It was 30 years ago today

A look back at Oak Park's two-year bicentennial celebration

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By LAURA STUART

Editor's note: This story first ran on July 4, 2001. Two of its heroes have since died: Elsie Jacobsen on Nov. 21, 2003 and Morris Buske this past Jan. 14. Their efforts on behalf of Oak Park are something to celebrate.

This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts," said Gerald Ford in his 1974 inaugural address. He had it right. Vietnam and Watergate were hardly over, and we faced runaway inflation, a depressed economy and energy shortages. Oak Park had been dealing with its own challengesâ€"could we succeed as an integrated community? Those were tough times for everyone. So what happens when the going gets tough?

The tough get going . . . to a party. Oak Park held a two-year bicentennial party, and it turned out to be a bigger deal than anyone could have imagined. "There was all this stuff going on. Everyone was focused on making Oak Park the best place you could live. The bicentennial celebration gave us the pushâ€"the bicentennial group was able to mobilize all of the things that were happening. We looked around at the meetings and realized we were all the same people, the shakers and doers, and we knew how to work together and get things done," recalls Dawn Schumann, an early member of the Bicentennial Commission and the first president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation (now the Preservation Trust).

Why did the bicentennial become such a major part of Oak Park's story? Because when we celebrated our nation's past, we also took a look at Oak Park's past, and we liked what we saw. Credit the commission with nurturing the purchase of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, publishing the first guidebook to Oak Park architecture, producing a series of pageants, parades and events, including a 1976 town meeting to consider Oak Park's future, and placing the bust of Wright in Austin Gardens. But there was more to it than that.

"The focus on our heritage gave us a boost in our morale. We all found inspiration in Wright and Hemingway, and we grew greater through the changes that occurred," notes Redd Griffin, who chaired the Horizon subcommittee of the Bicentennial Commission.

"The bicentennial kind of turned things around," adds Roy Hlavacek, who served as treasurer of the commission. "We thought, maybe there was a value in heritage and the past. And we realized Oak Park was loaded with all this good stuff. It was a great reawakening."

So let's travel back a little more than 30 years, and take a look at how Oak Park celebrated the bicentennial.

Look to your roots

Schumann (she was Dawn Goshorn then) had been fighting the good fight in Oak Park for years. She remembers how things stood in the late 1960s. "We had a real mess on our hands in the village. We were losing large numbers of people. We lost the auto industry up and down Madison Street. There was redlining in Austin, and the evils attendant to resegregation. The headlines said 'Fear stalks the streets in Oak Park.'"

Concerned residents formed the Citizens Action Committee, and Schumann became co-chair. She recalls a pivotal meeting, with about 300 people in attendance, when they listened to a community planner from Missouri. "He said, 'My God, what are you worrying about? Look at what you've got here. Look to your roots to create your future.'"

And that's one of the things they did. It wasn't such a novel idea. Oak Park's "Madame Chairman" Elsie Jacobsen, who was also to become a Bicentennial Commission member and chair of its Festival subcommittee, was on the same track. "In my own little mind I figured that what we had to offer was the sense of a strong past. We can cling onto Frank Lloyd Wrightâ€"that's what I thought. We figured we had to make people proud to be in Oak Park, proud of our history and background."

There were committees all over town. Jacobsen chaired the new Beautification Commission, instrumental in restoring the Wright/Bock fountain and moving it to the entrance of Scoville Park, saving the Oak Park Conservatory, forming block organizations (and fostering the tradition of block parties) and planting more flowers than she cares to count. There were other efforts to safeguard Oak Park's past, by the newly-formed Historical Society and the Landmarks Commission. Lots of effort went into promoting fair housing, but there was also an emphasis on making Oak Park a place where everyone would be proud to live.

In the midst of all this activity, planning for the bicentennial celebration began. The Oak Park Bicentennial Commission of the American Revolution was created by ordinance on July 16, 1973; it's stated purpose was "helping the people of Oak Park to plan and implement a rewarding and worthwhile commemoration with results that will last beyond 1976."

Hlavacek, who was also chairman of the Landmarks Commission at the time, remembers that the first meeting was on Sept. 20, 1973, "the same night as the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis match. I thought, 'Gee, I'm going to miss it.'" It was at Jacobsen's house, and she invited Morris Buske, who'd just retired from teaching history at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Buske was instrumental in the formation of the Historical Society, and later the Hemingway Foundation. Schumann was there, too.

In early literature asking for volunteers, they called themselves "a non-political, non-partisan, non-paid group of citizens." The list of commission officers reads like a who's who of Oak Park. Buske agreed to be chairman. They set up four subcommittees, Communications, Heritage (the past), Festival ("dramas and pageants, parades and fireworks") and Horizon (the future).

"It will provide the occasion, just when we are ready, to take a new look at the American way of life and be rededicated to its principles," Buske told the Oak Leaves in December 1973. "There will be opportunities for every group and individual to be involvedâ€"especially the young, who have the most at stake in the future of our community and nation."

To stir up interest, the Bicentennial Commission appeared in Oak Park's Memorial Day parade in 1974, in a red-white-and-blue decorated car.

Wooing Mrs. Nooker

"A lot of [the Bicentennial Commission's] early meetings were taken up with talk about purchasing [Wright's] Home and Studio," recalls Griffin. "We were a forum for the discussion and kept it alive." It was partly a matter of timingâ€"word was out that it might be for sale. Negotiations with the owner, Mrs. Clyde Nooker, lasted for months and Griffin says they included the late Art Replogle of the Oak Park Development Corporation "wooing her with flowers."

With help from John Thorpe, Avenue State Bank (now US Bank), and a deal Schumann worked out with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the purchase was completed. Schumann resigned from the Bicentennial Commission in 1974 to devote full time to the Home and Studio, and many of the commission members became members of the Home and Studio Foundation. A report in The Oak Park World, a now defunct local paper, called the purchase "a bicentennial project." The connection is reflected in the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust phone number, which is still 848-1976.

Another early concern of the Bicentennial Commission was producing a guidebook to historic buildings in Oak Park. Hlavacek was the point person on this project, done jointly with the Landmarks Commission. "There'd been an architectural survey, but there was no guidebook of any kind. We wanted a simplified means of identifying buildings of national significance. Owners needed to know they had something special; there was a danger that buildings would be torn down. And we wanted to help people who came by," he says.

Paul Sprague, a well-known architectural historian, was hired to write the guidebook, and the village board ponied up $6,000. It ended up taking several years, missing the promised delivery date by a year. "We wanted it for July 4, 1975, so we could sell it all the way through the year. Sprague was meticulous, and wanted it to be perfect. Originally, it had all his pictures, and he had to take
them at just the right time. It couldn't be winter; it couldn't be too late in the spring
or there would be leaves. Some people
wanted to fire him. It came out on July 4, 1976, but it was good, carefully done and respected. And we made money, by God," recalls Hlavacek.

Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright & Prairie School Architecture in Oak Parkâ€"An American Architectural Revolution has been through numerous printings and is still available. When the Bicentennial Commission disbanded, it turned the rights to the guidebook over to the village.

Hemingway fans also made an attempt to add a Hemingway project of some sort to the bicentennial mix, but it didn't go anywhere. Buske actually produced a detailed proposal for purchase of the boyhood home at 600 N. Kenilworth Ave. to be used as a museum but, as he recalls, "nothing happened. It went over like a lead balloon."

[The Hemingway Foundation finally purchased the boyhood home in July 2001.]

Let the celebrations begin

There was plenty of pomp and circumstance, in Oak Park and River Forest. A pageant at the main library in March 1975 was the official start of Oak Park's bicentennial. It was written by Griffin, a history teacher and township official who later served as a state representative. With slides, music and help from the Village Players, Griffin, according to a report in the Oak Leaves, spoke of "the hundreds of thousands of Oak Parkers who have breathed the free air of our national life and gave back to their community, nation and the world the best and brightest light they could."

The commission sponsored two contests, "I Remember," for memoirs of historic Oak Park, and "Spirit of Oak Park," for short stories or one-act plays on the theme of, not surprisingly, the spirit of Oak Park.

The summer and fall of 1975 included parades, picnics, fireworks, and a host of events with bicentennial themes, including a dinner and dance on the (then) mall, an art fair, and the musical play 1776, performed by the Village Players at the high school as well as their own theater. Every school had some kind of bicentennial project. And since the 100th anniversary of Edgar Rice Burroughs' birth fell in September, there was a Tarzan festival as well.

As the events chair, Jacobsen reached her pinnacle with a torchlight parade on April 30, 1975 that included a re-creation of Paul Revere's ride. Revere (recruited by Jacobsen at a local stable) rode his horse down Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, followed in hot pursuit by Redcoats who were somehow available from Oak Lawn. Local school groups and scouts were also in on the fun, and there was a performance of the Longfellow poem about the midnight ride read by a group of students from Longfellow School. (Actually, the parade was scheduled for April 18, but the rains came and Revere failed to show. The Oak Leaves reported that Jacobsen was there, "with a small bedraggled group of drummers and flag bearers. She lead the onlookers in 'God Bless America.'")

There was also some serious consideration of the American Revolution and its principles. Buske gave a series of classes at the Oak Park and River Forest public libraries on "The Birth of Our Nation," covering the period from the end of the French and Indian War to the end of George Washington's first term.

On March 27, 1976, Oak Parkers participated in a town meeting. It was a national project, designed to demonstrate democracy in action. Griffin was chairman of the all-day event, which had an elaborate format of workshops designed to produce a written record of challenges and practical proposals for people to take home at the end of the meeting. TV newscaster Bill Kurtis, at that time a noted Oak Parker, was the keynote speaker, and Oak Parker Warren Fritzinger appeared as Ben Franklin. Verna Orndorff, chair of River Forest's Bicentennial Commission, performed a dance she created, the Patriot's Prance, to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

"Over 600 people showed up; it was the third largest meeting in North America. It was a critical time in Oak Park's history, and there was very serious-minded participation," says Griffin. "We discussed problems in the morning and solutions in the afternoon. The village president, Jim McClure, and other village officials sat as equals with everyone. It was a very democratic event, and it raised Oak Park's spirits at a time when we needed it."

Some things participants were worried about: citizen apathy, a shrinking tax base, racial balance, vandalism, unresponsive elected officials, and not enough places to park. Solutions they proposed included establishing block clubs and neighborhood councils, providing transportation and babysitting so people could attend more meetings, and requiring village officials to develop an economic plan, with review at public meetings and through an advisory referendum. They also wrote a song.

Bicentennial fever wore a little thin for some Oak Parkers. Even Jacobsen admits that "it seemed like it took forever." A sixth grade class at Longfellow School collected examples of bicentennial commercialism, and The World quoted one of the students who complained that the whole thing was "a red, white and blue rip-off."

By the time July 4, 1976 finally arrived, it was almost an anticlimax. There was a big parade in the morning, which Griffin says was "a real love-in. It wasn't just an ordinary parade. People lined the streetsâ€"it was a spiritual experience." Before the fireworks, the 1975 kick-off celebration program was performed for the crowd at the high school.

Art in the park

In 1975, someone came up with the idea of putting a work of art in one of the parks, as a bicentennial memorial. Nothing had been done by 1977 when the Commission disbanded, so it voted to turn over all its assets to a newly formed Bicentennial Art Committee (Buske must be the only public official to end up with money left over when a project is completed; he prides himself on never spending his whole budget.)

The plan was to do something in Austin Gardens related to Frank Lloyd Wright. Griffin contacted Wright's son Lloyd, a landscape architect, who came up with an elaborate design involving Indian statues and a reflecting pool. "The neighbors worried about a kid drowning in the water, and the owner wouldn't release the copyright on the statues, so it didn't happen," recalls Griffin.

When they were close to giving up, the bust of Wright by sculptor Egon Weiner became available, and it was purchased. It sits at the corner of Forest Avenue and Ontario Street.

Buske gave the concluding report of the Bicentennial Art Committee to the village board on Dec. 21, 1981. From his written statement, Buske noted, "When we look back nearly eight and a half years, to the time when the commission was set up, we are reminded that many people thought Oak Park was ready to go down the drain as soon as someone pulled the chain. Instead, Oak Park has grown through the efforts of many groups and individuals, working in many fields."

Then he handed over $222.32, the money left in the bicentennial budget.

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