To regain the title of “Whiskey Capital of the World” would require the end of Prohibition.
The Whiskey Capital of the World. That was Peoria, blessed by an underground supply of cold water, a ready supply of grains, well-developed coal and cooperage capacity, good transportation, entrepreneurial investors, capable workers and supportive politicians.
But after 50 years as the world’s chief whiskey distilling center, Peoria lost the title on September 8, 1917, when fermenting and distilling for beverages ceased. By an act of Congress, the use of foodstuffs for beverages was prohibited for the duration of the First World War.
The handwriting was already on the wall, with temperance movements led locally by such leaders as Lydia Bradley, Lucie Tyng and her sister, Martha Reynolds. All these women died in the earlier part of the century, but Bradley willed that the school which bore her family name—and benefited from a fortune that included the proceeds of distilling—should remain a dry campus. At Springdale Cemetery, a monument to Mrs. Tyng bears the following inscription: “Erected to the memory of our beloved comrade Lucie Brotherson Tyng by the Illinois Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.” Carrie Nation, a national leader of the temperance movement, had visited our city and the Anti-Saloon League had waged and won its battle for public opinion.
Never mind that the liquor industry was the fourth-largest in the United States; that liquor tax revenues produced in the Peoria District had paid off the debt from the Civil War; or that Peoria’s revenue from taxes averaged nearly $30 million a year from 1912 thru June 30, 1917. Public opinion had solidified, and the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution shut down the entire industry on January 17, 1920. It was politics that created the situation and politics that would have to rectify it. To regain the title would require the end of Prohibition.
An Entrepreneur Arrives
William Edgar (“Ed”) Hull came to Peoria from his native Lewistown in 1890 as a government gauger, charged with testing, certifying and appropriately taxing local whiskey. He soon became active in the Republican Party and rose to serve successfully as postmaster from 1898 to 1906. While serving as postmaster, he found his fortune as general manager of Clarke Brothers and Company, a Peoria distiller of national reputation.
Hull had a variety of entrepreneurial interests, including a livery stable and in 1912, construction of the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Peoria. The coming of Prohibition meant additional endeavors. By 1921, he opened the Palace Theater, with its associated shops and apartments—considered a monument to his desire to beautify Peoria’s downtown district.
The Roaring Twenties
In spite of Prohibition, the 1920s roared in Peoria, with the growth of manufacturing—most notably, the development of Holt-Caterpillar—and conversion of the distilleries to the creation of other products. Area farmers, whose corn had once been sold for distilling, were now able to sell it for corn syrup, corn oils, feed of all kinds, preserves, glucose, and other foods. Alcohol now went into paint and varnish, photographic chemicals, lacquers and solvents, and fingernail polish, as well as some pioneering uses, including nitromethane, used to fuel 250-mph dragsters. Former breweries now produced yeast, malt syrups, acetylene gas and cooking oils.
But as early as 1921, Prohibition was being termed a failure. Federal agents described Peoria as the “wettest” spot in Illinois. Crime and corruption ran rampant.
Hull determined to run for Congress and was elected for five terms, beginning in 1923. Ever the politician, he recognized that the national will had gone “dry,” so he endorsed those bills that penalized violators, while championing infrastructure improvements that would benefit Peoria. In 1923, as a member of the Rivers and Harbors Commission, he sponsored the Hull Waterway Bill, which ultimately led to the system of locks and dams that maintain 135 miles of the Illinois River to a depth of nine feet. He knew that would open new markets for agricultural and manufactured products.
Hull was considered the original “good roads” advocate in Illinois, one of five members of the board of the Illinois Highway Improvement Association. In 1925, he was a member of the U.S. Commission to the Pan-American Road Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He particularly lobbied for the use of corn syrup on par with cane and beet sugar and encouraged tariffs on imports where local corn products could substitute.
Wet Once More
As public opinion moved away from Prohibition, Hull began arguing for non-intoxicating beer, seeking a compromise beverage variously rated between 2.75 and four percent. He figured that it would be easier and quicker to undercut the Volstead Act than to overturn a constitutional amendment. But by the fall 1930 election, voters were turning against the 18th Amendment.
In 1932, Hull visited Sweden at his own expense to learn more about the Swedish method of liquor control. But his shifting positions from dry to wet, as well as his obvious wealth, undermined his popular support, and in the 1932 election, he was defeated by Everett Dirksen. The 21st amendment, which would repeal Prohibition, was already moving through the states. By December 5, 1933, the dry era had come to an end.
Meanwhile, Hull turned his attention to building a relationship with the heads of Hiram Walker and Sons of Canada. He and one of the Clarke brothers purchased the former Great Western Distillery site and convinced the Canadian company of its strategic value. The company agreed and broke ground on a new $7-million facility—the world’s largest and most modern—on October 21, 1932. It opened for public tours on July 4, 1934, with Hull as general manager. Secure in the knowledge that Peoria was once again the Whiskey Capital of the World, Hull died in 1942 while on a visit to corporate headquarters in Canada. iBi