This group of River Forest residents, part of our list of 30 we’re recognizing as we celebrate the village’s 125th anniversary, have something in common beside their address. Unlike some of those we’ve chronicled, who just happened to hang their hats here, these men and women were leaders in the community.
If reading about them sparks your interest, consider meeting a few. The annual Cemetery Walk, Tale of the Tombstones, sponsored by the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, will focus this year on “Remarkable River Foresters.” Costumed interpreters at Forest Home Cemetery, 863 Des Plaines Ave. in Forest Park, will bring some of the village’s most fascinating citizens to life this Sunday afternoon. For details, see the sidebar on October anniversary events.
Elizabeth Porter Furbeck
(1836-1920): Pioneer daughter
Her farmer father, Augustin Porter (1797-1880), brought his family to the region from Cicero, N.Y., via steamship. First they sailed through the Erie Canal, then down through Lakes Huron and Michigan. Infant Elizabeth’s annoying and nonstop wailing caused the steamboat captain to threaten to toss her overboard if her mother couldn’t stop her crying.
The Porters first lived as “squatters” in DuPage County, waiting for land to open up for purchase once the Indians had been “relocated” to the west, beyond the Mississippi.
It was Augustin Porter who named the townships of Cicero and Proviso in 1857: Cicero after his hometown in New York and Proviso for the controversial anti-slavery bill, the Wilmot Proviso, then being hotly contested by Congress.
Porter also built the first brick house in the community on Railroad Avenue (now Central Avenue), near Bonnie Brae, about where Linens ‘n Things now stands. Porter was the first assessor of Proviso Township and served as justice of the peace in River Forest. He used the rear of their home as an office and “court house.” Elizabeth and other family members often served as witnesses when Porter performed wedding ceremonies for the pioneers.
Augustin and his wife Phoebe Keeney mortgaged their property to help finance the construction of the First Baptist Church of Austin. For years Elizabeth was the only Baptist in the Oak Park-River Forest area.
Throughout her life Elizabeth Porter Furbeck had a deep sense of history and enthusiastically shared memories of her frontier childhood with her community. She told of arriving in River Forest by “prairie schooner” or covered wagon when she was a child. Her parents were lured into the young settlement by the promise of rich, affordable land just off the diagonal mud trail that was Lake Street. There were still Potowatomi living in the “north woods” at that time.
Elizabeth attended school in the home of River Forest founding father Ashbel Steele and was taught by Steele’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, age 14.
In 1898 when she was 62, Elizabeth Porter Furbeck delivered a lengthy oral memoir to an assemblage of community members. She eloquently described the loveliness of the frontier setting of early River Forest. “If you have never lived on the natural untrodden prairie,” she said, “you can hardly imagine the beauty of the wild flowers, as each month from early spring to late fall brings flowers of different kinds and colors in the greatest profusion. I love the prairie as the seaman loves the sea.”
Furbeck’s rich personal memories document the earliest frontier days of the community.
(??-1872): Village father and land owner
Henry Quick may have done more than any other early resident to shape the personality of River Forest. Except for his own businesses, Quick was so reluctant to sell land for commercial use that very early on the village was designated as primarily residential.
When he arrived in the 1850s from Harlem, N.Y., Quick and his son promptly bought up most of southeast River Forest and north Forest Park. And since they owned a vast amount of land in the community, they often exerted what they considered to be their “rights of ownership.”
With his son John Henry, in 1858 Quick built a fine Gothic homestead with high arched windows on Lake Street (where Panera Bread stands today) in a grove of ash trees. He donated land for Christ Episcopal Church, at Lake Street and Bonnie Brae. He expected and surprisingly was granted tax-exempt status on all his real estate because he briefly participated in each weekly church service, doing Biblical readings.
By all accounts, Quick was a difficult individual who today would be referred to as a “control freak.” He had an on-going feud with community members about various issues for many years.
Henry and John became landlords. In the 1850s they subdivided their land holdings, which neighbors called “Quick Pasture,” then established a boardinghouse for the railroad workers near the new train tracks. Many transients stayed there until they acquired River Forest property.
Quick’s Harlem House was a rambling inn during pioneer times where trappers, farmers and travelers stopped for food, bed and strong drink. The structure later in the century became part of the Westphal Bottling Co. on Lake Street near Harlem Avenue.
Quick named a lot of streets in eastern River Forest, though most of them were changed long ago. Bonnie Brae was originally called John Street, after Quick’s son. William Street was named for another son. Quick also named the “section road” on the eastern border of the community “Harlem,” in honor of his hometown.
Quick had the small Noyesville post
office transferred over to Harlem House, the hotel he built near the train depot. Next he named the entire town Harlem.
In 1880 when River Forest was incorporated, the present community boundaries were established. But the Quick land outside River Forest continued to be called Harlem until 1907 when the name was finally changed to Forest Park.
(1897-1994):Naturalist and geologist
606 Thatcher Ave.
She was born in the Flatbush district of Brooklyn, N.Y., yet she made a life’s work of studying and explaining the lay of the land in River Forest.
Isabel Wasson earned a master’s degree in geology from Columbia University where she met her future husband, Theron. The two became petroleum geologists for Pure Oil in the early 20th century, just as the automobile was coming into widespread usage. In the 1920s when few women held professional jobs and even fewer possessed a master’s degree, Wasson stood in a class by herself. She was a working mom and the only female petroleum geologist in the nation.
She not only became active in River Forest affairs, serving on several commissions and the school board, but also became known as “the expert” on local birds, trees, Native Americans and the geology of the area.
In 1926, the Wassons bought the home at 138 Keystone Ave. In 1931, they moved to 606 Thatcher Ave. For the next six decades Isabel’s backyard became a gathering place for bird fanciers from all over Chicagoland.
In 1938, Isabel and Theron discovered the Native American “Snake Mound” while making a detailed land survey of Thatcher Woods. They sketched the still-intact ancient effigy of the huge, open-jawed snake with a large egg in its mouth. In 1976, with the help of a local Boy Scout troop, Isabel located the foundation of the old 1831 sawmill north of Lake Street that was operated by such notable early residents of the area as Joseph Kettlestrings and Ashbel Steele.
Although Wasson was not a formally trained teacher, her flair for working with children led her to develop and present a series of outdoor education courses in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades in River Forest schools for several generations. She focused her presentations on geology, botany, zoology and ornithology. In addition to numerous field explorations, Wasson’s mini-courses included the examination of specimens she brought from her vast collection, including a set of 300 preserved birds encased in plastic tubes.
She was convinced that “the best way to teach about something is to have the children hold the fossils and birds and things in their hands.” She often made her units into lively games. Her sixth grade unit on tree identification culminated in her popular “Tree Lotto” competition.
Wasson showed children what River Forest was like before the first human beings set foot here and what it was about the place that drew people here, as well as the ecological consequences of their arrival and settlement.
Wasson was convinced River Forest was the “ideal community.” “First of all,” she’d point out, “it’s small, not nearly as large as Oak Park. People can know each other. Most of the residents are well-educated, well-traveled, community-minded, interested in their schools, so it’s a very good place to bring up a family.”
(1845-1931): Real estate developer
Waller, a lawyer and Realtor, came to the community from Chicago in 1880. Originally from Kentucky, he became heavily invested in early River Forest. He specialized in Loop real estate, however, a line of work that brought him into contact with most of the city’s financial barons, politicians and leading architects.
Waller erected his vast estate on the north side of Lake Street on the edge of the Des Plaines River on land purchased from the Thatcher family. In 1885 he bought the section between Chicago Avenue and Division Street, Lathrop and Park avenues, holding this “North Woods” off the market until 1918.
During the 1920s he began to develop that zone as a prestigious subdivision. He also erected the three-story, Drummond-designed, Prairie-style commercial building on the southwest corner of Franklin Avenue and Lake Street that originally housed the River Forest State Bank that Waller was pivotal in organizing.
Waller’s 24-room gabled home on Auvergne Place is one of River Forest’s great lost buildings. The 1880s mansion faced a bend in the Des Plaines River. The estate, which had 12 marble mantels, vast oak paneled rooms and mahogany staircases, a private bowling alley accessible from the main house by a glassed passageway, and a ballroom, was razed in 1939. The large six-acre plot was subsequently subdivided and sold.
Waller had been one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s staunchest supporters and the architect was a frequent visitor and close friend. The “Waller Gates,” designed by Wright in 1901 in front of Waller’s estate, were rescued and restored along Lake Street in the 1980s. There are six piers of limestone with wrought-iron lanterns on the top of each pillar.
Waller never held public office but was a moving force behind numerous local organizations in the early decades of River Forest’s history. He continued working every day until his 85th year (1930) and remained active in community affairs until he died.
David C. Thatcher
(??-1866): Community leader
Lake Street and Thatcher Avenue
David Cunningham Thatcher had relocated from Massachusetts to Chicago in 1837. He became a wealthy and prominent arms and ammunition merchant who subsequently moved out to what would become River Forest in 1854 and promptly purchased 640 acres. His move to the still-frontier location influenced other prominent families to settle “out in the woods” too.
Though it’s hard to imagine now, Thatcher established a booming arms and ammunition store at Lake Street and Franklin Avenue. This prosperous business, surprisingly the first one west of Buffalo, was hugely successful. People throughout the region came to Thatcher’s establishment to purchase their guns and ammo. Many early settlers, of course, often hunted for their dinner.
Thatcher arranged with the railroad to stop one train, both morning and night, so that he could board it to travel to and from Chicago. He sold the Union Pacific the right of way through his land, so they named that stop the Thatcher railroad depot. He had been such a staunch community booster both Thatcher Avenue and Thatcher Woods were also named after him.
Thatcher and his wife had 13 children. In 1859 his daughter Clara and Frances Willard, the new schoolteacher in the village who lived with the Thatcher family, organized a Sunday school. Thatcher also helped establish the Methodist Church. He paid all the expenses as well as the salaries for itinerant divinity students who came to preach in the community, using the newly constructed red brick schoolhouse (still standing at Lake Street and Park Avenue and functioning as the District 90 administration building). These were the only religious services provided within a 16-mile radius.
Thatcher’s son William was killed in the Civil War.
The Thatcher Italianate style, 1858 family home survives, having been moved from the corner of Lake Street and Thatcher Avenue around 1900 to its current location, 511 Edgewood Place.