Peoria's International Harvester Building Turns 100

Peoria's IHC building as seen from the Peoria Riverfront, near the former Hiram Walker Distillery
Peoria, Illinois has a rich manufacturing history. The city along the Illinois River that my wife and I call home was once a flourishing Midwestern port where shiny trucks, yellow tractors, and washing machines were loaded into rail cars and onto barges each year and sold across the country. Perhaps more notable were the millions of gallons of whiskey and beer that were also made locally and consumed by a thirsty nation. Companies such as Hiram Walker, Gipps and Leisy Brewing stamped their name on casks and bottles full of happy juice that came from large warehouses along Washington, Jefferson and Adams Streets. Grocery stores also had large local distribution centers packed with gifts from the nation's breadbasket. Meanwhile, rail cars stayed loaded with blocks of ice and fresh local milk and meats from nearby packing houses. Peoria's agrarian roots ran deep. It hosted giant fairs along with the National Swine Show and National Dairy Show, which drew over 100,000 people on average during the early 1920's.

Remains of a silo unloader winch near three empty grain silos behind a Peoria warehouse. 
Over time, many of these sights disappeared. The fairs and stockyards shriveled up. Interstates and semi trucks moved more of the country's freight and less distribution hubs were needed. The enormous brick warehouse buildings fell into disrepair as economic prosperity packed up and left Peoria in the 1960's, 70's and 80's.

Many of these giants were razed while residents dealt with declining business, consolidation, and mass layoffs. Many kept a good sense of humor about the economic downturn with bumper stickers politely asking "Will the last one out of Peoria please turn out the lights?" Others failed to find comedy in a once-proud city that was seemingly on the decline.

Thankfully, one of Peoria's buildings that weathered the storm is the 100 year-old International Harvester Company's regional warehouse and showroom along Washington & Pecan Streets.

No birthday cake. No candles. Just a few boarded-up windows and an empty building. 

Spanning one city block is the original 1914 five-story brown brick branch office, while next door sits a 1925 addition which served as a showroom for farm equipment and trucks. IHC (later known as IH) built these two structures across from the A. Lucas & Sons steel and not far from the Union Stockyards. It was perfect location for passers-by to stop in and check out how the new truck and tractor models could make their work lives easier. 

This young lad is happy to have the extra help of a McCormick-Deering engine on the family farm.
Source: Farm Implement News, Aug. 3, 1922
Being a city slicker, I knew very little about International's roots until recently. IHC grew out of the merger between McCormick Harvesting Machine Company and the Deering Harvester Company in 1902. Six other smaller companies were also part of the early roots of the Chicago company and together they would produce such popular models as the Farmall. They would eventually lay claim to the title of "world's leading producer of tractors and farm implements" in the 1940's and 50's. International's financial troubles in the 1960's were hard to recover from, and eventually they downsized and sold off their agricultural products division. Today they're focused on manufacturing commercial vehicles and diesel engines and they're known as Navistar International based in Warrenville, Illinois. 

Meanwhile, back in the Warehouse District...

IHC from May and Pecan Streets. Note the remains of what appears to have been a loading dock ramp. 
Let's take a stroll around the block. Looking south from the corner of Pecan and May Streets, the back of the showroom can be seen, along with the large advertising mural showcasing International Harvester's selection of farm machinery and trucks including "oil tractors", or tractors that were powered by kerosene, similar to competitors like the Advance-Rumely Oil Pull models. One year after this building was constructed, International's new line of 10-20 and 15-30 tractor models debuted in 1915. They included the Titan and Mogul brands which were slightly smaller in size. 

International also manufactured stationary kerosene engines under the Titan and McCormick-Deering names which were put to use in a variety of ways on American farms. After seeing the success of International Harvester's Peoria district office, Advance-Rumely built their own district office here in 1915. Countless other agricultural machine manufacturers zeroed in on Peoria in the early 20th century for the same reason IHC did: Ease of transportation. 

Situated blocks from the Illinois River and next to a rail spur line, the IHC regional office was able to expedite shipments to and from anywhere. 

Another interesting note about the mural on the side of the building is the mention of "P & O Plows", which is a reference to Parlin & Orendorff. The company manufactured plows at their Canton, Illinois factory which was purchased by IHC in 1919 and turned into their Canton works. The Peoria building's mural likely dates to around that time, as IHC dealers retained rights to the popular P & O brand name following their acquisition.

The International Harvester Company logo remains visible looking East at the building's rear stairwell. 
The company logo that appeared on each of their machines can still be seen painted on the rear of the building at the very top of the stairwell. As a result, folks along the once-busy streets would have been able to proudly see the International Harvester emblem as they rolled past on the trolley or walked to and from the many factory and warehouse jobs in the neighborhood. 

International Harvester Logo, Circa 1914
Source: Farm Collector
International was truly an international company with subsidiaries and offices as far away as Australia and the Philippines. 

The 1925 Washington Street showroom addition looks like its seen better days, but remains complete from the outside. 

The original 1914 building housed office and warehouse space, and as business grew in the mid 1920's it was decided that a larger showroom was needed to showcase its growing lineup of tractors and trucks. International's light and medium duty trucks were also known for dependability. Everything from a small "Red Baby" half-ton to urban delivery vans called Metros, to larger workhorses were sold through International dealerships such as this one.

The "Red Baby" served America by serving agriculture, and International marketed their trucks to potential customers as well as potential dealers, as this 1922 advertisement shows.  Source: Farm Implement News Oct. 1, 1922
As we approach the side of the showroom addition along Pecan Street, we see another example of the company's logo as it appears inset in stone above what was once a window. This wall is quite weathered and would probably need some repairs if the building was to be inhabited again. White paint differentiates this 1925 addition from the original building.

The showroom side also contains a large garage door, which may have been used for access to a service bay or to load larger trucks and equipment into or out of the display area.  I'm not sure since I haven't been able to find older pictures of the building. (I'll see if I can track some down and update this post if that's the case. )

Walking East on Pecan Street. Notice the lack of windows. All of the the glass areas have been walled up with brick. 
After International Harvester's market share took a hit thanks to some poor company decisions, they consolidated their district offices and dealer network. IHC left this building in 1963 and a number of tenants then leased the place until it became home to the Illinois News Service. Property tax records show the building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was sold in May, 2013 for a sum of $100,000. Its currently owned by a local gentleman who also owns a building in Sparland that's home to a gentleman's club, but that's all I've been able to glean from a quick online search. Why is the fact that it sold in the past year relevant? Because someone could make a great deal of money in a few years if everything works out the way city leaders hope.

Before and After animation of Washington Street improvement project. Source: Terra Engineering, LTD
In 2013, Peoria's Warehouse District went under the knife for a long-awaited makeover. City, state, and federal leaders successfully acquired Tiger II grant funds to repave a good deal of the Warehouse District with simulated brick pavers, install ornamental lighting, and make the entire area more pedestrian friendly. To eliminate congestion, truck traffic will be re-routed to other arteries. The goal is to revive dozens of historic warehouses and spur redevelopment of Peoria's southern gateway. Will century-old buildings like the International Harvester Company's branch office fit into this plan? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, the building makes a nice backdrop for photographs of your old car or truck today, just as it did in the 1920's. 

A fleet of new IH trucks outside the IHC building, alongside the area once leased by Standard Oil Company. Photo Credit: Retro Peoria

Oscar the '47 Chevy resting next to the International Harvester Building along Washington in the spring of 2013. Oscar's last owner lived just a few blocks away from the IH Canton Works plant. 
It is my sincere hope that the International Harvester building celebrates many more birthdays. Who knows, some developer may even decide to renovate it into loft apartments or a trendy farm-to-table restaurant. That would be fitting, since most of these local farms were built and maintained over the years with the tractors, trucks and equipment that moved through this building for 51 years.

Sarah and I have lived in Peoria for 8 years now, and we're still discovering little pieces of local history like this place every month. History has a tendency to blend into the background if you're just passing through town. If you stop, walk around and snap a few pictures and ask locals about these buildings they will gladly tell you about them. We would love it if others would discover them and find these treasures worthy of preservation for another 100 years.


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