Welcome to the third issue of iBi focused on local history! We always receive a great response to these issues, and they are a lot of fun to put together. Having grown up in central Illinois myself, I appreciate a little walk down memory lane… and we hope you do as well.
This issue’s centerpiece article is the amazing tale of Caterpillar’s 497th Engineer Heavy Shop Company, the first military unit in U.S. history organized by a manufacturing company and manned by its own employees. These brave men were given a task described as “the toughest job ever given to the U.S. Army Engineers in wartime”—the construction of the Ledo Road. With fewer and fewer World War II veterans still alive to tell the story, associate editor Gabrielle Balzell caught up with one of the members of this unit, Ralph Northrup, who was then a 21-year-old farmer from Trivoli. Notice the send-off photograph taken at the former Rock Island Depot on Water Street (which is currently underwater as I write this) on page 48.
I look forward to accompanying a WWII veteran to Washington, DC next month on the first annual Greater Peoria Honor Flight. Hats off to the businesses that employ our veterans and National Guard members! You can learn more about this important organization in the print issue, and online at greaterpeoriahonorflight.org.
The tale of retail in downtown Peoria is another fascinating story, which mirrors the trajectory of downtown retail across the country. I didn’t often go downtown as a child, but I remember visiting Santa at Sears and walking around “sidewalk days” at Bergner’s. Whenever my family came to Peoria, I would get to order a hot dog and root beer at Kresge’s, one of the old “five and dime” stores—a big treat for me!
My mom worked downtown at Central National Bank for a while, and my grandmother worked at Clarke & Company—that’s the building you see being torn down on page 54 of this issue. I don’t remember much about the heyday of downtown retail, but I’m always interested in these old images. Whenever I visit Red Carpet Car Wash or George’s Shoeshine, it’s always a treat to look at the old photos on their walls.
We once again thank our friends at the Peoria Historical Society, Special Collections Center at Bradley University, and the Peoria Public Library for their assistance in research and collecting these photographs. You can purchase reproductions of photos in the PHS collection by contacting the Peoria Historical Society at (309) 674-1921 or online at peoriahistoricalsociety.org. They are a top-notch organization working on a shoestring budget to preserve these memories for future generations. Enjoy!iBi