Peoria has long had the flavor of white bread, though it was the breeding ground of raunchy comics Sam Kinison and Richard Pryor, the grandson of a local madam. Singer Dan Fogelberg, whose dad directed the band at nearby Pekin High School, grew up in these parts too. And the Peoria Manual High School boys basketball team has won the state championship for the last four years. Scratch the surface, and you can find things to see and do.
Caterpillar, the tractor company and the city’s largest employer, has its headquarters downtown. Catercorner from the headquarters is the Cat Gift Shop (311 Main, 309-671-2205), which sells every imaginable kind of company merchandise, from shot glasses to dress shirts to extremely durable boots to toy dump trucks and front-end loaders in a signature yellow. Ask someone to let you go upstairs to have a look at the restored Apollo Fine Arts & Entertainment Centre (309-673-4343), a small rococo house that recalls Peoria’s past as a vaudeville capital.
At the Illinois Antique Center, an old building near the Illinois River (308 SW Commercial, 309-673-3354), 230 dealers display their wares, from antimacassars to Beatles memorabilia, on two floors. In the connecting building is an art gallery, Checkered Raven Studios (309-674-6822), which is co-owned by Preston Jackson, onetime chair of the sculpture department at the Art Institute.
The Spirit of Peoria, a replica of a three-deck stern-wheeler, provides short rides on the Illinois River three times a week (Main Street and the river, 2 PM Wednesday and 2 and 8 PM Sunday, $8 a person; 309-674-8888). You can also book passage on overnight cruises to Starved Rock or Pere Marquette state parks (starting at $265 a person). Docked across the river in East Peoria is the PAR-A-DICE Hotel Casino (on route 116 north of I-74; admission is $4, $7 on Saturday; 800-727-2342), which is filled with table games and slot machines; it’s open from 9 AM to 3 AM, but you must be 21 years old.
Peoria’s one and only licensed strip club–a local institution–is Big Al’s (519 N. Main, open 11 AM to 4 AM seven days a week, with a $5 cover charge at night; 309-673-9893). It regularly showcases Penthouse and Playboy models in fully nude performances, plus table dancing for $10–which owner Duane Cassano proudly points out is less than you’d pay in Chicago. The bar is always open, and the menu features steak, pasta, and fish.
The 65-acre campus of Bradley University (1501 W. Bradley, 309-677-1000), founded a century ago by local philanthropist Lydia Moss Bradley, dominates the West Bluff neighborhood. Bradley consulted with William Rainey Harper, the University of Chicago’s first president, when setting up Bradley, and he persuaded her to use one of U. of C.’s architects, Henry Ives Cobb. Bradley has two art galleries with changing exhibits, and the men’s basketball team is worth seeing in season.
In 1950 actor Jack Lemmon married his first wife at the Pettengill-Morron mansion, which was built in 1868 by area businessman Moses Pettengill (1212 W. Moss, open 10 AM to 3 PM Tuesday through Friday beginning in June; admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children; 309-674-4745). The Peoria Historical Society also operates the museum at the Flanagan House (942 NE Glen Oak, open the same times as the mansion; 309-674-1921), a Federal-style brick house overlooking the river.
The Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences (1125 W. Lake; $2.50 for adults, $1.50 for children; 309-686-7000) houses a fine collection of Illinois River decoys–wooden ducks, crows, and geese made by area craftsmen. The most valuable are ducks carved by Charles Schoenheider, a Peoria woodworker who died in 1924. In the hands-on science section a “tornado cannon” propels a number-two pencil at 200 miles an hour through a block of wood. The museum also has a planetarium, the centerpiece of which is a model of the solar system. On the north exterior wall is a yellow sun 36 feet in diameter, and visitors are invited to seek out the planets, which lie at appropriate distances–a nearby Amoco station is earth, Good’s Furniture in Kewanee, 40 miles away, is Pluto. You too can become part of the solar system; for $49 you can buy a comet plaque registered with the museum and take it home.
In 1978 Peoria lawyer William Rutherford, who always bemoaned the fate of animals native to downstate Illinois, established the nonprofit foundation that operates Wildlife Prairie Park (3826 N. Taylor, off I-74 ten miles west of Peoria; $4.50 for adults, $2 for children; 309-676-0998). The park is a refuge for bison, elk, red fox, black bear, and cougar. There’s also a farmstead containing cows and chickens, a train that traverses the 2,000 acres, and a gift shop. You can rent out a grain bin or stable room for an overnight stay ($65 to $95 a night), though you may have to go off site for supper.
Ronald Reagan graduated in 1932 from Eureka College (300 E. College in Eureka, 309-467-3721), a dozen miles east of Peoria. His life, college days, and career are recalled in an exhibit at the Cerf Student Center. Among the highlights are cowboy boots and jelly-bean jars that Reagan contributed from his White House tenure.
Back in Peoria, the Peoria Chiefs, a class-A affiliate of the Saint Louis Cardinals, play at the Pete Vonachen Stadium (1524 W. Nebraska; $3.50 for general seating; 309-688-1622). “Dizzy-bat spins” and sumo-wrestler races are standard between innings, kids frequently do a chicken dance atop the dugouts, and fireworks accompany every home run. The season runs through August 30; games are at 7 PM, 2 PM on Sundays.
Theater in Peoria is pretty much limited to community and college shows, dinner musicals, and summer stock. But One World Coffee and Cargo (1245 W. Main, 309-672-1522) mounts classic and modern plays above a boutique and restaurant run by George and Bob Eid. They also put on a sketch satire, LifeDogCornEatShoe, at 10:30 PM every Friday and Saturday; tickets are $8 tops.
Another Eid brother, Sam, runs the Crazy Burrito (840 W. Main, 309-637-6779), a purple stand with four tables and Mexican pocket sandwiches you won’t find elsewhere–i.e. Philly steak, Cajun chicken. The Maid-Rite (4700 N. University, 309-692-6300) specializes in steamed hamburger mixed with mustard, pickle, and onion–and there’s a ’50s gift shop to boot. Steps away is Big John’s Bar/B/Que (7805 N. University, 309-693-7800), with hickory-smoked ribs; a full slab with coleslaw and hand-cut fries is $14.25. There’s a second Big John’s downtown.
Peoria has white tablecloth eateries too, the best of which is the Stephanie Restaurant (1825 N. Knoxville, 309-682-7300); chef-owner John Pawula began his career as the sous-chef at the old Bakery Restaurant on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. His menu lists venison, grilled ostrich, fish, and homemade tarts; lunch averages $10 a person, dinner $25. Locals swear by Paparazzi (4315 Voss in Peoria Heights, open Wednesday through Sunday; 309-682-5205), which specializes in northern Italian pasta and veal. The walls of the restaurant, once a photo lab, are hung with vintage pictures of Peoria, including shots of Jesse Jackson and George Burns visiting.
Peoria’s best hotel is the Pere Marquette (501 Main; rooms start at $92 a night; 309-637-6500), which opened in 1927; its claim to fame was that it had a bathroom for every bedroom. It has put up most of the big-time dignitaries passing through, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Andre the Giant. In the lobby is a mural of Marquette landing at the site of Peoria in 1763; the reception-desk clocks note the time in London, Tokyo, New York–and Peoria.
If you prefer the hokey, try Jumers Castle Lodge (117 N. Western, 309-673-8040), a faux German inn, every floor of which has a different region of Germany as its theme. In season the parking lot is fairly gross with petunias and impatiens, and owner D. James Jumer shot a nine-foot polar bear in Russia, then had the creature stuffed, dyed black, and stationed in front of the bar. The food in the heavily wooded restaurant is excellent. Rooms start at $79 a night, though there are cheap packages, notably the $33.99-a-person Sunday special, which includes breakfast and dinner.