The Pekin Public Library’s early history: A glimpse inside a time capsule

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in March 2013 before the launch of this weblog.

A glimpse inside a time capsule

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Each week this column delves into the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection to see what we can learn about various aspects, anecdotes and artifacts of Pekin and Tazewell County history. This week we’ll turn our attention toward the history the Pekin Public Library itself, by taking look at a few of the contents of the library’s Cornerstone Time Capsule collection.

As both longtime residents of Pekin and attentive visitors to the library know, the current library building is not the first one to be erected on it site. Prior to the construction of the current library in 1972, Pekin’s readers were served by a smaller structure that stood at the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway, where the library’s sunken plaza is located today. [NB: Since the 2015 remodel and expansion of the library, the old sunken plaza is no more, replaced by a quiet reading room and a grove of trees with water drainage.]

That earlier structure – one of the nation’s many Carnegie libraries, built in 1902 under the patronage of famous American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – was the first building constructed in Pekin to serve specifically as a public library. To celebrate that milestone in Pekin’s history, a formal dedication ceremony took place on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 1902.

On that occasion, the library’s cornerstone was laid – and within the cornerstone was placed a time capsule containing an assortment of documents and relics pertaining chiefly to the history of the plans and preparations leading up to the construction of Pekin’s Carnegie library.

The time capsule remained sealed for 70 years. When the old library was replaced with a new, expanded facility in 1972, the cornerstone was opened and the contents of the time capsule were found to be in a very good state of preservation. For many years after that, the cornerstone materials were stored at Herget Bank, later being transferred to the Pekin Public Library’s own historical archives.

Placed in the cornerstone time capsule were five local newspapers, three of them from August 1902 and two of them from February 1896. The reason for including three August 1902 newspapers is obvious – they are issues with dates that are close to the day of the cornerstone laying: the Pekin Daily Post-Tribune of Aug. 18, 1902, the Pekin Daily Times of Aug. 16, 1902, and the Pekin Freie Presse of Aug. 14, 1902. (Pekin formerly had a German language newspaper due to the heavy influx of German immigrants to Pekin in the mid- to late 1800s.)

The reason for including the two newspapers from February 1896 is probably not obvious to anyone not well versed in the library’s history, however. Those newspapers – the Pekin Daily Tribune and the Pekin Daily Evening Post, both of 13 Feb. 1896 – were chosen because that date was close to the day that the library became a municipal body of Pekin’s city government.

The library’s history did not begin in 1902, but in fact reaches back to 1866, as we read in one of the documents placed in the 1902 cornerstone: a “History of the Pekin Public Library” written by Miss Mary Gaither. “On November 24th, 1866, a large number of the ladies of Pekin met to organize what was for many years known as the ‘Ladies Library Association,’” Gaither wrote. Also included in the cornerstone was one of the handwritten invitations to that meeting.

On March 5, 1883, the Pekin Library Association formally incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois – the original, sealed articles of incorporation from 1883 also were included in the cornerstone time capsule.

Ten years later, on Feb. 6, 1893, the Library Association petitioned the city to have the library and its collection handed over to the city’s ownership. The process of transferring the library from private to public control was completed three years later, in 1896.

Shown here is part of the front page of the Feb. 13, 1896, Pekin Daily Tribune, one of the newspapers that was preserved in the 1902 Pekin Public Library cornerstone time capsule.

Shown here is the top front of the outer sleve of the Feb. 13, 1896, Pekin Daily Tribune, one of the newspapers that was preserved in the 1902 Pekin Public Library cornerstone time capsule.

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A brief history of Pekin’s street fairs

This is a revised and expanded version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in June 2011 before the launch of this weblog.

A brief history of Pekin’s street fairs

By Linda Mace, Library assistant (retired),
and Jared Olar, Library assistant

This photograph from the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection shows the booth of Central Book & Toy Store at the 1935 Pekin Street Fair.

Once upon a time, or beginning in 1898 and apparently ending in the mid-1930’s, Pekin would put on vibrant, very popular street fairs, hosted in the city’s downtown.

In 1902, on the day of the parade, 18,000 people attended this event. Two railroad companies from Peoria brought 2,800 people into our fair town. This was quite the event, with officers and committees and a whole list of rules and regulations.

This is from the official brochure and program for the 1902 fair:

“The many favorable comments upon the originality and beauty of the FREE STREET FAIRS given by Pekin during the years 1898 and 1899, and the clean and praiseworthy manner in which they were conducted, has resulted in a unanimous desire on the part of our wide-awake business men and citizens to out-do all previous Street Fairs, therefore the Association has selected October 15, 16, 17 & 18, 1902, as the dates on which Pekin will again offer free entertainment to the assemble multitudes. THE MOST FASTIDIOUS TASTES of the visitor and his family will find only pleasure and instruction in the beautiful array of VARIEGATED BOOTHS and MUSICAL and DESCRIPTIVE ENTERTAINMENTS WHICH WILL BE GIVEN DAY AND NIGHT! THE FACT THAT PEKIN, in her former exhibits, MORE THAN FILLED HER PROMISES to the public, should, and we believe will, be encouraged in giving her third street fair, by an almost universal visit from the citizens of Central Illinois.”

The brochure went on to describe the “great parade” and emphasized “new features every day.” The fair of 1898 had contained 80 booths, running down the middle of the street and on either side, corresponding to the front footage of the stores erecting them. Downtown Pekin was the place to be in those days!

Shown here is the front cover of the 1899 Pekin Street Fair official program and souvenir. The Pekin Public Library’s copy of the program was preserved in the 1902 library cornerstone time capsule.

This page from the 1899 Pekin Street Fair official program and souvenir features a photograph of the Cole’s Studio booth. Cole’s Studio was the photography business of Pekin’s pioneer photographer Henry Hobart Cole.

The old tradition of Pekin’s street fairs continues in new forms even today, with the popular annual Marigold Festival and downtown events organized and promoted by Pekin Main Street. Pekin also put on an old-fashioned street fair on and near the premises of the Tazewell County Courthouse on Aug. 7, 1999, as part of the major celebrations of the 175th anniversary of Pekin’s settlement and the 150th anniversary of Pekin’s incorporation as a city.

Festivities at the 1999 street fair were literally dampened by a summer thunderstorm, but the celebrations went on as planned. “As black clouds poured rain and thunder bellowed, Mayor Dave Tebben and pioneering Tharp family descendant Norman Tharp led about 100 people as they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Pekin,” the Pekin Daily Times reported.

Shown are a commemorative plate and a special section of the Pekin Daily Times marking the celebration of Pekin’s 175th birthday. Both items are in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection.

Hopefully the city’s bicentennial celebrations five years from now also won’t be rained out, even if rained on.

Included in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room archives are copies of the 1899 and 1902 Pekin Street Fair brochure and a 1999 Pekin Terquasquicentennial commemorative plat embossed with the official logo of the 1999 Pekin 175th Anniversary.

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A succession of county courthouses

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The Tazewell County Courthouse in downtown Pekin celebrated its 100th birthday just last month. Serving the county for as long as it has, the courthouse is neither the first such structure in Tazewell County history nor the first courthouse to be built at that location.
As told in Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” the first Tazewell County Courthouse was located in Mackinaw, which was originally the county seat, being located in the county’s center. The first courthouse, a log house 24 feet long and 18 feet wide, was built at a cost of $125 in the summer of 1827 on lot 1 of block 11. Improvements were made to the simple structure in 1830, but in the summer of 1831 the court relocated to the old Doolittle School at the corner of Elizabeth and Second streets in Pekin.

Pekin historian William H. Bates drew this representation of the first Tazewell County Courthouse, located in Mackinaw, for the "Historical Souvenir" that Bates published for the dedication of the new courthouse in 1916.

Pekin historian William H. Bates drew this representation of the first Tazewell County Courthouse, located in Mackinaw, for the “Historical Souvenir” that Bates published for the dedication of the new courthouse in 1916.

The court was relocated to Pekin because in Dec. 1830 the Illinois General Assembly had created McLean County out of the eastern portion of Tazewell County, which originally was much larger than it is today. With the redrawing of the border, Mackinaw was now toward the eastern edge of the county, and many county officials thought the new town of Pekin would make a better county seat than Mackinaw.
For the next few years, Pekin would function as the de facto county seat even though it had not been established as such by law. But in 1835 the state legislature appointed a commission to permanently fix Tazewell County’s seat, and the commission opted for Tremont rather than Pekin, because Tremont was close to the center of the county. The court moved to Tremont on June 6, 1836, and a temporary courthouse was promptly erected there at the cost of $1,150. Then in 1837 construction began on a permanent brick courthouse in Tremont for $14,450. That structure was completed in 1839 – the same year that the residents of Pekin formally began efforts to have the county seat transferred back to their town.

William H. Bates reproduced this photograph of the old Tazewell County Courthouse in Tremont for the 1916 "Historical Souvenir" that he published for the dedication of the new courthouse.

William H. Bates reproduced this photograph of the old Tazewell County Courthouse in Tremont for the 1916 “Historical Souvenir” that he published for the dedication of the new courthouse.

The contentious rivalry between Pekin and Tremont continued throughout the 1840s, and Chapman relates that, in their efforts to retain the county seat and to slow or halt Pekin’s growing prosperity, Tremont is said to have lobbied the General Assembly several times to have portions of Tazewell County sliced off and assigned to neighboring counties. After the election of May 1843, Chapman writes, “a stop [was] made to this dividing up and cutting off of Tazewell’s territory. Had they continued it much longer there would have been nothing left of the county but Pekin and Tremont. Then, we doubt not, a division would have been made and both towns have at least gained a county-seat.”
Further on, Chapman comments, “During these twenty years of local war, of course bitterness of feeling was intense, and great injury was done to all parts of the county. Many of the older citizens attribute very largely the prosperity and commercial advantages by Peoria over Pekin to the bitter feuds engendered during this long and eventful strife.”
The conflict ended in 1849, when the citizens of Tazewell County voted to move the county seat to Pekin, where it has remained ever since. A new courthouse was then built in Pekin in 1850, at the site of the present courthouse. “The question [of the county seat’s location] having been finally and definitely decided the courthouse was immediately erected by the citizens of Pekin, in fulfillment of their promise. The last meeting of the Board of Supervisors . . . that was held at Tremont was Aug. 26, 1850, when it moved in a body to their new and more commodious quarters, and on the same day dedicated the edifice by holding therein their first meeting in Pekin,” Chapman writes.
The old Tremont courthouse remained in use as a high school for several years, later being used as a community center and dance hall, until at last the ground level was used as tenements before the dilapidated structure was razed around 1895. The old county histories note that Abraham Lincoln practiced law in both the Tremont courthouse and the 1850 courthouse in Pekin.
“Pekin: A Pictorial History” notes that for the construction of the Pekin courthouse, “Gideon Rupert (his residence is the current homesite of the Noel-Henderson Funeral Home) contributed $600 and with others’ generosity, raised the needed funds for the building. The cost was $8,000. Local products of sandstone, quarried five miles northeast of Pekin, and bricks, fired at the Jansen and Zoeller Brickyard on the East Bluff, were used.” The building also had white marble columns.

The layout of the Tazewell County Courthouse Block in November 1903 is shown in this detail from a Sanborn fire insurance map of downtown Pekin. In addition to the courthouse, the block also encompassed a band stand, the county jail and Sheriff's dwelling, and the county offices building. The courthouse, band stand, and offices building were demolished in 1914 to make way for a larger, even more grand courthouse.

The layout of the Tazewell County Courthouse Block in November 1903 is shown in this detail from a Sanborn fire insurance map of downtown Pekin. In addition to the courthouse, the block also encompassed a band stand, the county jail and Sheriff’s dwelling, and the county offices building. The courthouse, band stand, and offices building were demolished in 1914 to make way for a larger, even more grand courthouse.

Also helping to defray construction costs were prominent local landowners David and Elijah Mark, who each gave $500. The heirs of the Mark estate would eventually donate the land that would become James Field in Pekin.
The 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial records the tradition that, “Older Pekinites claim that the columns of the old County Court House were painted black up to the height of the first floor doors because the white marble was marred by the hand and fingerprints of the loungers who leaned against them.”
The 1850 courthouse remained in use until 1914, when it was razed to make way for a new and larger edifice – the current structure, which was built over the next two years at a cost of $212,964.
“Wide marble steps and Italian-imported white marble banisters graced the ‘architecturally noteworthy’ interior of the courthouse dedicated on June 21, 1916,” according to “Pekin: A Pictorial History.”
“Thousands attended the dedication services with Illinois congressman and candidate for governor, W.E. Williams, as the featured speaker. According to the Pekin Daily Times, Congressman Williams, ‘spoke for an hour and fifteen minutes . . . .’”

This vintage photograph shows the laying of the new Tazewell County Courthouse's cornerstone in 1914. Standing next to scaffolding in the foreground is William H. Bates displaying the time capsule to the crowd before it was sealed in the cornerstone.

his vintage photograph shows the laying of the new Tazewell County Courthouse’s cornerstone in 1914. Standing next to scaffolding in the foreground is William H. Bates displaying the time capsule to the crowd before it was sealed in the cornerstone.

Shown is a key to the old 1850 Tazewell County Courthouse that was preserved in the 1902 Pekin Library Cornerstone time capsule. Another key to the old courthouse was included in the 1914 courthouse cornerstone time capsule.

Shown is a key to the old 1850 Tazewell County Courthouse that was preserved in the 1902 Pekin Library Cornerstone time capsule. Another key to the old courthouse was included in the 1914 courthouse cornerstone time capsule.

Though the old 1850 courthouse is long gone, some of the marble was claimed by Pekin’s pioneer photographer Henry Hobart Cole for use in the home he built in Tuscarora Heights in Peoria County.
Other surviving mementos of the 1850 structure are two courthouse keys. One was placed in a cornerstone time capsule at the construction the old Pekin Public Library in 1902. That time capsule was opened when the old library was razed in 1972, and that courthouse key and the other contents of the cornerstone, which were found to be in a very good state of preservation, are kept in the library’s historical archives. Another courthouse key was found in the recently opened 1916 courthouse time capsule.

The layout of the Tazewell County Courthouse Block in September 1925 is shown in this detail of a Sanborn fire insurance map of downtown Pekin. The courthouse's cornerstone was laid in 1914.

The layout of the Tazewell County Courthouse Block in September 1925 is shown in this detail of a Sanborn fire insurance map of downtown Pekin. The courthouse’s cornerstone was laid in 1914.

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