136 years of Oak Park newspapers

From the florid to the lurid, from courageous to just cranky

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By KEN TRAINOR

In Wednesday Journal's first issue, July 30, 1980, the late, great Frank Walsh, whose column, The Spectator, graced these pages for our first decade, set the tone, describing this upstart weekly as "a David with slingshot loaded, now on the prowl finding men biting dogs. Youth, energy, responsibility -  that's the platform this paper is running on."

Our readers 30 years on will be the judge of whether we've fulfilled that youthful promise, but newspapers in Oak Park have long come out swinging - or at least making bold, brash claims.

Oak Park's first "newspaper," the Oak Park Record, published in July of 1874, made the relatively modest claim of being "an occasional publication" and couldn't even live up to that. Volume 1, Number 1 was also the last.

A mere three years after the Chicago Fire motivated a mass migration in Oak Park's direction, the Record was filled with lovely woodcut illustrations and elegantly inflated 19th century prose. Rev. S.J. Humphrey (modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey's forebear), for instance, had this to say about Oak Park:

"Time lifts trifles into dignity. The day will come in which a record of the slightest incident will be held valuable. When fine old mansions crown these gentle slopes, and our children's children, long after we are gone, sit under the oaks which will then hide centuries of rings beneath their shaggy coats, and ask after the early times, the homely annals which we here essay to write will have a worth beyond any thought of ours now. We call ourselves fortunate that there are those still living whose memories hold nearly all there is in history in the first days of Oak Park."

His description of the town's residents, if stripped of some of its flourish, isn't all that far removed from today's population:

"The mass of the people are thrifty business men in moderate circumstances, most of them owning the houses in which they live. Not a few have come to this place as a retreat from the exactions of city style and the hot excitements of city life ¡ª sensible fathers and mothers who live within their means, who believe in flowers and children and in the honest payment of their debts. Having a marked character in this respect, Oak Park will doubtless continue to draw to its quiet homes and shady courts those who desire to combine with city business the restful seclusions of rural life."

A woodcut of Humphrey's home (which still exists) on Elizabeth Court (named for his mother) adorned his commentary.

But all that is tame compared with the way a newspaper with a most immodest name, The Vindicator, bolted out of the gate on Jan. 13, 1883:

"In presenting our claims to the citizens for the support of an independent journal, we feel warranted in asserting that their [sic] is need for a newspaper with sufficient courage and independence to discuss with impartiality the questions that are of the most vital importance to the people of this community. That their [sic] has been no such journal heretofore amongst us no one can truthfully deny. No matter what abuses might exist, no matter how aggravating the evils under which this community might suffer, no matter how enormous the assessments upon the people's property, and no matter how profligate might be those who domineer over the people, yet up to this time, not the slightest criticisms upon such evils or misconduct has been attempted in the ¡®organs' which claim to represent the town."

The town that the publisher, William Halley, claimed to represent was the Town of Lake, the general area east of Cicero Township on what is today Chicago's near West Side, but eventually Halley relocated to Steiner's Hall on Marion Street and renamed his feisty little rag the Oak Park Vindicator. And for a number of years, the paper remained aggressive - in a way newspapers today couldn't get away with.

According to one of Jean Guarino's "Yesterday" columns (in Oak Leaves, 1996), Halley went after the village's first druggist, Dr. Orin Peake, who had compiled Oak Park's first directory:

"The work has been so fatiguing," Halley wrote, "that the good doctor has taken to excessive drink. While this reporter cannot say that Dr. Peake is consistently under the influence of spirits, yet he can affirm and prove that [Peake] often leaves Oak Park with an empty demijohn, always heading toward Chicago."

Halley sold The Vindicator in 1897, and the paper, along with the Oak Park Times formed the antecedents of the Oak Leaves, which listed both papers in the masthead of its first issue, Jan. 24, 1902.

Probably just as well. The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest has issues of The Vindicator on microfilm from 1899 to 1901. A quick skim reveals that the muckraking aggressor had been considerably tamed by the turn of the century. "News of the Town" tidbits for Austin, Oak Park, Ridgeland (once an independent community within Oak Park), River Forest and Maywood, dominated the first few pages, informing readers that "Little Frank Thompson, the two-year-old son of Harry Thompson [of River Forest], fell from a window of the second story of the residence to the frozen ground below Monday morning. He was playing before the open window and leaned too far and fell. Strange as it may seem, the child was unhurt, and not even a bruise could be found on his body. He was a little frightened at first but soon returned to his play."

The issue contained a list of helpful aphorisms, such as "A man's best friend is a sufficiency of the almighty dollar," "Love is never found by seeking and it never stays for pleading," and "Many a man has risked acquiring a wife in order to acquire a sister."

The paper carried Chapter XV (Continued) of J.P. Smith's story, "My Poor Wife," as well as an article titled, "When Tolstoi writes a book." One of the longer pieces told the startling story of "Boston Fishermen's Fight For Life With Sea Lions," which included an illustration of Captain Jeremiah Stubbs and his crew fighting off the aforementioned angry creature.

To relieve the tension, the next column over featured "Our Budget of Fun ¨C Some Good Jokes, Original and Selected."

The only truly local news story concerned an Oak Park election. "There was little or no excitement as there [no sic] was only one ticket in the field," the paper reported. "The total number of votes cast in Oak Park was 299."

But why bother with local when you could read "Paced By A Lion ¨C Exciting Experience Of A Bicycle Rider in Africa" or "Where Cannibalism Still Survives ¨C Considered A Most Desirable Article Of Food By The Natives Of The Islands New Britain and New Ireland" or the horrific and extremely politically incorrect "The Wicked Chinee [sic] ¨C And Where He's Bound For In The Other World Unless His Relatives Come To His Rescue And Fool The Devil At A Tremendous Rate ¨C Various Phases Of The Hereafter." The illustration depicted several bodies hung from hooks and being sawed to pieces.

We're not making this up, but apparently they were. An ad, meanwhile, for Hood's Sarsaparilla (America's Greatest Medicine) cautioned "that pimple on your face is there to warn you of impure blood."

So we're forced to admit that when the Oak Leaves took over in 1902, it represented a step forward for local journalism.

In his front-page, two-column "Salutatory," Jan. 24, 1902, Editor and Publisher O.M. Donaldson noted, "With this issue the Oak Park Times and the Oak Park Vindicator, with that part of the Proviso Vindicator circulating in River Forest, are combined in one paper, under new management, in a new form and with a new name. ¡­ The two papers form a basis for a new enterprise born of the ambition to produce something different and something better than either the Times or the Vindicator have ever been, even in their palmiest day."

The only news story to share the Oak Leaves' first front page was headlined, "Money Problem ¨C Village Board Thinks it Has Its Appropriation Ordinance Drawn Up Right."

Henry Austin was among the brain trust forming the Oak Leaves Company, which became Pioneer Publishing Company in 1915, just after Telfer MacArthur took over as publisher. MacArthur was the brother of John D. MacArthur of MacArthur Foundation fame and Charles MacArthur, co-author of The Front Page with Ben Hecht.

The Oak Leaves enjoyed a long, largely unchallenged run as the paper of record in Oak Park (adding the River Forest Forest Leaves in the 1940s). The legendary Otto McFeely was the Oak Leaves' editor for 34 of those years.

A publication in magazine form, called The Oakparker, was still around, reportedly, until the early 1960s, tracing its origins all the way back to the Weekly Alert in 1882. Under the leadership of Hugh Walter, they also put out The River Forester and The Forest Parker. But it wasn't till the late 1960s, that genuine competition once again reared its lovely head in the form of the Oak Park World and the Oak Park News.

The World was a twice weekly newspaper, published by Bruce Sagan, which covered hard news ¡ª in particular the evolving integration story in Oak Park and resegregation on the West Side of Chicago. In 1976, Sagan sold the paper to the Oak Leaves so he could focus on what is today the SouthtownStar, a daily paper. Oak Leaves gutted the World, turning it into the Weekend World, then shutting it down sometime in the 1980s.

The Oak Park News was a shopper that evolved into a weekly newspaper (after the Oak Leaves purchased The World). The publisher was ready to sell his paper to new owners including members of the staff. But the deal fell apart at the last moment leading the editor (then, as now, Dan Haley) and two reporters to decamp and work to start a new newspaper, Wednesday Journal. They gradually rounded up some 60 local investors, with a typical investment of $1,000, to back the venture. Wednesday Journal is now 30 years old (and still swinging).

 

Based on several sources at the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest ¡ª most notably the Historical Survey of Oak Park, Ill., WPA project #9516, edited by Oak Park Public Library Reference Librarian Gertrude Fox Hoaglund (1937) and William Halley's Pictorial History of Oak Park (1898), here is the general line of newspaper succession:

  • Oak Park Record: 1874 (one issue)
  • The Weekly Alert: 1882 (Ely and Schroeder)
  • Along the Line: 1884
  • Weekly Review 1885 (purchased by The Vindicator)
  • Cicero Vindicator: 1885 (started as the Town of Lake Vindicator in 1883, later became the OP Vindicator; the Proviso Vindicator covered River Forest)
  • Oak Park Reporter: 1887 (absorbed the Oak Park Argus in 1904 and became the Reporter-Argus)
  • Oak Park News: 1890-91
  • Oak Park Argus: 1899-1904
  • Oak Leaves 1902-present (absorbed the OP Times and the OP Vindicator; later added the Forest Leaves for River Forest)
  • Oak Park Events: 1909 (formerly the Reporter-Argus)
  • Oak Parker: 1918 (formerly OP Events; later added the River Forester for River Forest)
  • Optimist: 1923 (covered south Oak Park)
  • Village Economist: 1960s and '70s
  • Oak Park-River Forest World: 1968-1981
  • OWL Shopping News/Oak Park News: 1968-1982
  • Wednesday Journal of Oak Park & River Forest: 1980-present

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