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High Street tour provides look at Peoria's past

The Erastus D. Hardin House on W. High Street was built around 1859. The Hardin family lived in the home until around the turn of the 20th century.
Steve Tarter
The Erastus D. Hardin House on W. High Street was built around 1859. The Hardin family lived in the home until around the turn of the 20th century.

Taking a walk with Gary Ebeling along High Street opens your eyes to some of the history that’s on display in Peoria. A member of the Peoria Historical Society, Ebeling is one of the society's guides who conducts a walking tour of High Street and Moss Avenue.

The tour starts with the mammoth Easton house (now the home of Converse Marketing) that stands atop Main Street hill at the entrance to High Street.

Ebeling made note that the mansion, built in 1882, was restored by Jane Converse who purchased the home in 1997.That home’s original residents left another reminder that a trip down High Street is a glimpse into another era. The Easton fountain on the street was dedicated in 1901 by Sara Hall Easton to honor the death of her husband Edward Easton, a wealthy grain dealer and distiller. As a plaque at the site notes, “The fountains were placed along the riverfront road downtown to give Peorians and their horses water as they traveled.”

Next up is the oldest attraction on the street: a giant oak tree, the central attraction of Giant Oak Park. Ebeling said the tree is believed to have been here when Henri Tonti, LaSalle and other explorers first visited Peoria over 300 years ago. The tree’s age, as yet undetermined, may be 500 years old, he said.

High Street housed many of the original Peoria whiskey barons, noted Ebeling, including Joseph Greenhut, president and founder of the Distillers and Cattle Feeders Company, more commonly known as the Whiskey Trust. Greenhut’s 35-room mansion was built in 1884 and stands at the corner of High Street and Sheridan Road.

In between the two mansions, High Street offers examples of some of the most ornate architecture in central Illinois, said Ebeling, pointing to porticos, cupolas, latticework, leaded windows, and arches as we walk along.

Today many of the mansions have been converted into apartments but a few single-family houses remain, he said. While High Street’s grandeur dates back to that pre-Prohibition era when Peoria was a distilling capital, the business of making whiskey spawned other businesses.

“Whiskey also required woodcutters, sawmills and barrel makers. Since one of the byproducts of whiskey was wet mash or slop, huge herds (of cattle) were maintained in the Peoria stockyards,” said Ebeling.

The oldest home on High Street? That would be the Bourland House, 619 W. High St., a cottage constructed in 1850, he said. Not far behind is the Erastus Hardin house at 511 W. High St., built in 1859. They played in Peoria—add Sergey Rachmaninoff, the famed Russian piano virtuoso, to the list. Ebeling said Rachmaninoff was a guest at the Kempshaw Mansion, 518 W. High St., where he gave an impromptu concert.

For more information on tours, check out the historical society website at peoriahistoricalsociety.com.

Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.