Peoria - Whistle stop to the White House

Norm Kelly
President Barack Obama waves goodbye to Peoria before Air Force One takes off from the Air National Guard 182nd Airlift Wing at the Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport Thursday during a trip promoting his stimulus plan during an economic crisis that has crippled America. During a speech earlier in the day, Obama said, " When we say we've lost 3.6 million jobs since this recession began -- nearly 600,000 last month alone -- when we talk about the 22,000 layoffs announced here at Caterpillar, a company that has sustained this community for more than 80 years and that had one of its banner years just last year, you know this isn't about figures on a balance sheet, it's about families that many of you probably know."

Today is President’s Day, and Peoria has been no stranger to those living in America’s most famous house.       

Here is what John F. Kennedy said about the River City when asked why presidential hopefuls and presidents visit Peoria.

“It’s nothing to do with Peoria’s size.  Peoria is a ‘sounding board.’  Not only does it have the right mixture of people for accurate political surveys, but next to Chicago it is in the center of a ‘SwingState.’”

Let us go back in time.

•1832 —  Two future presidents were  in Peoria that year. They were Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor. In Peoria records there is talk of Franklin Pierce, Ulysses Grant, and Grover Cleveland visiting, but no mention of dates or other concrete evidence.

•1842 — Martin Van Buren visited June 25, 1842, staying for two days. He stayed at Planter House and because of a large crowd, spoke at the courthouse.

•1854 — Abraham Lincoln, historians say, probably visited Peoria on at least 17 occasions. He spoke at a half-dozen Whig events, and on Oct. 16, 1854 debated Senator Stephen A. Douglas on the courthouse steps. 

“Stand with anybody that stands right. Stand with him and part with him when he goes wrong,” Lincoln said during that speech.

•1894 — Benjamin Harrison vitied Peoria, March 18, 1894, briefly talking to local politicians. He was on his way to Bath, Illinois and duck hunting on Spring Lake.

•1899 — William  McKinley came to Peoria to dedicate the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at the Peoria County Courthouse. A massive, enthusiastic crowd greeted him Oct. 6, 1899. Spectators said he was overwhelmed by the reception.

“Six thousand school children with flags in their hands and love of country in their hearts and I could not but think as I looked at the glorious process, that my country is safe,” McKinley said of the reception.

•1900 —  Theodore  Roosevelt came to Peoria as a candidate for vice president.  He spoke in the Courthouse Square Oct. 8, 1900.  He returned in 1907 where he made Grandview Drive famous by saying “This is the world’s most beautiful drive.”

•1911 — William Howard Taft on Sept. 22, 1911, came to Peoria to be the key speaker at  the Columbus Day banquet sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. He spoke at the old Coliseum where the Armory is now located.

•1920 — Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Peoria with Governor Cox to speak at the Peoria Armory Oct. 12, 1920.   Roosevelt at that time was a running mate of Cox, who was running for President of the United States.

•1922 — John Calvin Coolidge Jr. was here shortly before he became President of the United States. 

•1932 Herbert Clark Hoover visited Nov. 4, 1932, and spoke from the rear of a train stopped at the Rock Island Depot. He arrived to a wild, enthusiastic throng of people that had gathered to meet his train that arrived at 4:30 p.m.  He returned to Peoria March 14, 1940, to speak before a large crowd at the R.G. LeTourneau  plant.

•1942 — Harry S. Truman was here twice, once in 1942 and on Oct. 26, 1944. He spoke in front of a small crowd at the Shrine Mosque. He was on his way to his home in Missouri after he had been named as Roosevelt’s running mate.

•1956 — Dwight David Eisenhower was a visitor Sept. 25, 1956.  He spoke at the Bradley Fieldhouse to a standing room only crowd. It was the first-ever national TV address from Peoria. Eisenhower  was the first sitting president to visit since 1932. 

•1960 — John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy visited during his presidential campaign Oct. 24, 1960.  He spoke in the Courthouse Square to a massive crowd. Within his speech he said, “Americans want to say again they believe in America and our future and we can and we will move forward.”

•1964 — Lyndon Baines Johnson came to Peoria Oct. 7, 1964, to speak at the Courthouse Square and the Armory. A huge crowd surrounded him and the President responded with “I thought Peoria was a Republican town.”

He was heard to say about Peorians, “Aren’t these people just wonderful?”

•1973 — Richard Milhous Nixon landeded in Peoria June 15, 1973, on his way to Pekin to dedicate the Dirksen Memorial Library. Nixon was in the area a total of eight times between 1951 and 1973.

• 1974 — Gerald R. Ford Jr. came to Peoria March 5, 1974, speaking at the Bradley Fieldhouse. 

Ford returned to Peoria Feb. 22, 2000, to make the keynote speech at the Washington Day Banquet. 

•1980 — Ronald Reagan was in this area many times in his life, having graduated from Eureka College. He was here in November 1980, with Gerald Ford and George H. Bush campaigning. On Oct. 20, 1982, he spoke at a fund-raiser for Bob Michel, and on May 9, 1982 he spoke at Eureka College. He returned Feb. 6, 1984, and was back at Eureka College in 1992.

•1992 — William “Bill” Clinton was in Peoria April 8, 1992, as the leading Democratic candidate for the Presidency.  He walked a Caterpillar picket line in East Peoria and spoke to union members. 

•2000 — George H. W. Bush arrived here Aug. 22, 2000 as a presidential candidate speaking at Byerly Aviation’s main hangar. He mentioned his plan to “Leave no child behind.” He also took part in a panel discussion at Harrison School in Peoria.

He returned in 2008 to speak on behalf of Republican 18th Congressional District candidate Aaron Schock.