Why 1936? Because we keep hearing echoes. The Lake Theatre is 70 years old this year. So is Spaulding’s clothing store on Marion Street and the main post office at Kenilworth and Lake. The Maze Branch Library at Harrison and Gunderson, which just reopened following extensive renovation, first opened in 1936. And Rose Goedert, after whom the Dominican University Goedert Center for Early Childhood Education was just named, graduated from Dominican (then Rosary College) in 1936.
Since we kept hearing echoes, we asked Doug Deuchler to go back and revive that momentous year for us. Sit back and enjoy part two of our trip to the past:
Mid-Depression but gradually pulling out of it, 1936 in our two villages was truly “the best of times and the worst of times.” In spite of the troubled times and a nasty summer heat wave, Oak Park and River Forest attracted quite a list of celebrities.
The First Lady visits
Less than a week after President Roosevelt’s re-election, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt came to Oak Park and spoke on Thursday, Nov. 5, from the stage of Oak Park and River Forest High School as part of the Community Lecture series. Her topic: “The Relationship of the Individual to the Community.”
Mrs. R. arrived by train, traveling “as a private person.” She stayed at the Oak Park Arms, then our classiest hotel, and greatly challenged the local police who insisted on “protecting” her. She toured the community on foot, talking to everyone from merchants to schoolchildren. She wore a dark green wool suit with beaver trim and a brown hat. When she delivered her address, she wore a midnight blue dinner gown.
The popular Community Lecture series, which was instituted in 1900, featured 15 lectures for a season ticket of $4. Although it was anticipated that perhaps many who opposed the New Deal might stay home or turn back their tickets, Mrs. Roosevelt spoke to a packed auditorium.
The First Lady returned to the community the following week to speak at Rosary College (now Dominican University).
The overwhelming bestseller of 1936 was the hefty Civil War romance Gone With The Wind. Oak Park Public Library had 26 copies circulating”-18 at the main library, and four at each of the two branches.
Well-groomed ladies wore gloves in public. At the Wm. Y. Gilmore & Sons department store (now Winberie’s) at Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, 4-button white kid gloves were selling for $1.95 per pair.
Grace under pressure
Mrs. Grace Hall Hemingway, novelist Ernest’s widowed, 60-something mom, hosted several different art shows and musical open houses at her home studio, 555 Keystone, during 1936. After her children were grown and gone, Mrs. Hemingway, a painter and musician, sold her Oak Park home and moved to River Forest where she took in boarders to help make her monthly “house note.”
Nathan Moore, 83, a prominent Loop lawyer who lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright home at 329 Forest, had a studio added to his residence, then quit his law practice to take up painting. He was a partner in the firm of Cutting, Moore & Sidley, 11 S. La Salle St.
Village officials were debating the merits of whether parking meters should be instituted on key business thoroughfares. The patented “Park-O-Meter” system, which allowed motorists to drop in pennies for allotted amounts of time, would be installed in several vicinities on a trial basis to see if they’d produce significant revenue for Oak Park. (They did.)
The old 1911 Jackson Storage building at 1139 Lake was razed to make way for more new businesses. Also opening on that block in 1936 were several new women’s clothing stores, a millinery shop, and Maling Bros. Shoes.
Although there was talk of turning the old 1859 Oak Ridge School, southeast corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue (now 100 Forest Place), into an adult education center, the structure was knocked down. In recent years it had served as an administration building for the board of education of District 97.
In June, Oak Park and River Forest High School held its largest commencement to date in the history of the school”707 graduates received their diplomas. With fewer jobs available due to the Depression, not as many students were tempted to drop out.
The summer of 1936 was one of the hottest on record. Front porches became “summer living rooms” and many residents slept on screened-in back porches during the heat wave. In the days before TV and air-conditioning, residents knew their neighbors well from sitting on their porches.
Sue Ellis, 81, remembers the hot summer of 1936 quite well. “It was the hottest summer I can remember. The heat was relentless. There was no air-conditioning, of course, so lots of us slept on our porches. I was 11 years old, and I can remember we’d even sleep in the parks sometimes on quilts and blankets. There’d be hundreds of people there, too”whole families. Each morning the heat would return, and it went on like that every day during the summer of ’36.”
During hot weather poolside, “Swimming luncheons” were a hit among moms and children at the Natatorium in the basement of the 19th Century Woman’s Club. There was no public pool in Oak Park until the 1950s.
Four new tennis courts were put in service at Euclid Square, the new park area at Fillmore and Roosevelt. A new black paving material was used.
At The Blue Parrot Patio, 1120 Westgate in the Tudor-style “English Village,” luncheon cost 60 cents and dinner was 75 cents.
The new $11,000 Shelter House at Cummings Square, northwest corner of Harlem Avenue and Lake Street, opened. There were two large glass-enclosed waiting rooms with long wooden benches for shoppers waiting for streetcars.
There were no windshield wipers on streetcars so during bad weather the motorman-conductor had to stop the car frequently to brush off the glass with a broom.
Celebrities on parade
The non-stop parade of celebrities through Oak Park in 1936 was mind-boggling. Some of the most famous individuals of the period spoke to various organizations and at high school assemblies. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thornton Wilder, for instance, delivered a talk on “The Relation Between Literature and Life” at the 19th Century Woman’s Club. Sculptor Lorado Taft gave a lecture on art at Hawthorne School (now Julian Middle School). Taft died in October 1936.
Despite the oppressive heat, thousands turned out for the July 4th fireworks display. In addition to the annual “pyrotechnical favorite” on the ground”Niagara Falls with its showering floods of sparks”the 1936 event also featured a performance by the “Gyros,” a precision roller-skating team recruited from vaudeville to entertain the crowd before darkness fell.
Ads in the local press for domestics often indicated ethnicity. “Colored girls” listed themselves as seeking positions as laundresses or maids.
The price of automobiles fell dramatically during the Depression. Madison Street, known as Motor Row since the early 1920s, featured many auto dealerships. At C.J. Long Motors, 800 Madison St., a 1936 Pontiac was selling for $615. At Barrow Bros., 600 Madison, a new Nash cost $665 and a LaFayette went for $595. A Terraplane cost $595 at Purcell Motors, 316 Madison.
Mr. And Mrs. Fred Emich, 1235 Monroe, River Forest, sailed to Europe on the Zeppelin “Hindenburg.” They returned home on the S.S. Queen Mary. The German dirigible would crash and burn in 1937.
Strickland’s was a small but popular local grocery chain with two sites, 721 Lake and a new store at 127 Marion. At Strickland’s, a box of Wheaties cost 11 cents, 2 pounds of Chase & Sanborn Coffee set you back 53 cents, a large package of Lux soap flakes was 21 cents, and two heads of lettuce cost 13 cents.
At Newmode Hosiery Shop, 1145 Lake St., ladies could leave stockings with “runs” during their lunch hour. For 19 cents, Newmode said, “We’ll reknit the run so you’ll never know where it was.”
An el ride cost a dime, but it was believed a fare reduction would boost usage. So the el fare was lowered to 8 1/3 cents per ride, and three rides for 25 cents. El and streetcar fare for students remained a nickel. There were 463 “L Trains” every day between the Loop and Oak Park.
Fran Stansell, 67, testified that two of his tenants beat him and kicked him as he attempted to evict them for non-payment of rent from his building at 838 S. Taylor Ave. Roommates Clarence Schockley, 27, and Earl Griffin, 28, were each fined $15 and court costs.
Daughter of the first settler dies
The concept of “fast food” did not exist but several popular local eateries specialized in carry-out dinners. The Village Inn, 115 N. Oak Park Ave., sold cartons of chop suey with white mushrooms and a pint of white rice for 40 cents. At The Steaming Casserole, 1103 Chicago Ave., large chicken pot pies or two portions of spaghetti dinner with meat and fresh mushrooms were selling for 35 cents. A 10-cent deposit was required on the casserole dishes.
The Oak Park Junior College (now the Dole Branch Library) opened for its fourth year. There were 200 students enrolled.
Several “daughters of the pioneers” died during 1936. One, Dora Kettlestrings Herrick, born in 1839, was the youngest daughter of Oak Park’s first residents, Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings. She was 97. Elizabeth Whaples Furbeck (1848-1936), born in a log cabin, also passed away at 88.
In the “corner drugstore” (now Poor Phil’s) in the Carleton Hotel building, Marion Street and Pleasant Avenue, an alarm clock cost 89 cents, powder puffs were 4 cents, cod liver oil was 59 cents, and Lyon’s Tooth Powder cost 31 cents.
In 1936 a single room at the Hotel Carleton cost $2. A double went for $3.
During the holiday season of 1936, Santa Claus (Gustav Lindberg, president of the park board) arrived on the “City of Denver” train at the Marion Street station of the Northwestern railroad (now Metra) to the delight of 5,000 youngsters who showed up in a massive event arranged by the Chamber of Commerce. Santa made several personal appearances that day at the free “Santa Claus Cartoon Shows” held for kids at the Lake Theatre. Free tickets were distributed to families by merchants. Mothers were encouraged to leave their youngsters at the theater while they went shopping along Lake Street.
1936 brought change and progress, frustration and controversy. It was a year that could fairly be characterized as the best and the worst of times for Oak Park and River Forest. And some of the ripples can still be felt today.