and local history. As reported in the newspaper, Browning said he hoped "that the Peoria Art Institute, the historical society and the public library might someday be housed under one roof in a modern building, or that they might be grouped in three buildings according to a city plan."
In September 1934, a newspaper reported attempts being made "to collect valuable photographs, manuscripts and records-all of historical value to this territory-and as rapidly as these are collected, they are being deposited in the Peoria Public Library where a place has been made available by Earl Browning, librarian."
In November 1934, Browning and Henry Grimes, PHS board chairman at that time, displayed "a wealth of treasures" disclosed when an old vault was opened "in the old school board rooms at the library." According to reports, the objects once were the property of "the old Peoria Historical Society and the Peoria Scientific Association, both of which seem to have ceased to function a quarter of a century ago."
The articles, listed in newspaper articles at the time, included a silk campaign banner used by the Wide Awakes showing Lincoln and inscribed "This is to certify that I have hired A. Lincoln for four years from March 4, 1861, U. Sam." Along with numerous Civil War and American Indian artifacts-among others-there was a piece of wood and a large, hand-made spike from the steamer Frontier, sunk in the Illinois River in 1842; a tool or hook "perhaps a relic of the French village of Old Peoria"; and the original account book of Jubilee College.
In September 1935, newspapers reported the old PHS and Peoria Scientific Association properties were moved from the library to vaults at the Commercial Merchants National Bank, courtesy of Judge George T. Page, board chairman of the bank.
The Peoria Scientific Association's collections had once been exhibited in Peoria's courthouse. By 1885, its museum there included more than 10,000 specimens and a library of 150 volumes.
In May 1942, the Peoria Star reported the city library board had agreed to turn over to the Peoria Academy of Science and the Peoria Historical Society the one-story building adjacent to the main library on Monroe. A scientific and historical museum was to open there by fall.
That collaboration continued until around 1950. At its May meeting that year, a PHS committee was appointed to find a central storage spot for the society's historical treasures. "The storage place had better be big," the society decided. "Mementos range from theater programs to an ancient horse-drawn fire engine."
By June 1951, the society still hadn't settled on what to do with its collections including documents and files, but the library had asked for their removal. Ownership of some items, including those compiled by WPA workers funded by a grant to the historical society and the library, was an issue.
Less than four months later, the Peoria Regional Museum Society formally organized. On February 9, 1952, it incorporated as a non-profit entity. Cooperating organizations included the Peoria Historical Society, the Peoria Academy of Science, Inc., the Peoria Art Center, Bradley University, the Peoria Journal, the Peoria Women's Club, the Peoria Women's Civic Federation, the American Association of University Women-Peoria Branch, and the Illinois Hobbyists and Collectors Club. Its slogan: "A tribute to the past; a foundation for the future."
As work continues toward a new regional museum in Peoria, it's worth recalling the cooperative efforts that led to establishing that society. Its purpose: to increase and diffuse knowledge and appreciation of art, history, science and industry; to sponsor exhibition projects; and to plan for the establishment of permanent museum quarters.
An early Museum Society piece laments "many fine collections have been lost to Peoria in the past because of there being no safe, permanent place for their preservation."
Fortunately, important treasures-particularly the Lincoln banner and that ancient fire engine-still exist, Bradley's library houses the archives, and plans for a new museum are underway. AA!