Who Was Poor Phil?

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By Doug Deuchler

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So, while you're gobbling your burger-in-a-basket at Poor Phil's, did you ever wonder who he was?  Phil, I mean.  And just what was so "poor" about him?

Well, it's a dark story fraught with failure and drug addiction, and it doesn't end pretty.

First there was Philander's, a restaurant housed in the former ballroom of the Carleton Hotel, which became the first place to serve legal liquor when Oak Park's local Prohibition was repealed in the late '70s.  That upscale eatery was named for Philander Barclay, a one-man historical society who took over a thousand photos that document local streets, businesses, and railroads very early in the 20th Century.  He died in 1940 but many of his photographs are now hanging in bars and businesses all around town. 

Last year Philander's was retooled and given a new name: Barclay's.  The adjacent establishment, Poor Phil's, also celebrates the ill-fated gentleman known for his bike and camera.

Dubbed "Bicycle Barlclay," Philander ran a bike shop but had such poor business skill his store folded early in the auto age.  An eccentric loner, he was known to be generous, often repairing a kid's bicycle free of charge if he knew the family was down on their luck or the father was out of work.  Children from prosperous homes could not get their bikes out of hock until the repairs were paid in full.

Philander was a loner who knew everyone but had no close friends.  He stood on the sidelines, ever watching and recording but never participating.  In a community known for its social involvement, he joined no group, society, club or church.  More than anything he loved to pedal around town on his bicycle ( now on display in the Historical Society) with his bulky Kodak box camera slung across his shoulders.

His treasureed photos, which provide a virtual time machine to local scenery over a century ago, are a treasured part of the collection of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest..  I saw some striking images the other night on the walls of Giordano's, 1115 Chicago Avenue.

Poor Phil Barclay, suffering from insomnia, prowled the village nightly, returning to his rented room at dawn.  He became addicted to sleeping powders.  In that era, when one could obtain morphine and amphetamines at any pharmacy, he developed a drug problem.  He overdosed a number of times, at least twice coming close to death.

During the Hard Times of the '30s, Barclay moved in with his retired schoolteacher sister Luan, living above where Oberweiss Ice Cream Parlor is now located.  Luan shared her tiny pension with him but often money that was given to Phlander for food or clothing was spend on drugs; he'd end up hospitalized.

Finally Poor Phil checked himself into a fine room in the Morrison Hotel in the Loop; that night he overdosed on barbituates.  His ashes were scattered at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.

This week, in celebration of Philander's 132nd birthday, he was portrayed by Mike Stewart in a special tour of South Marion Street, Bicycle Barclay's old neighborhood, adjacent to twhat was then the ground-level railroad tracks. The festiviities and commemoration continue with a Philander Barclay Photo Contest until October 15.  Scope out the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest's web site for the rules. 

Reader Comments

5 Comments - Add Your Comment

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jody gerut from oak park   

Posted: January 23rd, 2011 10:36 PM

nicely done. i go to poor phil's a lot and as a history major was always wondering about the place's beginnings. How did it come to specialize in seafood, I wonder?

Pam Risher from Oak Park  

Posted: October 21st, 2010 11:12 AM

Great story, Doug! I enjoyed it!

john murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: October 9th, 2010 12:48 AM

Your article makes me wish I had met Philander Barclay. What an interesting guy!

Kathy from Oak Park  

Posted: October 1st, 2010 3:41 PM

great story - and I love eating at Poor Phil's.

AJ from Oak Park  

Posted: October 1st, 2010 12:25 PM

Great story, Doug. I enjoyed it much and look forward to hearing more.

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