By Jared Olar
Older residents of Pekin will still remember a regular column in the Pekin Daily Times that was titled, “The Oldtimer Recalls.” The columnist was Roy S. Preston (1894-1985), former postmaster at the Pekin post office, who was laid to rest in Lakeside Cemetery, Pekin.
The files in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room include various clippings of Preston’s column. One of them, dated Aug. 12, 1975, describes what was found in a time capsule that had been enclosed in the cornerstone of the Illinois Sugar Refining Co., a plant later replaced by Corn Products (today Aventine).
Preston noted that the decision to build that plant was made during a stockholders meeting at the Fey Hotel in Peoria on Dec. 22, 1898. “Henry Herget was the big influence that gave the vote in favor of Pekin” as the site of the new sugar refinery. “The vote was disappointing to the Peoria delegation,” Preston wrote.
Found in the time capsule were several copies of the old pre-1881 Pekin Weekly Times and the post-1881 Pekin Daily Times. Preston discusses the contents of some of the newspapers, including one from 1888, when Albert R. Warren was mayor of Pekin and Peter Sweitzer was chairman of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, and coffee sold for 50 cents for 3 pounds.
Preston’s column from 1975 also gives some of the early history of the Illinois Sugar Refining Co. He writes, “At the start they employed Russians on the beet plantations which were located around the sound of Pekin and as far south as Green Valley. They lived in tents. The language was a problem. German were brought over from Germany. They were people who had lived on the Russian border and this solved the language problem,” since most people in Pekin at the time spoke German as a first or second language.
Continuing, Preston writes, “The owners of the land were responsible for planting and harvesting the crop. They were paid $4 a ton delivered to the plant in Pekin. They also had to protect the crop against the frost. It is hard to believe that the growers made any money.”
Another of Preston’s columns in the Local History Room files was published Aug. 21, 1971, and gave an overview of the history of the Pekin Daily Times newspaper. What had occasioned his look back at Pekin Times history was the newspaper’s switch to a new offset printing press on July 26, 1971.
In Preston’s review of local newspaper history, perhaps the most remarkable item is the following notice of an article first published in a Tazewell County newspaper in 1866, reporting on a massive brawl that broke out at a Fourth of July picnic between English-speaking Pekin residents (“Anglo Americans”) and German-speakers (“Teutons”).
“We learn that at a picnic held on Sunday near Pekin, a row was inaugurated and a fierce conflict ensued between the Anglo American and Teutonic races in which fence boards and all available weapons were used freely – three or four hundred belligerents being engaged. The battle raged fiercely all along the line but we have heard of no deaths. One Teuton who was desirous of being a peacemaker was made pieces of by having one of his ears torn off by the descent of a club and one jaw broken. In that case it is hard to see the fulfillment of the Scripture, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’”