Growing up in Lacon, Lowell “Bud” Grieves has been on the river his whole life—a consistent thread that has guided his many entrepreneurial pursuits. In 1961, when he was just 17, he and a friend took a johnboat all the way down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. They met a range of interesting characters along the way—who might have stepped right out of a Mark Twain story—and upon their return home, they narrowly avoided being attacked by a mob of segregationists.
After nearly three decades in the financial industry, Grieves got involved in private development in the late ‘80s, first buying the building in downtown Peoria that housed Sully’s for many years, then purchasing what is now the Mark Twain Hotel, which he still runs today. He later purchased the adjacent Packard Plaza building, as well as numerous properties in East Peoria and nearby Banner, and even the Spirit of Peoria riverboat.
In 1997, Grieves became mayor of Peoria, and his four-year term was marked by a focus on downtown and riverfront development. Upon leaving office, he retired with his wife, Alice, to his farm in Banner, which he has made a showpiece for ecological restoration. A thoughtful iconoclast, Grieves is never afraid to take a stance on an issue, even if it’s unpopular, and always has a unique project or two up his sleeve.
Tell us about your family background and ancestry.
In the early 1800s, my great-great grandfather was a weaver of special shawls in Scotland. He made a shawl for the then-Queen of England, presented it to her, and came back to Scotland. Scotland and England were always at war [at the time]… and he was asked to leave. I’m not quite sure of the details, but it wasn’t a pleasant thing.
He came to Boston and took a job in a woolen mill, worked there about 10 years, then gravitated to Lowell, Massachusetts, where the family name comes from. He got the gold fever and decided to put his three sons on a wagon train and head to California. When they got to Lacon, the bridge had washed out, so the story goes, and he stayed for the winter. The townsfolk said, “We’ve got a lot of sheep around here, and you know how to do this”… so they took up a collection and started… the Prairie State Shawl Company.
My grandfather and father went into the business. I went to a college in Philadelphia that was known not only for its rigorous business curriculum, but specialized subjects: the chemistry of fibers, weave patterns, and so forth… I got my business degree and took a job in Albany, New York in the textile industry. I worked 2½ years and came back to Lacon because my dad was dying of cancer. When I was home, I ran into a fellow who was a stockbroker, and he said he thought I could do well in the [financial] industry. He said, “It’s basically people… handling finances, and so forth.”
So I moved the family back to my hometown of Lacon, and got into the brokerage business in 1970 as a registered representative. We lived there eight or nine years, then moved to north Peoria. I gradually worked my way up; at one time, I was branch manager and opened several offices for the company.
How did you and your wife meet?
I was a basketball player at a small school in Lacon… Alice was a cheerleader in Sparland—she grew up on the farm. We were aware of each other, but didn’t date much in high school. During college, we came back from our respective schools. Back then, people had ice skating parties out on ponds. We were at a large ice skating party… The girl I brought couldn’t ice-skate, and Alice’s date couldn’t ice-skate. So we began skating, and we’ve been on thin ice ever since! (laughs)
We’ve raised three children: Alex, Kimberly and Jennifer. They all stayed in the Peoria area… We’ve been blessed that we have been able to watch our 11 grandchildren grow up.
Tell us about your experiences taking a boat down the Mississippi River.
Growing up in Lacon, I’ve been on the river my whole life, except for those few years out east. The summer between my junior and senior years of high school, my parents allowed me to take a 17-foot johnboat with a 7½-horsepower Mercury engine from Lacon to New Orleans, camping gear piled in the middle. I went with another young man who had just graduated. It took us 4½ weeks to get to New Orleans.
We had all kinds of experiences, as you might imagine. We slept on islands, swatting mosquitos. We stayed in flophouses costing two dollars a night, with a john at the end of the hall. We stayed in YMCAs, just about anywhere and any place, and met all the characters you would expect to find along the river: the good, the bad and the ugly. We ended up in New Orleans, and sold our boat and motor.
We spent a couple days in New Orleans and spent all our money, ill-advisedly… We didn’t have enough for bus fare to get home. So my dad wired money down, just enough to get on the bus. We boarded the bus from New Orleans to Peoria at night… This was June or July of 1961, at the height of the civil rights movement. There were young people, primarily from the east coast, called Freedom Riders… who would go down [south] and ride buses, challenging the black-and-white segregated buses, dining facilities and so forth.
We were two dumb kids from a small town in Illinois—we didn’t really understand what was going on. So we’re on a bus coming into Jackson, Mississippi about 11:00 at night—the only two white kids on the bus—and I look ahead and see a bus on fire! I’m seeing 500 or 600 people with billy clubs and hatchets and everything you can imagine! The bus pulls in to make its stop—they thought we were Freedom Riders and started rapping on the bus. I remember it like it was yesterday: looking out the back window and seeing the sheer hatred in their eyes…
That bus driver probably saved our lives that night, because he floored it—never opened the door, never let anybody out or on—just took off! Every time I read about the Freedom Riders and those stories, I think, boy, we were really lucky.
It was a memorable trip in a lot of respects. We grew up a lot during that period of time. I’ve told my grandkids that story, and I said, you know, until you’ve actually seen up close how mobs can be… the hatred and the passion… it’s very scary. That has stayed with me my whole life.
How did you get involved in private development?
I started my entrepreneurial pursuits in the late ‘80s. I had gotten a little bored with the brokerage business. My first investment in Peoria was the Sully’s building [121 SW Adams]… My two partners were operating guys; we bought the building, gutted it and built Sully’s [bar]. After five or six years, I sold out, and that’s when I bought the Mark Twain Hotel—in 1990. In ’91, I bought the Packard building next door, then moved across the river to East Peoria.
At one point, I owned the property where Bob Evans and Walgreens are now. I opened up a Budget Host and sold the other half… that became Bob Evans. I ran the Budget Host for two years and sold it to Walgreens. Then I bought the Ramada Inn where Kohl’s is now, themed it after New Orleans, and called it the Mark Twain East. I had it for two or 2½ years, then [developer] Gary Matthews bought it from me and brought in Kohl’s. That was really the beginning of the East Peoria development, that corner of Camp and Main.
What led you to purchase the Mark Twain?
I had the money because I had just sold my interest in Sully’s. The building had sat empty for several years; the previous owner left out the back door owing two weeks payroll… Everything was intact, but the roof had holes in it and water was coming in.
It was a cold, wet February day, and water was dripping right down on the manager’s desk. I went into the restaurant, and there was a beer that had been sitting there for two years, with mold growing out of it. It was eerie. We went upstairs… and chased a bum out of a room. There was a plate on the floor with a piece of spam and some potato salad, untouched. I said, “Well, at least there’s no rats…” They hadn’t eaten it. But that’s the condition the place was in.
Peoria County had looked into buying the building because it was built so well—the walls are about nine inches thick of poured concrete. Believe it or not, the county had considered this building as its jail. It would have been downtown, right across from Caterpillar—terrible idea. They subsequently built it out where they did.
So who was going to buy it? Someone had to step up. And the price was right—it had to be, because you knew you had to put a ton of money into it. I thought I’d buy it, fix it up for a year, and sell it… I remember standing by the window as it was raining that day and looking across the street. Here’s I-74, an interstate highway, and Caterpillar, a Fortune 500 company, right across the street. I didn’t think I could go too wrong.
So I took the plunge. We became a Best Western affiliate—I called it the Mark Twain Best Western. Shortly after that, I purchased the Spirit of Peoria, and at one time, I had a trolley and we connected the two together. But all this stemmed from my trip on the river—and being a fan of Mark Twain. That’s the connection. Growing up in Lacon, the river trip, and those memories… that’s how it all came about.
What were the circumstances surrounding the purchase of the Spirit of Peoria?
Basically, the city ended up with the Spirit of Peoria, not out of need or wanting to be in the riverboat business, but to facilitate the [riverboat gambling] franchise in East Peoria that hadn’t been built yet—to have it on this side of the river. The City of Peoria bought the boat from Jim Jumer… in order to attract the franchise.
So the City of Peoria was trying to land what would later become the Par-A-Dice?
As I recall, the City of Peoria did not allow Jumer to bid [for the franchise], so he bid for Bettendorf, Iowa [instead]. And he had the Spirit of Peoria at the time. When the group headed by Dale Burklund and a few others [the Greater Peoria Riverboat Corporation] put in a bid, it was for East Peoria—not Peoria. They ended up winning, but didn’t have a facility, so the City of Peoria bought the boatworks from Jumer in order to have a temporary place to do business until the boat was built in East Peoria. So, for about a two-year period in the early ‘90s, the gambling was on this side of the river.
Once the boat was delivered [in East Peoria], the City of Peoria found itself in an awkward position. They owned the boat, but had no desire to operate and maintain it. When they considered selling it to a group from Louisville, Kentucky, there was much opposition, as people did not want to lose this iconic symbol of Peoria, and our riverfront development efforts were just getting underway. So that’s when I stepped in and purchased the boat. I ran it for several years, and my son [Alex] came back and helped me. Purchasing the boat was a big risk, as I was not experienced with anything like this, but with Alex’s help, we managed to keep it afloat, so to speak.
We had a lease with the city for dock space, and when I decided to run for mayor in 1997, in order to avoid any conflict of interest, I sold it to Alex. Under his stewardship, the boat has not only remained in Peoria, but brings thousands of visitors to our riverfront for sightseeing trips and overnight excursions.
What inspired you to run for mayor?
On my 50th birthday, I rode a motorcycle from Peoria to Bozeman, Montana, and did a two-week Outward Bound [course] in the Beartooth Mountains. You do a lot of introspective thinking when you’re out in the wilderness like that… Not too long after, I made the decision to run for mayor.
I don’t know what the catalyst was. I literally woke up one morning and thought it was the right time in my life to do something like this. I had been successful at most everything I had tried… My kids were grown and on their own. I was financially independent, so why not?
There’s always been a strain in Peoria that wants to continue to push north and west—greenfield development—and there’s always been a group that wants to continue to develop our heart—the riverfront and downtown. I felt it was absolutely imperative to focus on downtown and the riverfront. We had created the Riverfront Commission at the time. I felt it was all working very well and wanted to see that continue… I think most urban planners would tell you, if you have a unique asset like the river, you’re foolish to do what every other community does: pushing out into the green space, chewing up more good farmland and stretching your infrastructure. So that was the concept behind it.
Everybody thought Dave Ransburg was going to run, but for whatever reason, he didn’t announce his candidacy right away. I wasn’t sure he was going to run, so I put my hat in the ring. It was one of the most hard-fought elections in Peoria history… The other thing that was unique was that [Jim] Maloof had been mayor for 12 years, and all of the council decided to run. So we had a primary with myself, Dave Ransburg, Steve Kouri, Dave Koehler… I think there were eight in the primary—six or seven were on the council. And of course, there could only be two winners.
So Dave [Ransburg] and I squared off, and the rest of them then left the council. When I took the reins as mayor, I had virtually a brand-new council… so it was quite a job to get them together on anything. And of course, we had Gary Sandberg in there, which always made life interesting.
Why did you not run for re-election?
After being in it for four years, I realized I didn’t want to be a politician. I had told the Journal Star and others that I would probably only serve one term—I wasn’t using it as a stepping stone to go on to be governor or anything—and I meant it. One of the pulls on me was that we had bought this beautiful farm down in Fulton County while I was mayor. We’d go down on weekends, and I’d get outside and get my hands dirty—that was my therapy at the time. We lived in the Twin Towers, so it was a day-and-night change.
What were some of the highlights of your term?
There were a lot of them. We kept the focus on the riverfront. The Gateway Building was built… the Riverplex got done. The baseball stadium was a big one—moving it downtown—very controversial, a close vote… I think one of the biggest things the council did was getting the option to purchase the water company, which went back to 1896. At the time, it was felt that the option was no longer valid.
I got to thinking about it, and talked to a few other council members—I thought it could really be worth something. Well, I had the votes, but it would have cost close to a million dollars to sort it out in court… and the [water company] put up a heckuva fight. Some private individuals formed a group and raised a little over a million dollars… and that gave the council the backbone to move ahead. It went on to the appellate court, and we proved once and for all that the option was valid. This was all just to claim the option.
Then I wanted to push to actually exercise the option… I lost by one vote. A subsequent council got as far as the appraisal, I think, but didn’t have the gumption to go ahead with it. But that option coming up every five years gives us tremendous leverage over the water company, and I think it would be very foolish to give that up for money that’s going to come right out of the ratepayer’s pocket anyway… It’s already proven to be worth a lot of money. I think that was one of our major accomplishments.
What did you do when your term was up?
I’d already purchased the land [in Fulton County] and was used to going down there, so we sold the Twin Towers [condominium] and… started building the house. It’s a big place with a beautiful view of the valley over our land. It’s been a wonderful place for our family to come and enjoy. Since we moved down there, I’ve done a little bit of developing in the town of Banner, but mainly I’ve been concentrating on my farm, which is sort of a showpiece for ecological restoration: wetlands, prairie grasses, hardwood trees. I’ve enjoyed that immensely.
Give us an overview of your development projects in Banner.
It started when I sold the East Peoria property. A young lady had been manager there, and she needed a job, but I didn’t have any work. She ended up marrying a fellow from Banner. When we moved there, I had no intention of owning another restaurant. But there was a little greasy spoon… and it was for sale. She lived right across the street and said she could make it go. My heart got the best of me… I loaned her the money, and she bought it under contract. It lasted about six months. So now I was stuck with the building and a restaurant.
I met a guy from Europe who had a diner in Canton and quite an extensive cooking background. And I wanted to do something a little more exotic… but we couldn’t do it out of that building, so we built a bigger restaurant. I patterned it after a restaurant I knew down in Florida and called it Cracklin’ Jake’s. About that time, there was an old motel behind the place, and it had fallen into disrepair. I thought, well, if I’m going to have a nice restaurant here, and I’m already in the hotel business… So we [bought it], redid all the rooms, put log siding on it and the restaurant. Now, we’ve got a motel and a restaurant. Anyway, [Cracklin’ Jake’s] didn’t last long. Then I had another operator, and finally the guys who run Two25 [restaurant] for me took over, and have run it since. It’s called Boss Hogs BBQ… We bought a smoker and slow-smoke ribs and pulled pork… and it seems to be working really well. And I still run the motel—it’s sort of a wing of the Mark Twain.
Then, on down the road, there was an old gas station. I bought that land—that’s where I put my experimental underground home. My concept was to have three or four on that strip of land… but I sort of lost my enthusiasm a bit. I’ve been very pleased with it, but it’s a unique structure, so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m going to list it with a Realtor and see what happens. I might build another… but on the other hand, Alice is saying no more projects, so… (laughs)
What are some of the causes in which you have taken a particular interest?
For 15 to 20 years, I was deeply involved with The Nature Conservancy and their efforts locally. I spent a lot of time with the acquisition and development of Emiquon [National Wildlife Refuge]. Soon, they’re going to finally realize the dream we had from the beginning: connecting it to the Illinois River… so it can act as a repository for fish like it used to. I was vice chair of the state board at one time, and there’s a local group I’m still involved with. That’s been one of my driving passions.
The other has been education… I’m supportive of Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentoring in Fulton County and in Peoria for a long time. My wife and I mentor kids in Canton schools… I bring them out to the farm and show them the windmill, the outdoor furnace and those types of things… hopefully that will spark an interest along the lines of being more responsible in their stewardship of the environment.
What do you see as your legacy?
My legacy might be making the world I live in—the little cubicle that I exist in—a little nicer. Whether it’s my farm reblossoming as prairie grass and wetlands, or the developments I’ve done… I think the Mark Twain Hotel is a beautiful asset for Peoria. Some people paint, I sort of create art in some of my projects.
I’ve become more reflective as I’ve gotten older… Being out in nature and thinking about God’s creation, you can’t help it. I write letters to my children and grandchildren, giving my views on various things… I spend a great deal of time on that. Hopefully, they will remember me as someone who wasn’t afraid to go against the grain sometimes, and speak what I feel. iBi