Dennis O’Brien (above, second from left) grew up at 701 S. Elmwood Ave. in the 1950s. In 2019, he connected with the home’s present owner -- a fellow musician -- and on July 16 played a Porchfest concert on the front porch of his boyhood home in front of scores of current and former residents of the block once known as “Fertile Acres.” (Photo provided by Cheryl Wisniewski)

When Dennis O’Brien’s family moved to 701 S. Elmwood Ave. in 1955, he was a few months old. The eighth of what would become a family of 10 sons, O’Brien says his family lived in the home until 1969. 

He recalls at least four families on the block had nine or 10 kids living in their Gunderson-designed houses. There were so many kids that the Oak Leaves wrote a story about the 700 and 800 blocks of South Elmwood and dubbed the neighborhood Fertile Acres. 

PBS featured the O’Brien family in a special called The Pill, using them as an example of what families looked like before the advent of certain methods of birth control.

Notoriety aside, O’Brien says his family was tight-knit and loved living in Oak Park. He has memories of painting the house with his brothers every summer and never quite finishing. He thinks that his father paid $16,000 for the house in 1955 and sold it for $32,000 in 1969. O’Brien says he loved growing up on Elmwood Avenue and was not very pleased when his father moved the family to St. Charles.

Today, O’Brien works in real estate and dabbles in music. In 2019, he was scoping out a theater to play a gig in Oak Park when he heard about a new community event called Porchfest, where local musicians played outdoor concerts on Oak Park porches. After visiting the theater, he worked up the nerve to stop by his boyhood home and rang the doorbell. 

(Photo provided by Cheryl Wisniewski)

Stefanie Glover, who with her husband Alex Harris, bought the home in 2011, invited him in. O’Brien noticed Harris’ guitars and suggested that the two of them should play together sometime and talk to the Porchfest organizers about a possible concert on the porch. 

When Glover and Harris purchased the house, which was the original home of developer Seward Gunderson, the front porch had been enclosed. The couple worked to restore and renovate the home, and in the process opened up the wide porch, which created a perfect spot for scores of people to gather on Friday, July 16 for a Porchfest concert featuring O’Brien’s and Harris’ bands.

Cheryl Wisniewski says that in 2019 she, Tara Dull and Jason Baker were inspired by similar concerts in Lakeview and wanted to bring the concerts to Oak Park and they began the popular porch music series. 

“Oak Park really lends itself to this with the beautiful homes and lawns and our love of block parties,” Wisniewski said.

The event on July 16 became a block party and a reunion of sorts. Not only did current block residents turn out in droves for the concert, but many former residents made it back as well. O’Brien says there were eight O’Brien brothers in attendance along with close to 60 other family members.

Alex Harris (above left), who now owns Dennis O’Brien’s boyhood home on Elmwood Avenue, plays guitar with his band as part of the twin-bill Porchfest concert on July 16. (Photo provided by Cheryl Wisniewski)

Harris, who says the porch is his favorite part of the house, said, “There was a big portion of O’Briens there, and then the neighborhood just wrapped around that. It was so fun. It was really a great way to have a spontaneous neighborhood concert.”

Harris says that there were other former residents of the house at the concert as well, bringing at least four previous or current families back to the house. Other houses on the block had representation also, with former residents returning for the concert.

Wisniewski says that the concert captured the spirit of Porchfest.

“It’s true Oak Park, with different generations and the community coming together,” she said.

Wisniewski notes that given the pandemic, which cancelled the summer events of 2020, this concert felt special.

“I had one woman who told me, ‘This feels almost like before times again,’” Wisniewski said. “She was right, it felt so good and so normal.”

Harris gives his wife credit for spearheading both the restoration of the porch, which provided the site for the concert, for giving him music lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and for helping to organize the concert. 

“The heart of this event was Dennis [O’Brien],” Harris said. “We just provided the place.”

For O’Brien, coming back to his boyhood home has been the high point of his music career. He plays 50 to 70 gigs a year, and says he thought that performing at the Cavern Club, where the Beatles played in Liverpool, was the highlight of his career, but Porchfest changed his mind. 

“I have to say, this eclipsed that because it was just so emotional,” O’Brien said. “Oak Park has so many great memories for me.”

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