Above: The George Washington bust was cast by sculptor Avard Fairbanks, who also created over a dozen Lincoln-themed sculptures and busts. Photo by Jeffery Noble
Here in the Land of Lincoln, dozens of historic sites are dedicated to our nation’s 16th president. A bronze statue outside the Peoria County Courthouse honors his famous “Peoria Speech,” which outlined his arguments against slavery and was key to his political rise. Just around the corner, a massive portrait by artist Doug Leunig looms large over the downtown, honoring Lincoln’s legacy on a grand scale. And that’s just on one city block!
Lincoln lived in central Illinois; he met his wife and started his career here. But what accounts for the large bronze bust of George Washington at Fulton Plaza? Washington never stepped foot in Peoria. So what was his connection, and how did the bust get here?
Research reveals the likeness of America’s first president first arrived in Peoria in 1998 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Creve Coeur Club’s Washington Day Banquet. None other than John Morris—then a Peoria City Councilman, now president/CEO of the Peoria Riverfront Museum—was primarily responsible for the gift.
As a student at George Washington University, Morris would walk past an identical bust on campus nearly every day. “It was always a source of inspiration and a reminder of the greatness of Washington’s character and everybody who fought to create free democracies,” he told the Journal Star in 2005. Years later, while visiting the university’s then-president, he learned they owned the original cast and could make more. The rest is history.
Peoria’s connection to Washington is inscribed on the plaque beneath the bust. In 1792, two Peoria leaders—the Potawatomi leader Chief Gomo and trader Jean-Baptiste Maillet—traveled to Washington, DC to meet with President Washington and discuss a peace treaty between the federal government and Native American tribes living in the Illinois and Wabash river valleys.
“The thing that really intrigues me is that in the Land of Lincoln, Peoria has a history that dates to Washington,” Morris noted. “We should be proud of that connection.” —Jonathan Wright, Editor in Chief