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Tales and tidbits from River Forest's past

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By Doug Deuchler

Editor's note: Doug Deuchler will be regaling us through the summer"and beyond"with River Forest's history, inhabitants and oddities, in honor of its 125th anniversary. Here's a collection of fun and useful facts from the village's early history. And remember, there will be a test. (We're not kidding. Stay tuned.)

• In the mid-19th century, the area that would become River Forest was thickly wooded and very dark at night. The early settlers carried lanterns if they went calling on one another. The wide-open prairies in the east central section were ideal for farming and grazing. The farmers kept their sheep and cattle in pens but hogs were considered "intelligent" beasts that never got lost. They were allowed to run free and forage wherever they wanted in the pastureland.

• The first wave of new residents into the community occurred after an outbreak of cholera in pioneer Chicago in 1837. Many folks relocated out to River Forest, then considered a safe distance away because it was a day's ride from the lakefront.

• Lake Street was a diagonal Indian trail that was converted to a planked road in 1842. This upgrade made it an efficient and comfortable route for stagecoach travel between Chicago and Elgin (out in the Fox Valley "hinterland"). Until then, wagons and coaches often "mired down" when the mud roads became impassable during the spring rains. Farmers herding livestock into market from rural Hillside and Elmhurst often got their sheep and cattle "stuck in the muck."

• River Forest's first streetlights were kerosene lamps located on posts at street corners. They were lit at sundown and were allowed to burn until 10 p.m., which was considered the village bedtime. Later, during the 1880s, a common sight at dusk was the appearance of the River Forest lamplighter with his ladder, which he would lean against a lamppost and climb to turn on the gas streetlights.

• River Forest didn't even have its own name until it was incorporated on Oct. 24, 1880. Before that, together with a portion of Oak Park and Forest Park, the three towns made up the unincorporated village of Harlem. River Forest was the first of the three villages to become its own independent municipality. For years, western River Forest was often called Thatcher.

• By incorporating in 1880, River Forest preceded Forest Park/Harlem by four years, and Oak Park by 22 years.

• During the 1880s the trustees of River Forest divided their new village into two zones, east and west. West was "dry" and east was "wet." The village fathers realized they couldn't operate without the revenue from several saloons in the eastern section.

• Early River Forest was not without its ethnic pockets. "Little Italy" and a tidy little neighborhood largely populated by African-American domestic workers was located along the 7200-7300 blocks of Garden Street, between Lake Street and Central Avenue"the locale of the River Forest branch post office. "Germantown" was the neighborhood surrounding William and Chicago avenues, just south of Concordia University.

• The early African Americans in River Forest were not all domestic day workers, as is often assumed. They were farmers who ran small nurseries and grew fruit, vegetables and flowers.

• The Martinus family, the first black family in River Forest, had an apple orchard and a thriving fruit-growing business. They acquired the land through a government squatter's claim. The land in central River Forest was very fertile.

• Early on, River Forest established its image of a community of lovely homes with no manufacturing or business district to disturb the peace. Eventually the temperance movement took such a strong hold of the majority of villagers that saloons were prohibited, too. The "evil and miseries of the city" would not be allowed in River Forest.

• The population of the frontier community began to grow dramatically after 1849 when regular railway service began. The Pioneer, a Galena & Chicago Union Railroad train, traveled through the community. The first station was built in 1854 on Thatcher Avenue. Prosperous arms and ammunition merchant David C. Thatcher had moved here around that time so the station was named for him. The Thatcher depot was later called River Forest.

In that period, Oak Park didn't have a train depot but River Forest did. Just after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, there were 12 trains to Chicago per day. Thus, fairly early on, River Forest was never a true pioneer village that grew as other Illinois communities developed. It quickly developed into the type of suburb that would later be dubbed a "bedroom community," where commuters spent the bulk of their waking hours in the Loop. A separate freight line was known as the SOO line and those tracks are still visible today.

• There was also a railroad station located just west of Harlem Avenue that was actually an old freight car with no wheels. It contained a small potbelly stove and two benches. Before dawn on Easter Sunday 1872, this little Harlem station was mysteriously moved just east of Marion Street into Oak Park by "persons unknown."

• There was a "lost village" of River Forest known as Edgewater a century ago. It was located just north of Division Street along the Des Plaines River. This small community was often severely flooded in the springtime. It was demolished in 1938. [Philander Barclay took several photos in the 1900s showing flooding in that zone.]

• The romantic movement of the 19th century promoted living in a rural, halcyon setting of ferns, fawns and flowers. The attitude was not only that the air was more healthy and pure but people were also closer to God when living in the country.

• The 1859 Harlem School, located at 7776 Lake St. and still in use as the Dist. 90 Administration building, was not only the only school in River Forest until 1889, but it also served Maywood, Forest Park and Oak Park. The brick school, which was constructed by Ashbel Steele, cost $10,000, an exorbitant expense for the mid-19th century. It was also the largest school in the region. A distinctive feature was/is the Federal-style front door with its fanlight window above it.

• During the early 1870s, as many families relocated after the Chicago Fire, several new subdivisions were opened. But in order to maintain the prosperous "country life" atmosphere, lot sizes were kept huge. Streets were planted with double rows of trees.

• The Abraham Hoffman house, 738 Thatcher Ave., was constructed in the popular post-Civil War Italian Villa style. In the 1880s, Mrs. Hoffman had established the River Forest Young Ladies' Seminary in the yellow brick home, a type of private "finishing school" designed to create "high-class" young women who were ready for the responsibilities of married living and managing a proper household. Since 1929 the structure has housed the Trailside Museum.

• St. Luke Catholic Church was dedicated in 1887. It was one of the only Catholic churches in the region and drew its membership from River Forest, Oak Park, Harlem (now Forest Park), Maywood and Melrose Park.

• There was an effort to protect the village from fire in 1893. In those days, with so many wood frame houses and barns and widespread use of kerosene lamps and wood-burning stoves, destructive fires were a frequent hazard to the community. A number of local men became volunteer firefighters. Early fire equipment was not very effective, however. The first fire wagon was a horse-drawn cart with a man-operated hose that was 600 feet long. John Matthews, an early 20th-century grocer who was also fire chief, loaned his horse-drawn delivery wagon to be the hose-cart during fire calls.

• By the late 1920s, just before the Depression period, with increased use of automobiles, there was no longer such a strong need to be living within walking distance of public transportation. Thus the land north of Chicago Avenue, previously dismissed as the dense "North Woods," came under demand. In the postwar period, there was a final building boom in north River Forest. Little vacant land remained by the mid-1950s.

• Frank Lloyd Wright designed the River Forest Golf Club in 1898, one of his first truly Prairie-style structures, and the River Forest Land Association Building in 1905. The golf course land was subsequently divided and sold when the building was demolished in 1905. The Winslow home was one of Wright's first important works. The River Forest Tennis Club still survives as well.

• Did you ever wonder why there are no through streets or underpasses from Harlem Avenue westward to Lathrop Avenue along Central Avenue? In 1911, the northwestern railroad tracks were elevated in both Oak Park and River Forest. Two new brick depots were erected above ground at Lathrop and Thatcher avenues. Wide openings through the elevation embankment were provided at Thatcher, Keystone, Franklin, Ashland, and Lathrop avenues, and for years there was a passage for pedestrians at Park Avenue. But there was no way to go under the tracks in the eastern section of River Forest, a distance of a half-mile. This reflected a historical feud, resulting in very little co-operation between the villages of River Forest and Forest
Park, which borders that portion of
River Forest.

• There were many Germans in early River Forest. William F. Blocki was a very successful German-American druggist from Chicago who erected a huge home at 344 Keystone Ave. in 1870.

• Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1929-1931, was constructed of Indiana Bedford limestone and designed in the English Gothic style at Division Street and Bonnie Brae by the well-known architectural firm of Tallmadge & Watson. It has an acoustically perfect auditorium often used for concerts.

• The Temperance movement provided the spark for River Forest's incorporation in 1880. Feeling threatened by Harlem's many German saloonkeepers who were being backed by funds from the Brewers' Association, River Forest leaders quickly held an election in which voters approved incorporation. Staunch supporters of the "local option" were even threatened with bodily harm by the "saloon element." Opponents of Temperance questioned the election's legality, yet the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the results. Ultimately, River Forest trustees did approve licenses for two saloons in the east end to provide revenue for village improvements, like bricking the streets and maintaining a public library. West River Forest in the 1880s was dry; the eastern zone was wet.

• In April 1899 an election was held to merge Oak Park and River Forest into one township high school district. Students began attending school together in the fall of 1900. The name was changed to Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1905. By 1906, the enrollment doubled from 300 to over 600 students.

Periodically there were times when the union of the two villages didn't run smoothly. Every few years there was a campaign to "pull out." There was always talk that River Forest would secede and establish its own high school. But by the 1960s such considerations were considered financially too costly.

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