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New book tells the story of Joseph Greenhut, Peoria's famous whiskey baron and merchant prince

Joseph B. Greenhut, one of Peoria's "whiskey barons" of the late 19th and earliest 20th century, when the city was the distilling capital of the world.
Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation
Joseph B. Greenhut, one of Peoria's "whiskey barons" of the late 19th and earliest 20th century, when the city was the distilling capital of the world.

Inventor. Philanthropist. Whiskey baron. Brutal businessman.

Those are just a few of the words you could use to describe J.B. Greenhut, said author Dr. Vicky Loberg.

Loberg's new book, Joseph Benedict Greenhut: Whiskey Baron, Merchant Prince tells the life's story of this famous Peorian.

Born in Austria in 1843, Greenhut's family emigrated to Chicago when he was nine years old. He would later serve in the American Civil War, before coming to Peoria and building his fortune in the whiskey distilling business.

Loberg said this book was one of two projects she undertook during the extended pandemic shutdown; the other being a book on Wyatt Earp, the Western gunslinger who briefly called Peoria home.

Greenhut left his mark around the city of Peoria. His former home at the corner of Moss Avenue and High Street, as it bends around the corner to become Sheridan Road, still stands today, though it's since been converted into apartments. He helped establish the Children's Home and the Peoria Country Club. The Greenhut Memorial Grand Army of the Republic Hall downtown is also a lasting legacy of the millionaire's influence.

As Tom Biederbeck, president of the Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation, tells it, the GAR Hall at the corner of Hamilton and Madison probably wouldn't be around today without Greenhut.

Peoria-area Civil War veterans regularly met up, but they didn't have a central gathering place. A community-wide fundraising effort was started to raise the money for construction of such a building, but when the veterans hit a wall, they sent a delegation out to New York, where Greenhut was then living, to ask for a contribution.

"And he (Greenhut) said, in his way, as the commander of the unit, 'boys, what do you need?' They were a little reluctant to tell him," Biederbeck said. "They said, 'well, we need $10,000.' Fabulous amount of money. And he said, 'You shall have it.' And he wrote out a check for $10,000 on the spot, and the hall was completed. And it was dedicated to him by the veterans."

CILF later took on the responsibility of maintaining the GAR Hall, saving it from ruin.

Courtesy Greenhut Memorial GAR Hall / Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation

Greenhut had good reason to feel warmly towards the veterans. During the war, he formed up the 82nd Illinois Infantry, leading the only all-Jewish unit to serve in the Civil War.

"He was a Civil War hero," said Loberg. "He and a group of other volunteers took out a Confederate snipers' nest. In one of the battles all the other officers were killed, and he engaged in hand to hand combat and captured the enemy's flag. He almost had his right arm shot off."

Greenhut was awarded the brevet rank of colonel for his service, but he preferred to go by the title of "Captain."

After the war, Greenhut and his business partners established the Great Western Distillery along the banks of the Illinois River after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed their previous operation. At the time, the Peoria distillery was the world's largest.

Peoria was an ideal location for a whiskey distillery, with clear water flowing through an accessible underwater aquifer, and access to multiple types of grain.

Greenhut was eventually compelled to move out east to New York, where he bought out a large portfolio of properties. That included the Siegel-Cooper department store - at that time, the world's largest such business. He later merged that store with another company.

"He eventually had this huge department store, kind of really ahead of his time, because he was looking at transportation among the various stores that were there, and so forth," Loberg said.

During World War I, the store was converted into a demarcation hospital for returning soldiers. They would stay in the hospital for a few weeks before heading home.

Loberg is giving a presentation about her book and Greenhut's life this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the GAR Hall, 416 Hamilton Boulevard. Books will be for sale. A $10 donation is requested.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.