From the rush of transcontinental traffic at Main Street and Interstate 80 to the peaceful Soldiers and Sailors Memorial at the south end of Princeton’s primary thoroughfare, this town is a portrait in contrasts.
Deeply rooted in the early history of Illinois, the town of 7,800 about an hour north of Peoria has parlayed its rich past into a future filled with energy and confidence. And growth.
Even as Bureau County shed residents in the past decade, the 2020 Census showed a modest uptick in Princeton, the county seat. There are few empty storefronts amid a boom in renovation and historic preservation.
Even during the challenges of the last two years, Princeton hardly missed a beat.
“We didn’t lose a single business during the pandemic,” said Mayor Joel Quiram. “I was constantly impressed by the ingenuity and creativity of our businesses during that very difficult time.”
HISTORY RUNS DEEP
Princeton’s history goes back nearly 200 years. Settlers from New England and other parts out east established an outpost called Greenfield in the early 1830s. Legend has it that the village was rechristened Princeton after the name was drawn from a hat. And yes, it is connected to an early trustee’s fond memories of his New Jersey roots.
Owen Lovejoy looms large in the town’s past. The home of this well-known abolitionist, politician and friend of Abraham Lincoln was a critical stop on the fabled Underground Railroad. No one knows how many escaped slaves passed through Lovejoy’s home in the years before the Civil War, but the moral conviction and courage of the man himself is undisputed.
The Lovejoy Homestead, located on the eastern edge of town, is a National Historic Landmark operated by the City of Princeton. The annual Homestead Festival reflects the enduring influence of this early resident. “Be Like Lovejoy,” suggests a colorful mural on a downtown building.
Local historians are also quick to tell of a rousing political speech by Lincoln at Bryan Woods on July 4, 1856. A plaque marks the spot in what is now a quiet neighborhood.
Meanwhile, a couple of covered bridges also beckon visitors.
A BUSTLING MAIN DRAG
Impressive as those historic credentials are, they are merely a foundation for the living, breathing, tax-generating buildings crowding for attention along Main Street, the primary commercial district stretching over some 2.5 miles.
Browsers and buyers find clothing stores, boutiques, restaurants, pubs and antique shops. There’s a record store with seemingly no end of vintage vinyl, day spa, gift shops, a jeweler, and the legendary Myrtle’s Pies and Café along an accessible, pedestrian-friendly throughfare.
At the north end of Main Street, across from a 1917 grain elevator converted to apartments, is the Amtrak station. Travelers can catch eight daily trains to Chicago and points east, and west to Galesburg, Quincy, and ultimately, Los Angeles. More than 40,000 ride the rails in and out of the depot every year.
Embedded in the sidewalk in front of the town’s only movie house, the Apollo, is the Princeton Walk of Fame. Four former Princetonians are honored with a star: Doobie Brothers drummer Keith Knudsen, actor and Oscar nominee Richard Widmark, CBS journalist Nick Young and soap opera actress Kathryn Hays.
In the summer months, a swath of Main is blocked off for a series of street concerts. Grace Theater is home to Festival 56, an annual theatrical series that brings in promising actors from across the country. Many of them stay with local families while in town.
Even during the depths of the pandemic, record sales tax revenue filled the city coffers as local residents committed more than ever to shopping local, said City Clerk Pete Nelson.
“The growth in this city is amazing,” said Jyl Morse, third-generation proprietor of Hoffman’s Patterns of the Past. Her gift shop and china pattern matching service are known worldwide. She praises the local entrepreneurs who continue to push a welcoming, youthful image that draws visitors from across the region.
The community draws a steady stream of visitors – from Peoria, the Quad Cities, the west Chicago suburbs — pining for an escape, unique shopping and dining.
“Part of being successful is constantly evolving and responding to people’s needs,” said Gary Bruce, a third-generation jeweler and watchmaker and the proprietor of Bruce Jewelers. Superior service also is a key ingredient that gives an advantage to his business and many others in Princeton.
There is evidence that Princeton natives are returning to the town of their youth, said the mayor. The incentives are affordable housing, good schools and quick and easy access to jobs through traditional commuting or remote work, he said. Meanwhile, some are coming back home to retire.
A RENOVATION BOOM
Among those would-be retirees were Michael Stutzke and his wife Sue, but their planned ride into the sunset changed when Michael’s attention and imagination were captured by the old Knox Hotel on Main Street. That was five years ago. Including the Knox, his Four Flags LLC now has renovated a total of eight historical properties. All have quickly gained tenants and taken their place in the thriving retail mix.
Stutzke said even though many multi-generational business owners still thrive in this economic environment, tomorrow is in the hands of a younger crowd.
“That’s the future of Princeton,” he said. “For a community like this to survive, it needs young entrepreneurs, and Princeton has plenty.”
HEADED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Not everything is happening on Main Street. Princeton’s largest employer is a massive Ace Hardware distribution warehouse in the industrial park just off I-80. It has a seasonal workforce of up to 550. L.W. Schneider manufactures firearm components and employs about 400.
On the south end of town is the unassuming facade of MTM Recognition, formerly the site of Jostens. You would never guess that diamond-encrusted championship sports rings – including for the 1985 Super Bowl champs Chicago Bears, all of the Chicago Bulls’ titles and the 2005 Chicago White Sox World Series team — trophies and other high-end bling is crafted there. OSF Saint Clair Medical Center, formerly Perry Memorial Hospital, also is a significant employer.
Out on the eastern outskirts of town is Hornbaker Gardens, a nursery and de facto botanical garden and arboretum that draws avid gardeners from all over the Midwest to one of the largest selections of hosta found anywhere, as well as newlyweds about to tie the knot at its popular wedding venue.
“Princeton has a quaint feeling that makes it feel like home,” said Jenica Cole, executive director of the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s definitely headed in the right direction.”