A Publication of WTVP

This century-old building in Chillicothe is a gem of local history and classical architecture.

Peoria, Illinois was the center of many clubs and organizations that passionately promoted the things they loved, and folks flocked to our city to enjoy them. There were horse clubs, bicycle clubs, boating clubs and literally dozens of others that were highly active. I thought I would start with the huge motor fraternity that did so much to promote the automobile, as well as better and safer roadways in this area.

The Peoria Automobile Club was founded in 1912, and the very next year, it leased 2.2 acres of land in a popular picnic area called Columbia Park, 17 miles up the river from Peoria in Chillicothe. There, the club built a beautiful and functional clubhouse, which was dedicated and opened to the public on September 6, 1915. The final cost of the building—designed and built by Peoria architects Hotchkiss & Harris in the Classical Revival style—was in the vicinity of $30,000, which included the magnificent, broad boulevard leading to the front entrance.

It was a gleaming, white, stately mansion, and folks flocked to get a glimpse of the building and walk the pathways along the river. The club’s entrance was a beautiful, sculptured flower area, and there were plenty of parking spaces for the automobiles that arrived from all over. Folks out for a Sunday horse-and-buggy ride pulled in to marvel at the new contraptions, with names like Glide, Packard, Winton, Chandler and Duesenberg.

A Social Mecca
It might surprise you that by 1900, there were 8,000 automobiles registered in the United States, and some 600 were registered in Illinois. With support from groups across the country like the Peoria Automobile Club, more than two million cars were registered by 1915, including 174,000 in Illinois.

Though the automobile took center stage, the club had many other activities for its members, and it became a special area for picnics and outdoor fun of all kinds. The amenities included a swimming pool, and by the 1940s, a golf course was part of the property, along with tennis courts and lawn games. The ballroom featured spectacular murals, and huge brass and wood chandeliers hung from the high ceilings. The long, full-length porch where meals were served was a favorite of members and guests.

The place became a social mecca for all types of dances and functions, since it was available to rent out to the public. The income from rentals helped keep the costs of maintenance within the club’s budget. Meeting rooms were available, along with the gorgeous ballroom, smaller dining rooms for private parties, and several sleeping rooms for special occasions. The double fireplaces that highlighted the main meeting room were the site of many weddings over the years.

The club members championed the automobile, and the construction of new roads brought hundreds of new club members to the area as the popularity of the automobile grew. The club lobbied Springfield and held numerous fundraisers to spotlight the dangerous roads here in our area. Joining forces with the powerful bicycle clubs, it was successful in getting funds from the state to improve roads and bicycle paths. These groups were well-organized and became a political force to reckon with, resulting in better roadways across the country. The Peoria Auto Club flourished for a time, but was forced to declare bankruptcy and close its doors in 1935.

On Shore Acres
The truth is, the novelty of the automobile wore off, which set into motion the club’s decline. As attendance dropped, the auto club was renamed the North Shore Country Club, and most folks belonged to swim and play golf. It was still a beautiful gathering place, but folks had other places to go and things to do. The property and the buildings were purchased by Mr. Frank Myers in 1939, and he named it Shore Acres and ran it as a recreational park.

In 1945, a colorful character bought the building and grounds. His name was BoBo Stone, and he had different ideas for the place. It was considered nothing less than a bordello shortly after he took over ownership. There were a lot of other names connected with Stone’s place… but I will leave it at that. I remember seeing it when I was a kid, and my uncles, who were called The Peoria Ramblers, played and sang there on occasion. It was the center of a lot of bawdy talk during that time and just after World War II, but the place closed in 1948.

After 1948, the Chillicothe Park District regained control of the property and later installed their offices in the building. They maintained the swimming pool and added baseball diamonds, playgrounds, basketball courts and a beautiful river walkway. The park board took advantage of the roadway running past the building, which had been obtained through the efforts of Auto Club members way back when it was known as the Peoria to Henry Road. In all, efforts by clubs all over America resulted in 854,000 miles of improved roads across the country. iBi

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