Legend has it that Pekin was named for Peking (now Beijing), the capital of China. It’s an appealing but apocryphal story that is generally accepted as truth, even though historians are hard pressed to prove or disprove it.
Truth is, Pekin by any other name — parts of the present city were once called Cincinnati — would still be the largest city in Tazewell County and the second largest city in the Peoria metro area. And it would still play a major role in the economy, history, culture and daily life of the region, just as it has for nearly 200 years.
Today, nearly 32,000 call Pekin home, and while that may be fewer than a decade ago, Peoria’s downriver neighbor remains a critical element in the past and future of central Illinois.
The city’s largest employer, Pekin Insurance, celebrated 100 years in business in 2021. A downtown revitalization study is underway, new “high end” apartments for young professionals will be completed in December, and a couple of subdivisions are under development.
To Mayor Mark Luft, all of this activity is moving Pekin in the right direction.
“We have all the right pieces and the right people,” Luft said. A consultant was brought in this fall to look at the best way to “put all of the pieces together for us.” Those pieces include a renewed Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District, a business development district, a new economic development director, and federal and state grants, all focused on breathing new life into the heart of the city.
‘We have all the right pieces.’
— Mayor Mark Luft
“We’re anxious to move forward,” said Luft. Funds spent for the consultant are “pennies on the dollar” compared to the positive things expected to come from it, he added.
Amy Whiting-McCoy, executive director of the Pekin Chamber of Commerce, acknowledges that reviving downtown is one of her organization’s goals. She points to restaurants like Ashers and Maquet’s Rail House, a yoga studio, coffee shops, boutiques, art studios and the Artistic Community Theatre as building blocks that are already in place to encourage frequent downtown visits.
She said the consultant will recommend physical upgrades such as new sidewalks and landscaping and complementary businesses that will attract even more people — “a bookstore, a wine seller, dance studio, whatever it might be.”
“The goal is not to just generate revenue,” the mayor said. “It is about things that bring quality of life to a community.
“I think this region has the best leadership sitting at the table that it has had in the last two decades. The more successful the region is, the more it will come home to us.”
MARIGOLDS, A U.S. SENATOR, AND BEAUTIFUL PARKS
In addition to being the Tazewell County seat, Pekin is known far and wide as the Marigold Capital of the World, a title held since 1973 when the Chamber dreamed up an annual festival to honor the life and floral advocacy of favorite son Everett McKinley Dirksen.
The weekend after Labor Day, the Pekin Marigold Festival attracts thousands to Mineral Springs Park and other locations for carnival rides, food, art and crafts, live entertainment, a huge parade and more. And it’s all because Dirksen (who was U.S. Senate Minority Leader from 1959 to 1969 — more on him later) and his efforts to make the marigold our national flower.
Whiting-McCoy said the 50th anniversary festival in 2022 drew about 38,000, the best showing in years. Besides boosting Pekin businesses and burnishing the city’s image, Whiting-McCoy said the festival’s exclusive use of nonprofit food vendors is “one of the most exciting and most proud parts of the festival.”
When prospective employers and employees come to town, green space and recreational opportunities top the list of Pekin amenities that officials want to show off. Encompassing 2,277 acres, the Pekin Park District is the second largest in the region, and among the largest acres-per-capita park districts in the state.
Park District Director Cameron Bettin calls Mineral Springs Park the “jewel in the crown” of the system, a 220-acre green space in the heart of the city highlighted by a placid lagoon for fishing and paddle boats, a lovingly restored pavilion, sports fields, Dragonland Water Park, miniature golf, a dog park, and all-season fitness and recreational facilities.
Elsewhere, residents enjoy extensive hiking trails, disc golf and horse trails at McNaughton Park, two golf courses (Parkview and Lick Creek), archery at Dirksen Park, and quiet neighborhood playgrounds. The 4.3-mile Pekin Bike Trail ends at the foot of Court Street, where Riverfront/Miller Park offers river views, a Festival Plaza, interactive water play area and viewing pier.
“Our parks hold a special place in people’s hearts and memories,” Bettin said.
HOW TO TRAIN A DRAGON
As in most communities, Pekin’s schools — which serve nearly 5,000 students in preschool through high school — are at the heart of community life. Two taxing districts support 11 elementary campuses and Pekin Community High School, home of the Dragons and the largest high school by enrollment in the Peoria area.
Danielle Owens, superintendent of PCHS, said one of the school’s best kept secrets is the Career and Technical Education programs, which offer dozens of classes in early childhood education, welding, manufacturing, automotive technology, construction, business, graphic design and multimedia, culinary arts and more.
College-bound students can choose from more than a dozen advanced placement classes. Junior ROTC is there for those interested in military service.
“There is something for everyone here,” said Owens. “It doesn’t matter what you want to do or even if you don’t know what you want to do.”
She said “opportunity” is the one word that best describes what PCHS offers its students.
INDUSTRY, GOVERNMENT AND HISTORY
The Kickapoo, Ottawa and Potawatomi people once lived on the banks of the Illinois River where Pekin now stands. A farmer named Jonathan Tharp planted the seeds of the modern city when he built a log cabin here in 1824. A steady stream of settlers followed.
Like Peoria to the north, Pekin grew up a hardworking industrial river town. Coal mining, distilling and brick making, a marble works, glass factory, a world-renowned maker of pipe organs and other manufacturing fueled urban growth. Industry and agriculture both took advantage of the waterway and railroads to ship products to markets near and far.
Manufacturing still abounds at Hanna Steel, Winpak (food packaging), Pacific Ethanol and others, but there has been a shift. The largest employers in Pekin today are Pekin Insurance, the school system and UnityPoint Health. Amazon — a much-sought-after newcomer to the region — is set to open a fulfillment center in North Pekin (just outside of Pekin’s boundaries), bringing 250 or more jobs to the region.
Pekin has been the county seat since 1849 and has functioned as the political heart of the mostly rural county ever since. The county offers an abundance of government jobs plus the medium security federal prison just south of town.
An up-and-coming young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln once tried cases at the old courthouse in the mid-1800s. The city is peppered with homes and sites with Lincoln connections.
As mentioned earlier, U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen was known for his talents as an orator and willingness to work with all parties to get things done in Washington. He was very instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He is remembered in his hometown with a statue at Mineral Springs Park (near the giant sundial) and at the well-known and respected Dirksen Congressional Center, which promotes research, scholarship, and understanding of the workings of Congress.
Another local legend, Scott Altman, is a retired former NASA astronaut and veteran of multiple space shuttle missions. Scott Altman Primary School on Highwood Avenue honors the accomplishments of the 1977 PCHS graduate. A bust of the space traveler is at the Tazewell Country Museum.
Scott Altman Primary school is named after the Retired former Nasa astronaut, a 1977 PCHS graduate.
Everywhere you look in Pekin, you see marigolds and dragons used as symbols of this historic and resilient city, fitting emblems of strength, wisdom, health and good fortune ahead.