Literarea Review: “Peoria Stories: Tales from the Illinois Heartland” by Ken Zurski

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Peoria Stories

Sadly, many Peorians have an inferiority complex about the city they call home. It gets compared (usually negatively) to Chicago or St. Louis or some other arbitrary locale the complaining party finds more enjoyable. And while a smaller city like ours can never boast the same attractions and entertainment as our larger neighbors to the north and southwest (get over it, people), there is at least one area where Peoria stands up pretty well – our city’s history.

In his latest book, “Peoria Stories: Tales from the Illinois Heartland,” Ken Zurski retells nine of Peoria’s most important historical stories – stories which not only impacted local history, but played an important part in the greater history of the U.S.

For many cities our size, rummaging up enough local stories with historic national interest or relevance would be a stretch. But that’s what makes Peoria’s history so much more special. We have no shortage of them – and Zurski’s mined some of the best.

For many years (from 1860-1930, give or take) Peoria was not just a part of America’s Heartland, it was very much America’s Heart, thanks to the Illinois River and endless farmland. The Illinois River made Peoria the true gateway to the west and the city’s whiskey production (spurred on by a glut of corn and barley) created so much revenue that Peoria’s taxes to the federal government were larger than any other district in the United States. In short, Peoria was a boomtown for many decades and relatively immune to financial crises – which made the city a magnet and major destination for those travelling to the “interior” of the United States.

The stories Zurski chose to relate aren’t just about some famous person staying a night at a local hotel. These are stories that impacted the national conversation on everything from slavery and prohibition to automobiles and aviation to entertainment and, of course, comedy. Take the first chapter, in which Zurski relates the story of Abraham Lincoln’s famous anti-slavery speech known as the “Peoria Speech” and his debates in Peoria with Stephen Douglas, which catapulted him into national prominence and, ultimately, the presidency.

The second chapter focuses on Prohibition, when Peoria was again focus of national attention as the temperance movement and the violent Carrie Nation descended on the defiant city. Other chapters focus on Charles Lindbergh and his death-defying flights to Peoria; the stirring speeches of the Great Agnostic, Colonel Robert Ingersoll; President Teddy Roosevelt’s delight at travelling through the city by car; and the Duryea brothers, who started the first successful automobile company.

Some of these subjects might seem familiar to those who already have an interest in Peoria’s past, but what Zurski has done, rather impressively, is to find new bits of information and detail about those otherwise well-known stories. And, by adopting a short story style, each subject is easily digestible for today’s short-attention-span reader – you can dip in and out of this book, or plow straight through it in a couple of hours.

The book also underscores this city’s great history not only by the stories it tells, but in those it passes over. When you consider the impact other Peoria natives have had in more modern times – Richard Pryor on comedy and African-American culture, Betty Friedan on women’s rights and the second wave of feminism, and Philip Jose Farmer on the world of science fiction – this book screams for a volume II. Hopefully, book sales will make that a possibility.

“Peoria Stories: Tales from the Illinois Heartland” by Ken Zurski is a must read for those with an interest in Peoria’s past, as well as those who have an inferiority complex about this great American city. It will undoubtedly instill pride in the former and hopefully begin to change the minds of the latter.

"Peoria Stories: Tales from the Illinois Heartland" by Ken Zurksi can be found at local bookstores and Barnes&Noble.

About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.