A Bear Beloved

by Stevie Sigan

What's black, white and Peoria all over?

There’s a charm to some rumors. Or so it goes with the large stuffed bear that hovers near the entrance to thirty-thirty Coffee Co. on Main Street in Peoria. Rumor has it the bear has survived a kitchen fire, years of isolation in storage and… wasn’t always black. As young coffee drinkers pose today with the beast—which towers nine feet tall, holding court over coffeehouse conversations—an older generation recalls its own memories of the bear from decades past.

For many years, the bear greeted visitors to the beloved Jumer’s Castle Lodge on Western Avenue. “People just loved him,” recalls Jim Schaidle with a smile. A woodworker and maintenance man for the Jumers for more than two decades, Schaidle conjures fond memories of the iconic bear, which became something of a symbol of Peoria.

“People from my era—when you went to homecoming, prom or a wedding, going to the Jumer’s hotel was the big thing to do… you’d take your photo with the bear.” There sure are a lot of stories, Schaidle laughs.

Numerous online accounts claim that the bear, once white, was dyed black after being burned in a fire. It certainly makes for a great story, Schaidle agrees. “That fire would have been in the early ‘70s. I heard the taxidermist who did the bear actually came to the fire and pulled him out—he got his hair all singed saving that bear.”

But the acclaimed hero, Harley Grove, who owns a taxidermy shop—open 50 years this year—in Creve Coeur, modestly sets the story straight.

“It’s a polar bear,” he affirms, assuring the curious that Mr. Jumer shot him legally off the Russian coast near Alaska. “The Knopp Brothers’ taxidermy shop up in Spokane, Washington, dyed and mounted him initially… for the Black Bear Lounge [the restaurant inside the Castle Lodge] in Peoria. I suppose it was just to advertise that the Black Bear Lounge was what it was.” The fire, Grove explains, came years later, and no real damage was done to the already-black bear.

And so it goes: The rumors may hold more charm, but the white polar bear was dyed black simply to match a room. After Jumer’s Castle Lodge closed its doors in 2010, the bear wound up in storage until thirty-thirty owner Ty Paluska and pals set up shop downtown. Upon request, the Jumer family, which still owns the triangular Kickapoo Building that houses the coffeehouse, was more than happy to let them display the bear.

Paluska laughs as he recalls hauling the bear around town in a minivan to get it patched up before the coffee shop’s grand opening. When he and the other co-owners brought it back from the taxidermist, they decided to name something after the fellow: thus, the Bear Claw Espresso. There are also plans for an etching of the bear on a new packaging design.

“The Jumers passed on this iconic symbol of Peoria business to the younger generation,” says Paluska. They may not be familiar with the collective tangle of Peoria memories wrapped up in this giant stuffed animal, adds Paluska, but “now it’s the thirty-thirty bear. It’s become for the young generation what it was for the older—a Peoria icon.” a&s