Scenes of South Pekin’s past

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This week we’ll revisit a subject that we first covered a little over two years ago – the history of Pekin’s neighbor to the south in Cincinnati Township, the village of South Pekin.

In a column published in the Pekin Daily Times on Dec. 28, 2013, From the Local History Room reviewed the memories of South Pekin’s origin and founding that were recorded in a 48-page book entitled, “The Whirlwind History of South Pekin,” compiled Ann Fisher Bradburn and Betty Metroff Robinson for the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society.

The Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection includes another memento of South Pekin’s past – a 28-page booklet entitled, “Scenes of South Pekin Past + Present,” which was prepared for South Pekin’s Golden Jubilee celebration in 1967. Within the booklet’s covers are an essay on South Pekin’s history, a sketch drawing of an aerial view of the village, and a few reproductions of vintage photographs from the village’s early history.

As we previously noted, South Pekin got its start as a railroad town on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and many early inhabitants in fact made their homes in “Box Car Village” in McFadden Flats, where the homes were old box cars and sleeping cars converted into residences, with the rail wheels still attached and functional – something of an early “mobile home.” Two of the photos reproduced in this booklet, and reprinted here, show the “houses on wheels” where many of South Pekin’s original inhabitants lived.

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows a family living in one of the converted railroad cars in South Pekin's Box Car Village.

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows a family living in one of the converted railroad cars in South Pekin’s Box Car Village.

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows McFadden Flats, the area where South Pekin's original residents lived in what was known as Box Car Village.

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows McFadden Flats, the area where South Pekin’s original residents lived in what was known as Box Car Village.

#box-car-village, #mcfadden-flats, #south-pekin-history, #whirlwind-history-of-south-pekin

‘Diminutive dynamo’ Erma Richards, Navy commander

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In Mackinaw Township Cemetery is a gravestone marked with the Christian cross, bearing the following inscription:

ERMA A RICHARDS
CDR US NAVY
WORLD WAR II KOREA
OCT 31 1896 JUL 17 1991

This simple memorial of a Navy veteran’s service to her country and her fellow man was brought to my attention by Mackinaw historian Kathy Friend, who has supplied the Pekin Public Library with a couple of biographical items concerning the remarkable life and career of Erma Richards.

Richards’ life and personality are encapsulated in the first paragraph of her published obituary, which dubs her “the diminutive dynamo who rose to the rank of commander in the Navy Nurse Corps” – “diminutive” because she stood only 5 feet in height. Friend sums up her life with the comment, “I think she was an amazing lady.”

Born Oct. 31, 1896, in Waynesville, Ill., the daughter of William Clark and Leona Pearl (Heiserman) Richards, she grew up in Mackinaw with a brother and two sisters. Richards entered nurses training at Brokaw Hospital School of Nursing in Normal in 1991, graduating in 1922. She spent the rest of her life doing what she loved – caring for the sick.

After graduation, she served as a private duty nurse for seven years, working with Drs. Edson B. Hart, Joseph K.P. Hawks, Lester B. Cavins, and Fred W. Brian. However, it was, in the words of her obituary, “the promise of adventure and a more secure future” that led her to enlist in the Navy Nurse Corps in 1931.

Joining the Navy Nurse Corps fulfilled its promise of adventure. Richards was first stationed in Chelsea, Mass., then Portsmouth, Va., and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She was then assigned to the USS Relief, which was at the time the only hospital ship in the world. The Relief followed the U.S. fleet in the Caribbean Sea.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Richards was one of only 15 nurses chosen for assignment there in January 1942. After 15 months in Hawaii, she was assigned to a convalescent hospital in Asheville, N.C., as chief nurse.

As America’s war effort continued and casualties mounted, the need to provide care for the injured was met by the conversion of six tankers to hospital ships in the fall of 1944. Richards was assigned to one of them, the USS Benevolence, as chief nurse. Richards said that she loved being at sea.

In the summer of 1945, just before the war was ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Benevolence went to the Marshall Islands to join the Pacific fleet. The Benevolence steamed into Tokyo Bay on Aug. 25, 1945, and then received 1,500 American prisoners of war. Richards and her fellow nurses worked non-stop in caring for the liberated POWs.

With the war’s end, Richards spent eight years serving at Navy bases in San Diego, Calif., Corpus Christi, Texas, and then back to Chelsea, Mass. While stationed at Corpus Christi, Richards was rewarded for her years of service by promotion to the rank of commander. On Dec. 3, 1950, the Corpus Christi Caller newspaper reported her promotion in these words:

“Lt. Com. Erma Richards was selected for promotion to commander at Naval Hospital Chief of Nursing Service. To make commander rank, the chief of the nursing service at the U.S. Naval Hospital, here, Lt. Commdr. Erma Richards, Nurse Corps, USN, has been selected for promotion to the rank of commander. She is the 1st officer of the Nurse Corps to be serving in Texas at the time of selection for appointment to the rank of commander, and will be among the limited few in the service at this rank. Lt. Com. Richards came to the hospital from San Diego in June. She is a native of Mackinaw, Illinois, where her parents, Mr. & Mrs. Clark Richards, still reside. She is a graduate of Brokaw Hospital School of Nursing in Bloomington, Illinois. She has served in I.S. Naval Hospitals in Charleston, South Carolina, Pearl Harbor, St. Alk, New York, San Diego, Portsmouth, Virginia, and Chelsea, Massachusetts.”

Richards retired from the Navy in 1953 and returned to her hometown of Mackinaw, where she was an active member of Mackinaw Christian Church. She passed away in the early morning hours of Wednesday, July 17, 1991, at Martin Health Center in Bloomington.

#erma-richards, #mackinaw

Display of Pekin Library artifacts

Attention all local history or library history buffs:  Currently on display in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room is an assortment of artifacts and documents from the library’s past.  Several of them are items that were preserved in the cornerstone time capsule of Pekin’s old Carnegie Library which served the community from 1902 to 1972.  The artifacts will be on display in March and April. Courtesy of Pekin Public Library Public Information and Programming Manager Emily Lambe, a gallery of photographs of the display is presented below.

This photograph from the 1930s shows Pekin's old Carnegie Library.  One of the two cast-iron lamps at the entrance steps was saved when the library was demolished in the early 1970s. The lamp stood in the new library's plaza until 2014, at which time it was restored and refurbished so it could be moved to the remodeled and expanded library's new Local History Room.

This photograph from the 1930s shows Pekin’s old Carnegie Library. One of the two cast-iron lamps at the entrance steps was saved when the library was demolished in the early 1970s. The lamp stood in the new library’s plaza until 2014, at which time it was restored and refurbished so it could be moved to the remodeled and expanded library’s new Local History Room.

#library-cornerstone, #pekin-public-library

William H. Bates of Pekin, ‘the historian of the city’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Note: Archivists and historians in Missouri recently contacted the Pekin Public Library with information on a fascinating project they’re working on – a project that is related to the life of Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates (1840-1930). Keep an eye on this column in the coming weeks to learn about their project. In the meantime, here’s a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column on William H. Bates that was first published March 17, 2012.

*****

It’s simply impossible to study the early history of Pekin and Tazewell County without running across the name, and relying on the publications, of William H. Bates of Pekin. Regular readers of this column will recall that Bates was the first to publish a history of Pekin, which was included in the old Bates Pekin City Directories starting in 1870. But just who was William Bates, and how did he become Pekin’s pioneer historian?

The Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room files hold the answers to those questions, specifically in the lengthy obituary of William H. Bates published the day after his death in the Nov. 12, 1930, edition of the Pekin Daily Times.

“Few men had contributed as much of their time and means for the betterment of Pekin as Col. Bates,” the obituary says. “He gave the city its first daily newspaper, back in the early seventies, the Bulletin, but the venture did not pay and the paper was discontinued after nine months. He was one of the publishers of the Weekly Republican, printed numerous city directories containing much historical data and issued the souvenir booklet at the dedication of the court house, Wednesday, June 21, 1916. He was the historian of the city and knew more of the story of its early history and growth to its present population than any living man.”

Bates was born in New London, Ohio, on April 28, 1840, the son of Truman and Elizabeth Bates. The Bates family settled in Lafayette, Ind., in 1848, and it was there that William went to school and learned the printer’s art. He got a job on Sept. 15, 1853, in the Lafayette Daily Argus print shop, and the next year he transferred to the Lafayette Daily Courier. There he would compose a column of type and feed one end of an old-fashioned wood-framed Adams press. In 1855 he joined the staff of the Daily Morning Journal at Lafayette.

Fate brought him to Pekin in 1858. Desiring to visit some of America’s larger cities, he “packed his carpet-bag and took the train for Chicago,” his obituary says. He was only in Chicago for three weeks, however, when he received a letter from a sister who was living in Pekin, urging him to come and visit her. His visit was extended, and apart from his three years of Civil War service in the Union army, he remained in Pekin until the end of his life.

Bates volunteered for the U.S. Army from 1861 to 1864, serving in Companies C and H, 8th Missouri Infantry, 15th Army Corps. He “took part in twenty-six engagements, his regiment having the distinction of never losing a battle. He and other printers in his regiment issued a paper from a print shop they took over at Mexico, Mo., printing the edition on manila wrapping paper, the only kind available, the owner having secreted the print paper at the approach of the troops.”

To give his daughter Teena an idea of what he looked like as a Union soldier in the Civil War, Pekin historian and printer William H. Bates got out his old uniform and had Pekin's pioneer photographer Henry Hobart Cole take this photograph of him in 1892. "In your imagination," Bates told his daughter, "remove the chin whiskers, add a little flesh to the cheeks, and you have your father's picture of 1861-1864." The photo is from the collection of Missouri historian Bill Winters.

To give his daughter Teena an idea of what he looked like as a Union soldier in the Civil War, Pekin historian and printer William H. Bates got out his old uniform and had Pekin’s pioneer photographer Henry Hobart Cole take this photograph of him in 1892. “In your imagination,” Bates told his daughter, “remove the chin whiskers, add a little flesh to the cheeks, and you have your father’s picture of 1861-1864.” The photo is from the collection of Missouri historian Bill Winters, courtesy of Steven Schmit of Richmond, Va.

Prior to the war, Bates happened to meet Abraham Lincoln in Metamora. “During the time he worked at his trade in Peoria he was sent to Metamora to overhaul a print shop there that was badly run down. During his short stay the young printer stopped at the local hotel or tavern, and Abraham Lincoln, who was later to become president and a world figure, was there attending court. For a week the gaunt railsplitter entertained the crowd around the office stove with his stories, and he had no more attentive listener than young Bates. The latter remembered some of the stories Lincoln told and delighted in retelling them. In Lincoln he saw one of the future great men of the republic, became one of his ardent admirers and was always a consistent republican.”

Bates played a central role in many of the affairs of his community. Active in local politics, he was Fourth Ward alderman in 1887-88, was elected city treasurer in 1903 for two years, and made an unsuccessful bid for the mayor’s office in 1914. He also supervised Pekin’s Memorial Day celebrations until 1929.

“He was at the fore in all public demonstrations and old-timers still talk about ‘Giasticutus,’ a mechanical elephant Mr. Bates constructed for the Fourth of July parade of 1876,” says his obituary.

“Patriotic to the last, he said only a few days ago: ‘I don’t care what there is on the casket so there is a flag.’ And a flag covers him as he reposts at his home on Haines avenue.” The obituary also commented how fitting it was that, “While the nation paused for Armistice day, marking the end of the world’s greatest war, an heroic figure in civil war history, William H. Bates, passed out of life into that realm of eternal peace. . . . “ Daily Times publisher F.F. McNaughton went to the trouble of making sure Bates received a grand military funeral, the first one in Pekin’s history.

Bates never retired from his trade. At the time of his death, Bates was said to be the third oldest printer in the U.S., and perhaps the oldest active printer in the country.

#abraham-lincoln, #civil-war, #henry-hobart-cole, #pekin-history, #preblog-columns, #william-h-bates, #zouaves

Houses on wheels: South Pekin’s early history

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in December 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .

Houses on wheels: South Pekin’s early history

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Among the items in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection are two small volumes on the history of the village of South Pekin. One of the volumes is a reprint of Polk’s South Pekin Directory for 1937, published when Glenn Draper was South Pekin’s mayor. The other is a 48-page book entitled, “The Whirlwind History of South Pekin,” compiled Ann Fisher Bradburn and Betty Metroff Robinson for the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society.

The book’s title is a play on words, a reference to the tornado of 1938 that destroyed much of South Pekin and killed 11 of the village’s residents. At the time, South Pekin was still a young community, having existed as an incorporated village for not quite 21 years.

Settlement in the South Pekin area, however, began in the 1820s, with the first arrival of white settlers to what would soon become Tazewell County. South Pekin is located in Sections 27 and 34 of Cincinnati Township, which was formed in 1850. Originally the township stretched further north into Pekin, but those northern sections – including land first settled in 1824 by Jonathan Tharp of Pekin – later were reassigned to Pekin Township. In fact, as this column as previously related, if things had gone differently, the city of Pekin would have been named Cincinnati, after the city in Ohio, the state where the Tharps and other early Tazewell County settlers had come from.

South Pekin owes its origin to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The village began as a railway station, and rail cars had a very prominent place in South Pekin’s area days, as Bradburn and Robinson explain in their history. Their account of the founding of South Pekin is on pages 6-7, and is excerpted here:

“The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad made a series of corporate decisions that eventually led to the founding of the village of South Pekin, Illinois. The railroad constructed its line from Nelson, Illinois (on the ‘Omaha Line’) to Peoria, Illinois in 1901. In 1904 C&NW employees discovered a large coalfield near Staunton in Macoupin County. The railroad purchased approximately 30,000 acres of the coal bearing land for $1,010,613.00. Mine shafts were sunk, and other mining facilities were built. The town of Benld was laid out to provide housing for workers. On June 4, 1903 the Macoupin County Railroad was incorporated to link with the Chicago and Alton Railroad (this line was contracted to haul coal to Peoria for the C&NW). Chicago and Northwestern quickly became dissatisfied with the reliability of that new line to supply the needed coal. A few years later C&NW determined to build a line of their own to access the coal field and carry freight between Chicago and St. Louis. The announcement of the new line from Peoria to a point near Girard was made on January 27, 1911, and the St. Louis, Peoria, and Northwestern Railroad was incorporated on February 23, 1911.

“Surveyors laid out the new line to be as straight as possible with little effort given to passing through existing communities. It missed Pekin by one mile and Springfield by three or four miles. By March of 1912, all of the right of way had been purchased and grading was started. (The new line used portions of the tracks of other incorporated railroads.) C&NW needed a water, refueling, and repair station midway on the new line. The first choice for the location of this new station was Green Valley, but protests from residents there prompted a change of plans. A new location was chosen, and the railroad and its employees began to build the new station that became South Pekin.’

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows McFadden Flats, the area where South Pekin's original residents lived in what was known as Box Car Village.

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows McFadden Flats, the area where South Pekin’s original residents lived in what was known as Box Car Village.

“Surveyors and the men hired by the railroad spent periods of time at the site to grade the right of way, lay track, and build facilities such as the roundhouse, water tower, etc. The workers also drained a swampy area that had been utilized by area farmers for duck hunting. The first permanent resident family, Al Casper, his wife, and daughter, arrived on Christmas Day in 1912. They moved into an existing farmhouse. At least one new resident family set up housekeeping in a tent. As more families arrived, the railroad gave them boxcars to use as homes. At first the boxcars were on the tracks of the new railyard. The cars were moved frequently, and residents had to search for their homes! Eventually the cars were moved on to a siding that became known as McFadden Flats. Mike McFadden initiated this more permanent solution for the houses on wheels. Later, some of the cars were removed from the wheels and dragged by teams of horses or mules from the tracks to lots in the new community. Connecting several cars together in various configurations made large homes. Peaked roofs, and amenities such as indoor plumbing, running water, central heating, and electricity were added when they became available, or when the families could afford to add them to their homes . . . .”

Having gotten off to a “rolling start,” the Village of South Pekin was incorporated on April 12, 1917.

#box-car-village, #chicago-and-northwestern, #cincinnati-addition, #cincinnati-township, #jonathan-tharp, #mcfadden-flats, #preblog-columns, #railroads, #south-pekin-history, #whirlwind-history-of-south-pekin

Jerry Sea and Pekin’s pro baseball history

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The death of retired physical education teacher and coach Gerald R. “Jerry” Sea at the age of 76 on Feb. 12, 2016, was not only a loss to his family and friends, but also marked the passing of a Pekin sports historian who chronicled and preserved the memories and records of the Celestials, a professional baseball team that made Pekin its home in the early 20th century.

Sea was a P.E. teacher for 30 years in Pekin Public Schools District 108 as well as a teacher and coach for Tremont High School, and a member of Sunday morning baseball leagues for more than two decades, pitching for and managing three Illinois Valley Glass Championship teams in the 1970s. In addition, he spent more than 25 years in the Mackinaw Valley League and Kickapoo Valley League.

To earn his master’s degree, he researched and prepared a history of the Pekin Celestials. This column has twice previously featured Sea’s baseball history, first on March 24, 2012, and again on April 27, 2013. In Sea’s memory, following is a reprint of the From the Local History Room column from three years ago.

*****

We’re a month into the 2013 major league baseball season, so this is a good time to take another look back at the history of professional baseball in Pekin.

As we recalled in this column on March 24, 2012, for a three-year period a little more than a century ago – from 1909 to 1912 – Pekin had its own minor league baseball team, named the Celestials. In pursuing his master’s degree in 1972, now-retired Pekin physical education teacher Gerald R. Sea prepared a history of the Celestials, “The History of Professional Baseball and Professional Baseball Players from Pekin, Illinois,” a copy of which is part of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection.

As we noted last year, one of Sea’s chief sources for his history was Walter “Spider” Diehl, outfielder with the Pekin Celestials all three years of its existence. Sea interviewed Diehl when the former Pekin outfielder was in his 90s.

Sea has recently supplied the library with copies of vintage photos from the Celestials’ three-year run, as well as some old newspaper clippings from a series on Pekin’s professional baseball history that Sea wrote for the Pekin Daily Times. In one of his articles in that series, Sea tells the story of the Celestials’ first game in Pekin on May 11, 1909, against Canton’s minor league team.

The photograph, provided courtesy of Gerald Sea, shows the Pekin Celestials professional minor league baseball team in 1909.

The photograph, provided courtesy of Gerald Sea, shows the Pekin Celestials professional minor league baseball team in 1909.

The game drew a crowd of more than 2,000 fans, including Mayor William J. Conzelman, who threw the first pitch. The mayor had declared the day a public holiday, and all the schools and the city offices had closed at noon. A grand parade preceded the game, with the members of both teams, city officials and community leaders marching behind Gehrig’s Band up Court Street, and then back to the P & PU railroad station at Third Street, where a special train took the teams and coaches to the ball park.

“The great day was made a complete success when the Celestials defeated Canton 5-2 behind the pitching of Joe Jenkins, who was to compile a minor league career pitching record of 200 wins and 75 losses and have brief stays with the immortal manager John McGraw’s famed New York Giants in 1911 and 1914,” Sea wrote in Part Five of his Pekin Daily Times series.

In the same article, Sea tells a story from the career of Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. It’s an episode from 1909 that was dramatized in the 1952 movie, “The Winning Team,” starring Doris Day and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who played the role of Alexander.

“It was the day, July 27, when the young Alexander, only 22 at the time, was almost killed by a thrown ball,” Sea wrote.

“The game that day was a wild one. Earl ‘Shakey’ Hill, a native of Tremont, was pitching for Galesburg and had hit three Pekin batters with pitched balls. Several other players have received serious spike wounds. These were the days when the game was played, as they say, for ‘keeps.’

“Alexander, playing right field instead of pitching, led off the eighth inning with a single and the next batter hit a ground ball to second. Chief Edwards, the Pekin shortstop, took the throw to get the force at second but on his relay throw to first in a double play attempt hit Alexander, running to second, square in the temple.

“Alex shook off the effects of the blow and staggered to his outfield position where he promptly collapsed.

“Pekin’s Walter ‘Spider’ Diehl, noticed that the future baseball immortal was turning blue in the face, caused by strangulation from blood running into his throat.

“Diehl picked Alexander up by his feet and a ball of blood regurgitated, enabling him to breathe. He was taken to the hotel, where the old Pekin Post Office now stands, and laid there, bed-ridden, for seven days.

“Alexander’s condition was so grave that his father came all the way from Nebraska to be at his bedside. At first it was thought Alex would lose the sight in one eye. He didn’t, but altho he recovered, Alexander played no more baseball that season.

“However, it was from this injury that Alexander was to suffer severe headaches and eventually epilepsy. Had it not been for the injury, perhaps ‘Old Pete’ would not have almost been washed up before his time by imbibing alcohol in order to ease the pain from his headaches. And, had it not been for the quick thinking of ‘Spider’ Diehl, there may not have been any Grover Cleveland Alexander around to strike out Tony Lazzeri and be the hero of the 1926 World Series,” observed Sea.

#baseball, #gehrigs-band, #gerald-sea, #grover-cleveland-alexander, #joe-jenkins, #pekin-celestials, #pekin-history, #spider-diehl, #william-conzelman