Parks often have a genealogical connection. Detweiller Park, in Peoria, Illinois, has the distinction of being connected to several local families. A large number of family names surface while reminiscing about this park.
In November 1927, Thomas H. Detweiller donated 661 acres to the park district. While the park carries the Detweiller name, it is in honor of Thomas’s father, Captain Henry Detweiller.
Henry Detweiller was born in Alsace Lorraine. His parents, Christian and Catherine (Shertz) Detweiller were natives of France. During the War of 1812, Christian Detweiller lost his considerable fortune and left this earth in 1832 as a poor man. He left behind his wife, two sons and three daughters. Henry Detweiller was just ten years old.
A year after Christian Detweiller died, Henry’s brother John migrated to the United States, making his way to Peoria, Illinois. In 1837, Henry and the rest of the family joined John in Peoria, who owned the St. Croix Tavern on Water Street, near the river.
Henry finished school and then went to work keeping the books for his brother’s St. Croix Tavern. He moved on to clerking for Samuel Voris & Co., manufacturers of steam-engines and mill work.
Henry Detweiller thought he’d like to try his hand as a river pilot. He found a position working for John Frink, of Frink & Walker, delivering mail and passengers on the Illinois River between Peoria and Peru, Illinois. The Frink & Walker name appears frequently throughout history. The company originally ran stagecoach lines across the country. Eventually, they were contractors responsible for delivering much of the United States mail.
Henry Detweiller hired on to the steamboat, Frontier. This steamboat sunk on the river when it was struck by another steamboat, the Panama. Everyone survived, but the Frontier was lost.
Reportedly, Henry was second captain at the time. Head captain was John Frink. Two years later, when Frink built a new steamer, Chicago, he took Henry on again as second pilot. By 1847, Henry Detweiller became captain of the riverboat Governer Briggs, named in honor of Ansel Briggs who became the first governor of Iowa.
The Governor Briggs took Henry Detweiller on a completely different river route. This ship sailed between St. Louis and Alton. It was wartime and Capt. Detweiller hauled troops and military equipment to Jefferson Barracks.
On November 5, 1848, Henry Detweiller married Magdalena Bachman in Woodford County, Illinois, where one of his sisters was then living. Magdalena was also an immigrant from France. During her life, she did charity work with organizations such as the Women’s Christian Home Mission and the Women’s Relief Corps.
Around 1849, Cholera had struck St. Louis. While hundreds were dying daily, those who were able hired Capt. Detweiller to sail them out of the city on the steamboat Danube. The captain contracted cholera and took nine months to recuperate at his home in Peoria. For more information about Capt. Detweiller, read “Peoria city and county, Illinois: a record of settlement
,” Volume 2 by James Montgomery Rice.
Eventually, Henry Detweiller became a landlubber and partnered with N. L. Woodruff, establishing the Detweiller Ice Company. The good captain served as Peoria city treasurer six times. He served as president of the Old Settlers’ Association of Peoria.
The Detweillers had seven children. Only Thomas H., Amelia M., and Mathilda E. survived. Thomas became president of the Detweiller Ice Company in 1903, when Capt. Detweiller died. By 1906, Thomas partnered with Otto Koch and William Schurman to form the Planters’ Ice Company.
Mrs. Bradley donated that land in honor of her daughter, Laura. It is part of the former Bradley Farm. The park and the farm are both on the perimeter of Bradley Polytechnic
, now known as Bradley University
, founded by Mrs. Bradley.
Mrs. Bradley’s father sold the land now known as Detweiller Park to a riverboat captain named Captain Jacob Littleton. The sold again to Henry S. Payson, in 1882. From that time, until 1927, today’s park lands were known as the Payson Farm.
Five years after the creation of Detweiller Park, there was still a residence on the property. It was no modest farmhouse. It was a mansion built by Zeally Moss. In the spring of 1933, a storm destroyed the mansion.
The first performance in Detweiller Park was “As You Like It,” performed in the mid-1930’s, but it was long before the theater’s history began.
Corn Stock Theatre did not open until 1954 and only remained in Detweiller Park for one year
. The first performance at the new Corn Stock Theatre in Detweiller Park was “Gigi.” This original Corn Stock Theatre
was created, with railroad tie seats and canvas walls, on the very spot where Zeally Moss and Henry Payson lived.
In 1955, Corn Stock Theatre moved from Detweiller Park to Bradley Park. It began as a tent pitched on what was formerly a model gas car track. Corn Stock Theatre remains an open air theatre.
Both Detweiller and Laura Bradley parks continue to give much joy to the Peoria community. Their gifts preserve for us both nature and the memory of several families.