A Visit with Local Historian/Writer Norm Kelly
Norm Kelly began his writing career at the age of 17, by writing “silly little things” at work. He became interested in the history of Peoria when someone from the military service said that Peoria was all about gangsters. This thought stuck in his mind. He wanted to know about Peoria’s origins.
According to Kelly, he began his research “blind,” not knowing where he should begin. He went to the Peoria Public Library and told one of the staff that he wanted to know more about his hometown. A woman who worked there “seemed very knowledgeable” about local history and offered to help him. She suggested that he start researching Peoria by looking through old newspapers. For 29 winters he read every word of every article about events and people that interested him in these newspapers from 1845 -1950.
The librarian also led him to the Peorianas. These little books contained columns that were written by “Robert Johnson, in the 1930’s and 40’s. He was a newspaper writer for the Peoria Daily Record. Kelly rewrote stories from these actual newspaper columns that he read. Dallas Sweeney, a Peoria Public Library employee for 50 years, compiled these stories by year and topic. He was 18 when he started at the library.
Kelly’s research led him to the “seedy” and” bawdy” side of Peoria. He became interested in Peoria’s crime activity, and in the horrific crimes committed often by someone’s neighbor, and not by some hardened criminal gang member.
He interviewed hundreds of “older folk” to discover the myths and facts about Peoria’s alleged reputation. The reputation included the gossip about murders, gangs and gang activity. Also, there was much talk about Peoria’s alleged speakeasies. This reputation was passed down as told by their fathers and grandfathers. According to Kelly, there were no speakeasies and the actual criminal activity was not quite what was claimed.
The information that he needed for his crime novels and articles, he found in: coroner findings, coroner’s inquiries, witness statements, trial records, and/or trial dispositions, if there was no trial. He read jury findings to figure out how they came up with a verdict. From this research, he wrote his novels and stories about crime. He has also written mystery articles and adventure stories in magazines.
Kelly also had a successful career as a private investigator. He was usually hired by an attorney or by a company representative to discover whether alleged statements about the defendant had merit. Usually the accused was alleged to have committed some immoral or illegal, criminal act. Kelly explains, “One of the best qualities of an investigator, when confronted by one of the witnesses for the prosecution, is that you have the “right” answer.” He explained, “You must not be suspected of stalking your witness.”
Kelly was honored that he eventually was able to get Luther Zimmeran, the first soldier to die in the Korean War, name etched on the black granite war memorial located in the Peoria County Courthouse. Kelly’s efforts to do this appeared in an article in the Peoria Journal Star, written in April of 2011. He told this reporter that “all soldiers must be honored for their service to their country. “
At his bog site you can read stories written from his research.
A brief list of his topics includes:
1. Peoria kept growing, despite the loss of jobs from Prohibition. “At one time we had 14 rail road companies in and out of Peoria.”
2. Peoria had a huge stockyard that flourished here in Peoria from 1842 until 1967. “Early on we led the nation in livestock processing. It was said to have been a 26 million dollar annual business early on in our history.”
3. Peoria had 15 huge livery stables at one time and horses were KINGS. Peoria had a national and international history for breeding, selling and racing of horses. Peoria was loaded with thoroughbreds, trotters and pacers and lots of riding and workhorses.
4. The farm business spawned tractor and farming equipment and eventually led to HOLT and then Caterpillar and Letourneau. All those jobs brought people into our city helped the farmer and the city dwellers with new jobs.
5. Peoria “grew by leaps and bounds.” In 1920, the population was 76,121. Downtown was bustling, extremely busy and it encompassed nine square miles. Peoria possessed 200 small manufacturing companies in Peoria that produced over almost 1000 different products. When the war arrived, many of these companies began making wartime products.
Kelly was once invited to attend a prominent Northwood’s school in Upper Wisconsin by a noteworthy writer. Kelly showed her some of his writing. While she pointed out that he needed to learn how to write better grammatically, she went on to say “You are one of the “best storytellers that I have known.” So he asked her what she should do about his writing, and she said “Keep writing.”