The movie theater started to rumble and shake as if a giant were stomping his feet. Despite the quaking, I had no reason to be alarmed. I was sitting inside a life-size replica of a Caterpillar mining truck. Its 13-foot-tall tires could easily crush any threat, real or imagined.
This is how Peoria plays: It takes a standard theme (a film about a hard-working local company) and gives it an unexpected twist (physical effects). The central Illinois city is like a slice of apple pie spiked with bourbon.
During the vaudeville age (the early 1880s through the 1930s), this Middle America kid was more of a taste maker than a risk taker. The city and its sensible townsfolk acted as a test kitchen for traveling acts. As they say in show biz, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Whoops, wrong city, but the idea’s the same.
“It’s kind of flattering,” said Peorian Rosemary Swanson of the long-running catch phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” “We have to be known for something besides Caterpillar.”
You don’t have to scratch deep to discover Peoria’s other known quantities and qualities. The Illinois River, for one, flows through town, carrying tugs, barges and a paddlewheeler named the Spirit of Peoria. On higher ground, Grandview Drive wiggles its way along the bluffs. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt praised the thoroughfare as the “world’s most beautiful drive.” Stuck in traffic on his way to the golf course, he was a captive audience of the river-laced scenery.
Around town, sweet remembrances honor Peoria’s native sons and daughters: Richard Pryor, an eponymous street and a sculpture-in-progress; Susan G. Komen, a mausoleum plaque at Parkview Cemetery; and Dan Fogelberg, three boulders at Riverfront Park inscribed with the musician’s lyrics. The memorial’s natural setting fits his feel-good songs, and you can sit on a bench, sing his tunes off-key and not disturb anyone but the birds and the bugs.
As one of the city’s largest employers, Caterpillar has a commanding presence in both name and place. The company’s headquarters occupy a downtown block surrounded by buttoned-up buildings dressed in grays and browns. Less than two years ago, the Caterpillar Visitors Center opened around the corner, drawing truck-fixated boys and girls, as well as employees past and present (admission is free for those Cats).
“When I started, they used a little gasoline starting motor,” a retiree told his son and grandson about the pre-electric trucks of his era.
The center is self-guided and narrated by the Voice of Caterpillar. But the former worker added personal thought bubbles to the PR-varnished attraction. I kept two eyes on the exhibits and one ear cocked in the family’s direction.
“Why didn’t you play on the team, Papa?” the son asked his very tall father.
“I wasn’t big enough or good enough,” Papa huffed.
The basketball team that did not include him was the Caterpillar Diesels, which made sporting history in 1952, when five of the players, who held day jobs at the company, competed in the Summer Olympics in Helsinki. The Americans trounced the Russians for the gold medal.
“Look at the short pants they wore,” the elder man said, pointing at the old uniforms. “Not those damn bloomers that they wear like girls today!”
The clan huddled together for a group photo beside the 21 / 2-story-tall mining truck, the same one that contained the screening room (the first stop for all guests). We ended — yes, we were a “we” at this point — the visit in an indoor playground crammed with equipment painted Cat Yellow. While the youngster dragged his dad over to the company-sponsored NASCAR race car, I climbed into the driver’s seat of a hydraulic excavator. I shifted gears and pressed the pedals, pretending to dig a hole to China.
I never completed the job, unfortunately. But I handed off the assignment to the next child in line, who was bouncing impatiently for her turn.
Caterpillar makes an appearance next door, at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, but it doesn’t stay too long. The museum, which also opened a year and a half ago as part of a waterfront revitalization plan, has hundreds of years to cover, plus the river ecology, local personalities, whiskey distilleries (once a dominant trade) and the universe.
Every day, the planetarium offers several programs, including “Stars Over Peoria.” During the half-hour show, the guide sprinkled the dome with the future: the constellations of the coming evening. A voice in the dark told us that Mars would rise at 9:11 p.m. from the southeast, followed by Saturn at 11:30 p.m. and, for those who make the doughnuts, Venus at 5 a.m. and Mercury at 6:11 a.m. The sun would pull up less than an hour later.
After the show, I approached the astronomer and asked him for some nighttime viewing tips. I was staying at the Wildlife Prairie Park, a wooded spot outside the circle of light pollution. For good planet placement, he suggested that I look up at 12:30 a.m.
I arrived at my accommodations with enough light to see the wild animals that roam and board at the 480-acre park. Standing on the viewing platform, I aimed my telephoto lens at a swell of brown lumps; a herd of bison came into view. In the bird exhibit area, I watched an owl swivel its head “Exorcist”-style. At the badgers’ home, a giant brown toupee popped out of a burrow. I smiled; he hissed at me. In the distance, cougars screamed.
I retreated to my cabin, a silo-shaped structure with a large picture window overlooking the neighbors’ place: a pond with Canada geese. I made up the top bunk bed, heated soup in the microwave, read the paper on the lower bunk, watched TV (no nature programs, thank you very much) and bided my time while the planets slowly crawled up the sides of the sky.
A little after midnight, I stepped outdoors and into an inkblot speckled with glitter. I checked off the names on my list but didn’t say good night, planets. The orbs stayed with me throughout the evening, their glow visible through the small window above my bed.
When the sun came up, my planetary adventure shifted into phase II. The Peoria Riverfront Museum’s community solar system model claims to be the world’s most complete large-scale model of our planetary geography. Built to a scale of 99,000,000 to 1, it covers more than 6,000 square miles of central Illinois. Four of the marquee members are within a mile of the Peoria museum.
I stopped by Earth first, along the Pimiteoui Trail in Constitution Park. The mini-globe dangled inside a metal tube, safe from such terrestrial dangers as squirrels and sticky fingers. Venus was next in the chain: I discovered it near the alien scene of a volleyball court in the back yard of a biorefinery. Mercury, about the size of a golf ball, hovered in its capsule near the sports complex and playground.
The sun appeared on the back plaza of the museum, a yellow brick circle rimmed in red. I walked into the center of the solar system and stood in the middle of Peoria’s universe.