If they build the Peoria museum, the Duryea car will come

Scott Hilyard

The sun shone through the windows on the southeast corner of the Main Street branch of the Peoria Public Library on Thursday morning, illuminating the cobwebs and dust that clung in spots to the 1898 Duryea automobile displayed there.

"We need to get this cleaned up," said John Parks of the Peoria Regional Museum Society.

Better yet, he said, moved to a new location.

The museum society plans to donate the one-of-a-kind slice of Peoria history to the Peoria Riverfront Museum if or when it gets built on the former Sears block Downtown. The $136 million project, which includes a separate Caterpillar Inc. Visitor's Center, is currently $47 million short of a ground-breaking ceremony. The 110-year-old Duryea would be a priceless, iconic addition to the new museum, Parks said.

"The library has been a good home (for the Duryea). It's been safe here and in an environmentally controlled location," Parks said. "But the new riverfront museum will be an ideal home."

Frank and Charles Duryea were central Illinois natives, but first started making automobiles in Springfield, Mass., in the early 1890s. They are credited with being the first auto manufacturer in the United States to produce, advertise and sell gasoline-powered automobiles. Something happened to split the brothers up and Charles Duryea moved back to Peoria, where he made the 1898 three-wheeled Duryea automobile in the barn behind his home on Barker Street. The automobile was sold to a Glenside, Pa., plumber in 1900. It is the only one known to exist.

Said Henry Ford of the car: "The Duryea car was a masterpiece. It did more to start the automobile industry than any other car ever made."

With its sale, the car became disconnected from its Peoria roots until it was discovered, fully restored and in driveable condition in Pennsylvania in 1988. The owner agreed to sell the it to the Peoria Regional Museum Society for $125,000 and four years later, after a successful "Bring Home the Duryea" fundraiser, the car came back to Peoria.

It has been in the corner of the library, across from a rack of magazines, ever since.

"It's been drained of all of its fluids and we never intend to drive it again because it's just too fragile. Something happens to this car and that's the end of it. It's an irreplaceable historic icon of Peoria," Parks said.

Which makes it a perfect fit for display in the Peoria Riverfront Museum. The regional museum society, part of the five-member museum collaborative group, also pledged $40,000 for maintenance and exhibits explaining the vehicle's history.

A library is an honorable location, but people come to libraries to read and do research, Parks said, not look at historical displays. A lot of people have seen the car and accompanying exhibit in the Main Street library, but a lot more would see it in the riverfront museum.

"It belongs in a museum," Parks said. "And we're thrilled to be able to donate it to the new Peoria Riverfront Museum."

Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or