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By Ken Trainor
Philander Barclay's life came to a sad end, but he loved Oak Park and left a legacy worth celebrating. Which is why the man the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest calls "a one-man historical society" was the focus of a "birthday bash" last Wednesday evening.
The occasion was the Historical Society's annual meeting, which roughly coincided with the birthday (a week earlier on Sept. 16) of Philander Barclay, one of Oak Park's more colorful characters. When Barclay died in 1940 — of a drug overdose, self-inflicted — he left behind approximately 1,000 photos of Oak Park from the early 20th century, an invaluable record that formed the cornerstone of the local historical society when it was finally founded in 1968.
Following the meeting, Barclay himself made an appearance, in the guise of Mike Stewart, wearing period costume and claiming bewilderment about all the automobiles on the street. Virtual Barclay led a tour of the neighborhood, aided by posters displaying his photos, by way of comparison with what the town looks like now.
Philander, aka "Bicycle," Barclay moved to Oak Park with his family in 1891 (from Southern Illinois, near Cairo). His father opened a drug store, called the Sign of the Golden Lion Drug Store, at 103 N. Marion St. (Prairie Bread Kitchen today).
Because the store offered one of the first telephones in Oak Park, James and Mary Barclay took messages and Philander would bicycle around town to deliver them, no doubt reading them on the way. So he knew everyone's business, Stewart related, noting that Barclay was fascinated by his hometown, but was essentially a loner.
"I took pictures, but I didn't participate," Stewart, as Barclay, said.
The drug store, unfortunately, gave him easy access to drugs like morphine (legal at the time), to which he became addicted. He also suffered from insomnia, so he grew dependent on "sleeping powders" as well. When he couldn't sleep, he would walk the streets and got to know the night workers, police and firemen in particular. He knew the village like the back of his hand.
His parents' store became a community gathering place, full of stories, and Barclay listened eagerly. In a 1931 Oak Leaves interview, Barclay recalled, "My father's store was the gossiping center of the whole town. I used to listen to the jovial tales, and I thought, 'Nobody ever thinks about saving the past until the past is gone. Someday they'll be history.'"
Barclay acted on that impulse and began taking photos while he wandered, recording the buildings, intersections and people he encountered. He also put out a call through the local newspaper for photos from residents to bolster his collection.
"Mr. Barclay's photos ought to be of value to the historical society, when organized," the Oak Leaves editorialized in July of 1902. That October, they noted that someday his collection "will be of great historic value."
And they were right, but Barclay wasn't making any money with his hobby. To make a living, he opened a bicycle repair shop in 1902 at 1112 North Blvd., just around the corner from his parents' drug store, to take advantage of the bicycle craze that reigned until automobiles took over the streets.
Ironically, Barclay's bike shop gave way to Oak Park's first auto dealership, Wright-Elsom. Today the site is part of the parking lot just west of the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce, near the Metra station entrance.
The Barclay walking tour made a stop at Greenline Wheels, 105 S. Marion St., the new "social mission" business promoting eco-friendly transportation by renting traditional bicycles as well as electric cars and bikes. Store manager Tom Olis said Greenline is co-sponsoring a photo contest for the best Barclay-style shots of village locations, submitted by residents. Prizes include a Marion Street Cheese Market tapas picnic, a full-day bike rental from Greenline, and a Historical Society membership. The deadline for photo submissions is Oct. 15.
Across the street at the Opera Club, 110 S. Marion St., resident Robert Hughes showed off the beautiful collection of blown-up Barclay photos in the lobby. After the ups and downs and occasional negativity of the development process, Hughes, who has lived in Oak Park, on and off, most of his life, felt building management needed to make a connection with the surrounding community. So he spearheaded the effort and coordinated with the Historical Society to pay homage to the history of the immediate area.
Several photos depict the Warrington Opera Club, which occupied the site at Marion Street and South Boulevard at the turn of the last century, and which figured prominently in several of Barclay photos. The lobby even has an old playbill for the comedy, My Mother-in-Law, from Jan. 13, 1903 and a photo of the stage with its new "Fireproof Curtain," required by code after the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago. Ironically, the Warrington did suffer from fire damage and was eventually converted into the Mar-Lac House banquet hall.
Another photo showed the Niles building across the street, which is still there, having survived a proposed razing back in the 1990s. The original owner of the building named the street after his daughter, Marian. At some point that morphed into Marion, Barclay/Stewart observed.
Sadly, Barclay never did beat his addiction to drugs, surviving several overdoses. Finally in 1940, at the age of 61, he took the el to the Morrison Hotel in the Loop and ended it all. He loved Oak Park too much to do it here, Stewart noted.
The evening finished on a brighter note at Barclay's American Grill in the Carleton Hotel with a toast to Barclay and his invaluable pictorial record. If only he had known, perhaps things would have turned out differently for him, and the other restaurant in the Carleton Hotel building today wouldn't be so aptly named "Poor Phil's."