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By Ken Trainor
Those who like to browse the rotating exhibits at the gallery on the Oak Park Public Library's second floor, will discover that the place is lousy with cops.
"The Oak Park Police Department: In Retrospect," opens Wednesday with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit of historical photos runs through the end of June.
Officer Ed Hadac is spearheading the effort, with the assistance of Lindsay Olson, the police department's "artist in residence." Hadac, who has been on the force since 1982, took over as department historian when Ron Wozniak retired in 2004. He inherited a collection of negatives, slides and photos, though many more were lost when the basement flooded at the old village hall, located at Euclid and Lake.
James Balodimas, a professional photographer in Forest Park (jamesbalodimasphotography.com) scanned those that survived and offered advice on preserving the collection, which has been supplemented by descendents of former officers, who contact Hadac to donate old photos they find in their forebears' archives.
Olson has been displaying the work of local artists on the walls of the department's current location in the lower level of village hall, 123 Madison St. for the past several years. When she saw Hadac's photo collection, she encouraged him to consider a public exhibit.
Hadac and Olson chose roughly 50 photos, the oldest of which dates back to 1898 (from the Historical Society of OP-RF collection). The police force itself dates back to 1877, when Fred Hacker, who already had the job of tending the village's 65 street lamps, and two friends drew straws. Hacker drew the short straw and became Oak Park's first cop, a development necessitated by the population explosion that occurred in the years following the Great Chicago Fire. Hacker, who preferred to be called "Marshall," worked 12 hour days and was paid $45 a month, mostly to light and extinguish the oil-based lamps. According to Gertrude Fox Hoagland's 1937 WPA Historical Survey of Oak Park, "when he made an arrest, he was often obliged to use a hand-car on the Chicago and North Western railway tracks to get his prisoner to the Town Hall in Austin and, as he supplied the motive power himself, he had to rope his man so he would not escape."
Hacker was making $75 a month by 1908. According to Hadac, he died in 1910 after 33 years on the job.
An investigation of the force in the early years found "the members trustworthy but undisciplined. No general orders were given, and each man had been allowed to determine just what his duties were and how he should perform them. Also, the force lacked sufficient knowledge of the names or streets and their location, as there was no uniformity in numbers or street names."
The original police department was located at 161 N. Marion St. with the Municipal Building nearby at 122 N. Marion. In 1915, George A. Lee became the first Oak Park police chief. Current Chief Rick Tanksley is the 14th.
Law enforcement has changed some since the early part of the 20th century. In 1902, for instance, Washington Boulevard was patrolled on Sundays by three officers who stretched a rope across the street and were prepared to raise it to stop bicyclists from exceeding the 8 mph speed limit. The police would take target practice with their revolvers under a bridge at the Des Plaines River.
The new photo exhibit will offer testimony to the ways local law enforcement has evolved since. Hadac says they've tried to include photos from every decade of the past century, including the one of Harry Lindblat sitting on a Henderson Excelsior motorcycle in 1927 (right). Hadac took it to the Harley dealer in Berwyn, and they identified it.
Unfortunately, many of the photos remain unidentified. The background contains a few clues, however, so if you have any theories, mention them to Hadac tonight at the library gallery opening. You can't miss him. He's the tallest cop on the force.