I visited The American Midwest during the winter of 2014. During that time I wanted to capture the essence of the two small rural towns of Princeton and Peru, Illinois… each over 100 miles from Chicago.
My father’s family is from Princeton, a community which takes you back in time to brick streets and late 1800’s farmhouses. The first photo below entitled “Princeton Winter Solace” highlights the orderliness of the bricked streets, and reflects an architectural style of the rural New England farmhouse paired with an Illinois in-town sidewalk access twist. It is now an antique shoppers mecca, adorned with cute little restaurants and coffee shops.
Princeton History Lesson: The original founders of Princeton consisted entirely of settlers from New England. These people were “Yankees,” that is to say they were descended from the English Puritans who settled New England in the 1600s. They were part of a wave of New England farmers who headed west into what was then the wilds of the Northwest Territory during the early 1800s. Most of them arrived as a result of the completion of the Erie Canal. When they arrived in what is now Bureau County there was nothing but a virgin forest and wild prairie, the New Englanders laid out farms, constructed roads, erected government buildings and established post routes. They brought with them many of their Yankee New England values, such as a passion for education, establishing many schools as well as staunch support for abolitionism. They were mostly members of the Congregationalist Church though some were Episcopalian. Culturally Bureau County, like much of northern Illinois would be culturally very continuous with early New England culture, for most of its history. During the time of slavery, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad at the home of Owen Lovejoy.
My Mother’s side had resided in the next large town to the east called Peru (which has a twin city adjoined called LaSalle). Peru is truly blue collar, and was well known for it’s small bits of riverside industry such as Westclox clock factory. During World War II the company made mechanical fuses for the government and saw over 600 employees in the armed forces. At its height it manufactured nearly 2 million clocks and watches annually and employed over 4,000. It closed the Peru factory in 1980, causing a rapid decline in population in LaSalle and Peru.
The midwest is spotted with water towers. Peru’s has always reminded me of the light blue collared work shirts my grandfather Andrew used to regularly wear as a sheet metal building contractor for the local Phalen Steel company. I photographed the simply titled “Winter in Peru” just after Thanksgiving.
Peru History Lesson: Since the first steamboat, “Traveler” reached Peru in 1831, Peru had high hopes of being the western terminus for the Illinois & Michigan Canal. That designation went to LaSalle, but Peru became a busy steamboat port at the head of navigation on the Illinois River. Captain McCormick was involved in the Five Day Line, making record fast trips between Peru and St. Louis. Senator Gilson reported to land surveyor, Grenville Dodge that the town would soon outstrip Chicago due to its favorable location along the river and railroads.
Water Street was a thin ribbon sandwiched between the bluff and the river and a large industrial district grew up to the east. It was along the river and the canal and was serviced by the Rock Island Railroad and Chicago Burlington and Quincy. These important transportation routes, along with coal mining in at least four mines lasting from at least 1857 until 1949, prompted Peru’s rise to and industrial center. Many entrepreneurs grew into prominent businessman and advanced the interests of Peru and the region. Prominent Companies from that time included Maze Lumber, Maze Nails, Peru Plow and Wheel Works, Huse and Loomis Ice Co, Brunner Foundry, Star Union Brewery, Hebel Brewery, Illinois Zinc (Peru and LaSalle were sometimes referred to as “Zinc City”) and many others. Peru’s citizens were bent on improving their town even constructing a plank road, northwest of town, a toll road meant to reach Dixon, Illinois.
Peru’s story became a story of two levels. The story of Water Street and the bottoms and the town growing above the bluff. Peru tried hard to link the two. For example, the Peru Horse and Dummy Railroad was driven to dissolution by the City’s impossible mandate that it create a loop from Water Street to the upper bluff.