You can learn more about the man they named the Murray Baker Bridge after by visiting the house he built on Moss Avenue—a grand West Bluff mansion that recently went on the market. The home at 1222 W. Moss reflects the accomplishments of one of Peoria’s most prominent citizens. In addition to being a philanthropist and pillar of the community, Murray Baker is credited with bringing Caterpillar to Peoria and served on the Caterpillar board for more than 40 years.
Baker lived in this home for half a century, raising a family and enjoying long walks along Moss, as well as proximity to Bradley University, where he would attend basketball games at Robertson Memorial Field House. His donations helped establish Baker Hall, home of Bradley’s business college—a building recently displaced by the massive business-engineering complex presently under construction.
Few people have had as great an impact on the Peoria area as Murray Baker. To fully appreciate the role he played in the development of both Caterpillar and Peoria, one must go back to the early years of the 20th century when Baker, a farm implement dealer at the time, reached out to the Holt Caterpillar Manufacturing Company of Stockton, California with an opportunity.
The Legacy of Murray Baker
“In 1908 when the Colean Co. failed, I was informed that the idle plant (in East Peoria) and equipment could be bought at an attractive price,” Baker wrote in 1910. “I realized the importance to the community of locating a buyer to reoccupy this new plant.”
The bankruptcy of Colean, a steam-powered tractor firm, meant that a new facility built for tractors at a cost of $400,000 (about $10 million today) was available for as little as $50,000. Baker soon telegraphed Pliny Holt, who had been seeking a Midwestern outlet to serve the nation’s breadbasket, about the opportunity that existed in East Peoria.
The rest, as they say, is history. Baker not only helped the upstart Holt enterprise set up shop in central Illinois—and saved the deal when it appeared it might fall apart—he “threw in his lot with the new company, becoming vice president and general manager,” according to a Caterpillar company history. “It wouldn’t have happened without Baker,” notes Lee Fosburgh, supervisor of heritage services and archives at Caterpillar Inc.
When Baker joined in 1909, the firm that would later become the Caterpillar Tractor Company was not the manufacturing giant we know today. Holt’s East Peoria operation consisted of Baker and three or four engineers from Minneapolis (where Holt had tentatively established a Midwestern branch), and its financial problems were many. “I had put all I could spare or borrow in the business, though the company’s credit was none too great,” Baker recalled in an interview with the Peoria Journal Star. That would change, of course.
During World War I, the company turned temporarily to military production. “Baker helped Holt get military contracts during World War I,” Fosburgh explains, noting that Holt quadrupled the size of its East Peoria plant during the war. Baker played a big part in that growth—not only of the firm, but of the surrounding community. “The location of Holt’s was a tremendous move for Peoria, but much more significant was the development into the great, successful builder of the best tractors in the world,” wrote C.L. Dancey in a 1962 Journal Star editorial on the occasion of Baker’s 90th birthday.
In 1917, the Minonk News-Dispatch described Holt’s efforts in building Caterpillar Trail, the seven-mile stretch of Illinois Route 116 in East Peoria. “Mr. Baker is a graveled road enthusiast and does not believe in waiting for state and federal aid. [He] is an enthusiast and never does things by halves and never starts anything he does not finish and his ability to get results is evidenced by the success of the Holt Manufacturing Co.,” the paper noted.
As an executive vice president at Holt, Baker served another role as well, Fosburgh explains, pointing out that Caterpillar’s formation resulted from the consolidation of two California tractor companies. “The dealings between the Holt and Best families were sometimes contentious,” he says. “Murray Baker played the middle-man role. He was able to get along with both families.”
In 1925, Holt merged with the C. L. Best Tractor Company, and Caterpillar was formed. Baker continued to work at Caterpillar until 1927 and served as a director on Caterpillar’s board from 1925 until 1957. He might even be the company’s first archivist, Fosburgh adds. “Baker had all the information about Caterpillar’s early years in the basement of his Moss Avenue home—materials that he later donated to the company.”
Among Baker’s other accomplishments was helping to persuade R.G. LeTourneau to move his earthmoving business from California to Peoria in 1935. LeTourneau took over the site of the Avery Manufacturing Co. on NE Adams Street, where the Komatsu plant is presently located. The great industrialist, who produced over 300 patents involving earthmoving equipment, saw the benefit of setting up near Caterpillar, the firm that produced the tractors that pulled his scrapers.
Putting Baker’s name on the I-74 bridge was only appropriate since, during World War II, he was a leading advocate for the construction of a new bridge over the Illinois River connecting Peoria and East Peoria.
When it came to giving back, Baker’s philosophy was simple: “I made my money in Peoria and I want Peoria to benefit from it,” he stated in one press account. Along with Bradley, he helped fund St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Proctor Hospital and Methodist Hospital.
A Grand Residence
Baker built his Peoria residence in 1914. Like other grand homes on Moss Avenue, the seven-bedroom mansion is a reminder of another time.
Murray Baker Moulding, Baker’s grandson and a retired college professor living in Colorado, remembers childhood trips to Peoria from Chicago where Mary Moulding, Baker’s daughter, resided. Now 80, he recalls being impressed by those visits. “If you went through the back door, you’d go into grandfather’s study and then into the dining room, with wonderful wallpaper depicting the Hudson River,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
“The sunroom was my favorite room, with its eight windows looking out on the back lawns,” Moulding recalls. But there was plenty for a child to enjoy at the Baker home. “He had an aquarium with a bronze sculpture in the middle and a stuffed parrot that hung from the ceiling. I remember an old Philco radio where grandfather would listen to [commentator] Gabriel Heatter. There was a magnificent fountain in the backyard—with fish,” he adds, recalling the lawn that slopes down to where a four-car garage sits today.
“There was even an electric horse in the basement that we could ride,” Moulding continues. “I saw [Baker] as a stern, soft-spoken figure—not an easy man to talk to for a child—but I remember him taking me duck hunting when he was 80. He was still a good shot and I remember him being very kind to me.” Childhood visits to the Duck Island Duck Club in nearby Banner were always memorable, he adds. “I remember getting a letter from grandfather when I was 12, giving me his shares in the duck club.”
In 1967, a few years after Baker died, another family moved into the Moss Avenue home—the Dries family. Mrs. Eleanor Heinz Dries and her five children would spend 51 years there. “Our hope is that someone who loves historic homes can take over the residence,” says Tom Dries, 55, who grew up in the home. “Look at the construction,” he says, pointing to 14-inch thick walls and the home’s ornate molding.
Dries recalls the life of his mother, marveling at “the strength of that woman” who raised the family by herself after the children’s father left. Known to many as “Mommy Nor” from her 18 years of child care, Eleanor Dries, who died last year, had been an active member of the Moss-Bradley Residential Association.
Bernadette O’Brien, a Peorian and the oldest of the five Dries children, said the family wasn’t affected by growing up in such a grand home. “We just thought of it as ‘the Murray Baker house,’” she notes. PM
For more information on the Murray Baker home, visit mansiononmoss.com.