There are so many exciting residents who made their contributions during River Forest’s rich history, it’s difficult to single out only 30 for celebration. But we’ve done it, as part of our nod to River Forest’s 125th anniversary.
Our group offers a wide variety of River Foresters, including a couple governors, a sculptor, an architect, several reputed mob kingpins, a radio star and a radio manufacturer. There are politicians, a nun, a pioneer, a temperance advocate and a beer distiller. The men who brought us such beloved edibles as Twinkies, Kool Aid and Mars bars lived in River Forest, too.
As promised the first time around, when we featured five of these notables (“Five remarkable River Foresters,” River Forest: 125 Years, May 11), we’ll be saluting these unique River Forest individuals through the summer. Here are seven more.
Adolph Westphal (1835-1913):
Soft drink savant
Bottling plant, Lake Street
He had been a successful photographer in his native Prussia. So when Adolph Westphal arrived in Chicago in 1865 he opened a photography studio on the North Side. People of that era did not take home snapshots. They went to studios to “have pictures taken.” Not long after the Great Chicago Fire, while photographing the beautiful Des Plaines River scenery one Sunday afternoon, Westphal was so impressed by the natural beauty of the wooded river area he immediately decided to move out to River Forest in 1873 and set himself up in the growing sylvan community.
Westphal initially opened a German-style tavern, beer garden and dance hall at the corner of Lake Street and Clinton Place. This popular attraction drew customers from all over the region. It became a frequent stopping off point for travelers coming in from the “hinterland” on their way to the Chicago markets.
Later he began producing beer at Westphal’s Bottling Works, 7355 Lake St. But with the growing temperance movement of the late 19th century, local liquor restrictions forced him to switch to bottling carbonated soft drinks like ginger ale and root beer. During the 1890s, however, Westphal discovered a legal loophole that allowed him to continue bottling and selling beer on a wholesale basis.
Westphal was very civic-minded and community-oriented, yet he was always at odds with the “liquor question” and often locked horns with the local temperance fanatics.
Adolph Jr., continued the carbonated soft drink business in River Forest after his father died in 1913.
Edwin Perkins (1889-1961):
The Kool Aid king
814 Ashland Ave.
The entrepreneur grew up in a three-room sod house. Edwin Perkins first ran a general store, published a weekly newspaper, and became postmaster in a small town in Nebraska. The ambitious 25-year-old also started a mail order business called Perkins Products Company, which sold items he’d actually invented, like a “tobacco remedy” to help people quit smoking, perfumes, “bluing” (a chemical used to whiten clothes), and toiletries.
In 1927, Perkins created a concentrated flavored drink mix he initially called Fruit Smack?#34;since it was supposed to be so tasty customers would smack their lips. The original six “delicious flavors” were cherry, lemon-lime, grape, orange, strawberry, and Perkins’ personal favorite, raspberry. Perkins originally sold his mixture in tiny 4-ounce glass bottles but shipping and breakage were problems that cut into profits. So he began to package his product in dry, lightweight wax paper envelopes that were easy to ship and cost only 5 cents.
Despite the Depression, almost everyone seemed to have a nickel for a pitcher of a cool, sweet drink called “Kool Ade.” Government regulators, however, complained that “Ade” was reserved for actual fruit juice products. So the spelling was changed to “Kool Aid.” By 1931, demand was so strong, Perkins dropped the manufacture of all his other products. He had first sold the nickel drink packets out of his own home in Hastings, Neb., but eventually relocated to Chicago to launch a more efficient manufacturing plant.
By 1950, a million packets of Kool Aid were produced each day. In 1953, Perkins merged his business with General Foods, which would later merge with Kraft in 1989. Perkins and his family lived at 814 Ashland Ave. until his death.
Paul “The Waiter” Ricca (1897-1972):
Reputed mob boss
812 Lathrop Ave.
Local legend persists that so many top hoodlums lived in River Forest in the 1960s the police themselves referred to the village as “The Home of the Hoods.”
Paul “The Waiter” Ricca was born Felice DeLucia in Naples, Italy, in 1897. At the age of 19, after murdering his sister’s ex-boyfriend who’d “disrespected” and jilted her, he did two years “time,” then hunted down the sole witness who’d ratted him out and slashed his throat. Faced with another murder indictment, he headed to America, began using the surname Ricca, and took a job in a Taylor Street restaurant when he arrived in the Little Italy neighborhood on Chicago’s Near West Side.
As a waiter and “maitre d'” in the 1920s at “Diamond” Joe Esposito’s Bella Napoli caf, he quickly made underworld contacts and came to the attention of Frank Nitti who folded him into the Capone gang. Soon he was working for the mob full-time. In 1927, Al Capone was best man at Ricca’s wedding.
In the movie The Untouchables, Frank Nitti was the guy Kevin Costner threw off the roof. But in reality, Nitti committed suicide by shooting himself when he was dying a painful death from cancer in 1943. Ricca was then elevated to the top spot in the Chicago Mob?#34;Consigliere or “Chairman of the Board.” But later that same year he was sentenced to 10 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary on extortion charges. Ricca turned control of the Chicago Outfit over to Tony Accardo. He only served three years, however, and was freed in 1947.
Ricca always hated the nickname “The Waiter.” He was said to be a cruel, cold-blooded killer, an “arrogant little guy” equally proficient with a knife or an ice pick, suspected in over 55 murders during his career. Yet he was Accardo’s trusted, life-long friend. He was also said to be a well-read man of refinement who never spoke a vulgar word or told an off-color joke. Politicians enjoyed him. He was once a dinner guest at the Roosevelt White House.
He died of natural causes at age 75.
Judge, youth advocate
260 N. Keystone Ave.
A graduate of Northwestern University School of Law, Mary Bartelme defied tradition and was admitted to the bar in 1894 at age 28. She was appointed Public Guardian of Cook County in 1897, when women were considered unfit for such positions. She held that post for 16 years. In 1913, because of “her unselfish service to the orphans of Cook Co. and thousands of minors,” she was appointed assistant to the judge in Juvenile Court, where she heard over 6,000 cases of teenage girls. When another judge was needed for the Circuit Bench in 1923, Bartelme was elected at age 57.
Bartelme, the first woman judge in Illinois and a pioneer in the field of helping underprivileged children, was nicknamed “Suitcase Mary” for her practice of personally providing young girls “in trouble” with suitcases packed with clothes and other necessities to get them started on a new path. She set new standards for the treatment of poor, “wayward girls.” Bartelme was especially an advocate of those trouble girls who, often through no fault of their own, found themselves homeless and with no place to turn. Many of these “have-not” teens fell into lives of prostitution and petty crime to get by.
“There are no bad children,” Bartelme always insisted. “There are only confused, neglected, love-starved and resentful children. What they need most I try to give them?#34;understanding and a fresh start in the right direction.”
Today six Mary Bartelme homes in Chicago serving young girls carry on her work.
James Dewar (1897-1985):
1308 Lathrop Ave.
The man who created the Twinkie snack cake started out as a salesman for the Continental Baking Co. (later named Hostess) which was located in the early 20th century where the River Forest Jewel now sits, 7525 Lake St. James Dewar (pronounced DO-ER) first delivered poundcakes with a horse and buggy.
But Dewar was always so enthusiastic, energetic and full of ideas, he quickly moved up to route supervisor. He continued to climb in the company throughout the 1920s.
When the Depression hit hard, as manager of Continental, Dewar knew his company desperately needed a popular, low-priced item. So in 1931 he decided to mobilize hundreds of small cake pans that were lying around dormant after the brief strawberry shortcake season was over. He got the idea of injecting each little sponge cake with a sugary cream-like filling, then wrapping them in pairs with clear cellophane to ensure a longer shelf-life. He originally used a banana cream filling but during World War II there was a banana shortage. So vanilla cream filling similar to cake frosting was substituted.
Dewar got his inspiration for the name Twinkie from a local billboard he saw that read, “Twinkle-Toe Shoes.” He later confessed, “I just shortened it to make it a little zippier for the kids.” The 5-cent packages of snack cakes were an immediate sensation.
Many people believed Twinkies “stay fresh almost forever.” Bomb shelters of the 1950s and early ’60s were often stocked with hordes of Twinkies.
In later years, Dewar took umbrage whenever Twinkies were called junk food. “I fed them to my four kids, and they feed them to my 15 grandchildren,” he bragged many decades later. “I myself still eat at least three Twinkies every night at bedtime with a glass of milk.” Dewar, a life-long chain-smoker, was 88 at the time.
Despite their reputed nutritional drawbacks, Twinkies remain a hugely popular treat. In April, the cake celebrated its 75th anniversary. About 500 million Twinkies are baked each year; Americans spent $47 million on them in the past 12 months.
Edmund A. Cummings (1842-1922):
Realtor and transportation magnate
Real Estate Office at Harlem Avenue
and Lake Street
Edmund A. Cummings served in the Civil War with the 127th Illinois Brigade. He fought under Gen. U.S. Grant at the siege of Vicksburg and with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his infamous “march to the sea” (Remember “The Yankees are coming!” from Gone With the Wind** ) For the rest of his life, Cummings was active with the G.A.R. or Grand Army of the Republic, the largest Civil War veterans’ organization.
In 1869 he established E.A. Cummings & Co., a well-known real estate firm. In 1872 he subdivided the separate settlement known as Ridgeland that eventually became part of east Oak Park. As the driving force behind the River Forest Land Association, he subdivided much of present day River Forest for development.
Convinced that reliable, affordable public transportation was vital for residents of his subdivisions, in 1889 Cummings and his brother founded the Cicero & Proviso streetcar line that later became the West Town Bus Company that served the belt of western suburbs.
Cummings was so influential that at the time of his death at 80 in 1922 there was a strong but unsuccessful movement to rename Harlem Avenue in his honor. Instead, with a bequest of $25,000 he left for civic improvement of the Forest Preserve land he’d once owned at the northwest corner of Lake Street and Harlem Avenue, Cummings was honored with a band shell pavilion. Its wrecked remains are known as the Cummings Memorial, and are the subject of ongoing restoration efforts today (see the sidebar on River Forest’s Gala Benefit Friday?#34;the proceeds will benefit restoration of the memorial).
Paul Strayer (1885-1981):
Artist and illustrator
530 Ashland Ave.
Paul Strayer’s art was featured on scores of magazine covers. Strayer illustrations were also found in many books and were featured on posters. He’s best known for his paintings of historical scenes and marine subjects. Many of his most remembered works depict Native Americans, early trains, ships and frontier life.
“Christmas Eve at Fort Dearborn” hung in the Chicago Historical Society for 75 years. His painting of “Gallahadion,” the horse that won the 1940 Kentucky Derby that was owned by Ethel Mars, the River Forest widow of Franklin Mars, candy tycoon, was widely circulated at the time. Strayer’s life-like illustrations were especially appreciated by periodicals like Field and Stream and Outdoorsman, because he had such a “good eye for the details of nature.”
His 1916 Arts & Crafts-style house was featured in 2003 on HGTV’s If Walls Could Talk program. The home has an inglenook fireplace with benches on each side and an upstairs artist’s studio where Strayer taught art lessons and built model ships and trains.
photo courtesy of the historical society of oak park and river forest, from chicago portraits by june skinner sawyers.
Mary Bartelme, the first female judge in Illinois.
photo courtesy of the historical society of oak park and river forest
James Dewar created the Twinkie snack cake in 1931.