La Salle-Peru, Illinois
La Salle and Peru are so close together and so closely linked that they're usually called the twin cities. "Twin Peaks" is more like it. This part of the Illinois valley doesn't look like the town on the TV show, but it shares a similar feeling of mysterious foreboding, of malevolent spirits lurking behind painted facades, and dark secrets discussed only in whispers in the dead of night.
Or maybe I've watched too much television.
I scoffed when a friend first made the comparison, but late one night in a bar in La Salle I met a man who exuded pure evil. In small towns and countrysides a person's true qualities tend to stand out in higher relief. This man's sure did--he seemed to have made direct contact with darkness. Though he didn't do anything to make trouble, I could feel the hackles rise on my neck the minute I met him. Stay away, I thought. Even today, I dare not speak his name. It wasn't Bob--that's all I'll tell you.
On the other hand, everybody at the bar in Monari's 101 Club (101 First St., La Salle, 815-223-0101) possessed the other qualities of people in small towns--they were friendly and conversational. Located next to the railroad tracks by the Illinois River, Monari's is a restaurant as well; some say it has the best food in town, or towns.
Back in the 1950s and '60s, La Salle was nicknamed "Little Reno," in honor of the gambling houses. The action was wide open then--there were strip joints on First Street and a mobster in every bar. Even today, supposedly, you can find a game if you know where to look. The bartender at Monari's estimated that there are 60 bars in La Salle now (that's down from its height), but said he didn't know which were fronting backroom casinos, if any. Of course, that's only what he said.
Route 6 is the main drag in both La Salle and Peru. Called Fourth Street in Peru, it traverses the Little Vermillion River and takes you past the high school, the old Westclox factory (where 3,000 were employed before the company relocated--but the clock over the entrance still works), and the offices of Carus Corporation, which are in the former Westclox offices directly across the street. A forlorn-looking sign on the factory advertises offices for rent.
The factory and Carus offices are on the edge of Peru, right by the La Salle border. Driving a few blocks farther down Route 6 to the city center, one is startled by a sudden burst of piano trills filling the air. The music emanates from beneath the bronze statue of Maud Powell that stands in a plaza at the corner of Fourth and Putnam. The renowned violinist was born in Peru in 1867 and died in 1920, so it's a sure bet she never played "Theme From Love Story" or a song that sounds like "If You Could Read My Mind" as rendered by Ferrante & Teicher. But she did give a concert in her hometown in 1908. Joseph Heyd, a Benedictine monk at the local Saint Bede Abbey, sculpted the statue.
Directly across the street is one of the few restaurants in town. Not wanting to go to the first place I saw, I avoided the Peru Pizza House (1702 Fourth St., Peru, 815-223-7408) at first. At 12:30 in the afternoon of a sunny and pleasant Tuesday I walked several blocks on Fourth Street--past three hairstyling salons, a tanning emporium, a bank, a vacuum cleaner dealership, a van from the P & D Sign Company on which was painted the phrase "Even Moses needed a sign!," and numerous other vehicles and establishments--without running into either a restaurant or another passerby. On spotting a woman sitting alone behind a desk in a travel agency, I walked in and asked if there were any good places to eat in town besides the Pizza House. Oh yes, she told me, there were plenty of restaurants near the Peru Mall up on Route 251--Long John Silver's, Arby's, McDonald's...I thanked her very much and walked over to the Pizza House, where I had a chicken parmigiana sandwich that was both reasonably priced and pretty good. I asked the waitress if she could tell me about any spots of local historic interest and she mentioned two: the Hegeler Carus Mansion and Starved Rock State Park. She'd forgotten the I & M Canal, but two of three ain't bad.
Located near the house where D.T. Suzuki lived during his 11 years in La Salle and in front of the fully functioning Carus Chemical factory, the Hegeler Carus Mansion (1307 Seventh St., La Salle, 815-224-6543, www.hegelercarus.org) is just a short drive from Starved Rock. The house's restoration is far from finished: the paint is chipped and the walls behind the urns on the small landings that flank the front stairway are mottled, yet this adds to its dramatic effect. This place is not just a museum--it's a real home reflecting the real effects of the passage of time.
When the restoration is completed the mansion will look almost as it did in the 1880s. Paul Carus's thousands of photographs of it are being used to guide the architect in charge, John Garrett Thorpe. Many of the original plans, by W.W. Boyington and August Fiedler, still exist, and very little of the interior has been altered since Open Court began doing business on the ground floor in 1887.
Besides Fiedler's ornate carvings, the varied patterns of the parquet floors, the innovations designed by Hegeler (many made from the zinc that paid for the house), and the late-19th-century Buddhist shrine, the house is a trove of historical artifacts. "They never threw anything away," says Dan Irvin, the caretaker and site manager. Irvin grew up two blocks from the house, and now knows it inside and out. "It isn't haunted," he insists, "and there's no tunnel to the house across the street, either."
The mansion's 16,000 square feet, seven levels, and 57 rooms once housed as many as 26 people. Now only Uncle Alwin remains. His quarters are closed to the public and his privacy is well guarded, but he does occasionally say hello to tour groups. Says tour coordinator Christine Ciesielski, "It's very unusual to see a house in the process of restoration, and even more unusual when the house is also still a private residence."
Tours are conducted on the hour Wednesday through Friday from 12 to 3, Saturday from 10 to 4, and Sunday from 12 to 4. Admission is $5.00 for adults, $3.50 for seniors and children under 12, and free for children 5 and under.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Heather McAdams.