Covering the Land of Lincoln

What’s the story behind the El Vista subdivision in Peoria, Illinois?

Ask Dean is a Journal Star series focusing on all things Peoria: its history, mysteries, quirks and culture. Send your questions to [email protected].

Questions: The area around Forrest Hill, Sterling and Gale, and bounded by Interstate 74, is called El Vista. There is an El Vista Street, and I grew up in, and now have been the pastor of, El Vista Baptist Church. I have often wondered about the origin of the name El Vista, but haven’t found any information about it. I believe it means “the view,” but there’s not a real scenic view in the area. — Joey Watts

answer: In less than a century, El Vista — “the view” — has gone from a rural outpost, where deer played and chickens roamed, to a busy Peoria neighborhood.

In 1937, Peorian Charles L. Swords submitted a plat for the El Vista subdivision, bordered by Reservoir Boulevard and Forrest Hill on the north and south, and Sterling and Western on the west and east. Gale runs diagonally through El Vista. Hundreds of property parcels are designated on the map.

The El Vista neighborhood is seen in this image from Google Maps

Swords had “extensive farm property holdings in Peoria County,” according to Journal Star archives: “As contractor — he built thousands of miles of roads in and near Peoria County and was responsible for the opening and development of El Vista and Fernwood Additions into residential areas.” He later became Peoria County sheriff and the principal owner of the Hotel Pere Marquette.

Some of the platted streets never were built: A proposed Emma Avenue now is greenspace. Notably, the map includes a “recreation ground” in its northeast quarter. (More on that later.)

‘Out in the boondocks’

North El Vista Avenue runs southeast off of Sterling Avenue to West Richwoods Boulevard then continues south from Richwoods to West Hudson Street through Peoria's El Vista neighborhood.

An early resident of the new subdivision was the late Peoria historian and author Norman V. Kelly. In 2015, he wrote in Peoria Magazine, “When my family moved into El Vista in 1937, believe me, we were really out in the boondocks. There on Forrest Hill was Woodrow Wilson School, and at Forrest Hill and Gale was Sieks Grocery. Up the road was Mr. Long’s gas station, and that was pretty much it. There was Newman Golf Course, Bradley Park, a farm or two, and a lot of space.” In a later story, Kelly wrote that his father had built the house, and that there was no plumbing.

Facebook commenters confirm that isolation. One wrote that “I was born in what was called the “sticks” ElVista area.” Another wrote, “Sterling Road was a 2 lane gravel road once you hit where Sterling intersected Forest Hill it became gravel.”

Illustrating the remote, rural nature of the area was a 1951 brief in the Peoria Journal: “George Burdick, 111 N. Circle Rd., El Vista, reported to county police that a dog killed 45 chickens in the yard at his home yesterday. The chickens were valued at $40.”

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But the El Vista population was growing, and Kelly’s father was not the only property owner to build his own house. A rather assertive 1951 classified ad in the Journal Star read, “HEY MAC! Want to build your own ‘Dream Home?’ Then take a bus or drive out to the corner of Gale Ave. and Hawk Road in El Vista Addition.You will find a lot of lot for even a ranch home for just $600.” Besides lots with a lot, El Vista by then had city sewer lines, as Journal Star classified ads attested.

Discerning homebuyers even had the option of … roads. Ads in both the Peoria Journal and the Sunday Journal-Star boasted, “Now having water, sewer and roads El Vista addition in the suburbs is a favored place to live.” Days later, a 1952 Journal ad offered some clarification: “DO YOU KNOW El Vista Addition has now almost come to the city? Now has city water, sewers, and improved roads.”

Given all those amenities, El Vista continued to grow.

A booming ‘burb

As more homes were constructed outside of Peoria city limits, there was growing support for annexation of those areas. A 1951 Peoria Star editorial made its case, headlined “THE MOVEMENT TO THE SUBURBS.” The editorial noted, “Many persons who think of themselves as Peorians do not live in Peoria.” It added, “There is no longer much desirable property within the city for new home sites.” It argued that the lack of construction within the city limited its tax base, and the long-term solution was annexation. To bolster its case, the editorial argued that “police protection of the suburban areas is far from adequate. The office of sheriff of Peoria county was set up to do a rural policing job.” Apparently, El Vista’s policing concerns had moved beyond dog-on-chicken crime.

The vote for annexation

dr  Maude A. Sanders Primary School, known as Woodrow Wilson Primary School until 2018, became a part of Peoria Public Schools in 1964 when Richwoods Township, which included the El Vista subdivision, was annexed to the city of Peoria.

Richwoods Township — including the El Vista subdivision — was annexed to the city of Peoria in 1964. The vote by township residents was close — 5,858 for and 5,522 against. It more than doubled the size of Peoria and added about 24,000 people to the city’s population. An unofficial Journal Star tally by school districts showed the Woodrow Wilson district opposing the measure. (Woodrow Wilson primary school, within the El Vista subdivision, was renamed Dr. Maude A. Sanders Primary School in 2018.)

Advocates of annexation had promised improved public services — street lighting, road maintenance, police and fire protection — and lower taxes. Opponents had predicted worse community services and higher taxes. Supporters said Richwoods schools would remain the same. Opponents said they would be changed for the worse.

But by the slimmest of margins — 51% to 49% — annexation had been approved.

So, where’s ‘The View’?

Schmoeger Park offers residents of Peoria's El Vista neighborhood a quiet getaway not far from home.

The source of El Vista’s name is unclear. While the “recreation ground” listed on the plat — now part of Schmoeger Park — is scenic, there is no “vista” or overlook.

The author and historian Kelly, in an essay found on the Peoria Public Library’s website, wrote of a “steep cliff that we played king of the hill on” as well as a sledding hill. Perhaps, before what became I-74 was built, there was indeed a “vista.”

Possibly, the name is based on the approaches to El Vista. South of the subdivision, the top of the Sterling Avenue hill does offer somewhat of a vista overlooking West Peoria.

Or maybe the name “El Vista” was just good marketing by the developer.

El Vista today

To see it now, El Vista is a neighborhood of modest but well-kept houses, narrow, dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs. Schmoeger Park is a lush buffer to the east. A trail there overlooks a wooded ravine with a sleepy stream. Interstate traffic rumbles by farther east.

Recently, along a tree-lined Western Avenue, a doe emerged from the woods and casually wandered into a yard to graze a nearby garden, unconcerned by a lone noontime vehicle. (There were no chickens to be seen.)

If no longer “the sticks,” and now decidedly a part of Peoria, El Vista remains a rather charming oasis of sorts — proper “vista” or no.

The Peoria Public Library assisted with research on this article.

Submit your own:If you have questions about Peoria, Ask Dean. He’s worked here for a quarter-century

Whether it’s a person, place or product, send your “Whatever happened to …?” and “Wasn’t there a …?” questions, comments and suggestions to dmue[email protected]. Please put ASK DEAN in the subject line.

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