On the memories of youth, and a hardworking family who kept their business alive…

Old guys like me are good at talking about the way things used to be. We get a lot of criticism over that, and frankly, we deserve it. We’re called “old-timers,” “geezers” and “old fogies,” and some of us have no idea what happened two days ago, but can recall in detail what we were during 50 years ago. I’m an octogenarian, and I certainly feel like one of those guys when I tell you about Theo’s Ice Cream there at Sterling and Gale. It’s located in the part of Peoria where I grew up, called El Vista. It was part of my past and as a historian, I am about to tell you a historical story. There’s no way I’m just an old geezer… right?

Before It Was Theo’s…
When my family moved into El Vista in 1937, believe me, we were really out in the boondocks. There on Forrest Hill was Woodrow Wilson School, and at Forrest Hill and Gale was Sieks Grocery. Up the road was Mr. Long’s gas station, and that was pretty much it. There was Newman Golf Course, Bradley Park, a farm or two, and a lot of space.

Before it was Theo’s, even before World War II, Mr. Long had a little gas station there. Then John Theobald leased it, and it became T&T Zephyr, as you can see in the old photograph below. Gas was 29 cents a gallon and “the tax was included.” Behind the building was a little storage room owned by CILCO. As kids, we hung around the station, but since we were not welcome to loiter there in bunches, we would head for Sieks Brothers Grocery Store.

John Theobald and his wife Elsie were wonderful people, and they had a son named Johnny. He was a few years younger than me, so he was not part of my gang, but later we became the best of friends. He married a beautiful lady named Jean in 1958. He was a carpenter, she was a secretary, and they had three beautiful daughters. When John died, Elsie took over ownership of the gas station, then some guy named Argo leased it from Elsie, and when he died, the place became vacant.

Once in a while, I would drive through El Vista thinking about all my old friends, and park in the little parking lot of the gas station and let memories of my youth pour over me. Then one day, I saw Jean and Johnny working around the place, and to my delight, I learned they were going to open an ice cream store there. Just about nine months later, in June of 1994, there it was! It was alive, and I could almost see John Theobald standing out in front of the place, smiling that big grin of his, and Elsie grinning up at him. They would have been proud of their son and daughter-in-law, believe me.

The Essence of Family
And so, Theo’s was born. It brightened up that corner of Sterling and Gale, and sat there smiling out at all of us. Folks like me who used to live in El Vista flocked to Theo’s, along with a lot of loyal customers. Johnny kept the place in tip-top shape, but he never worked behind the counter. Jean ran the place, even though she had another full-time job, so it was their daughter, Sally, who came back to Peoria from Florida to help her folks and their new business. Sally pretty much ran the place in the daytime, and Jean worked the second shift until around 10 at night. Folks wanting a quick snack for lunch would simply tell their friends to “meet me at Theo’s.” And the place thrived. It was amazing to me that a carpenter and a secretary with no experience running a place of business could boldly forge ahead, taking on one hurdle after the other: the ice cream equipment, the making of the ice cream, the hot dogs, and the business in general. They did it with the help of a friend or two, and together, they faced the obstacles and Theo’s survived.

One day, Johnny noticed a persistent cough and some pain in his throat. He had surgery for the cancer that started in his tonsils, and he seemed to have beaten the disease. However, five years later, he was devastated to learn the cancer had returned. His death brought a huge void into the lives of his family and others who knew and loved him.

Jean Theobald and Sally somehow made it through that horrific time and kept their little ice cream shop going. Sally became a partner in Theo’s Inc., and in the year 2002, Jean deeded the ice cream business to her deserving daughter. She retained ownership of the property and the building, but it is Sally who is now in charge of the business her mom and dad founded and struggled so hard to keep viable.

Today, under Sally’s direction, that little shop has a dozen teenagers working there part-time, and behind the scenes is strong, durable Jean Theobald. Most days, Jean is there when her daughter opens the place up, working whenever she needs a break. I don’t go to Theo’s as much anymore, but every time I drive by, I smile at the thought of my old friends and neighbors, and John, Elsie, Jean and Johnny Theobald —the very essence of a wonderful American family. iBi

Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and author. He can be reached at [email protected]