Over the river and through the ages

River Forest is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Here are a few of the placesâ€"still standingâ€"where history happened.

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The Village of River Forest was incorporated on Oct. 24, 1880, which makes this the 125th anniversary year. Milestone birthdays are always a good excuse for a look back, and it turns out there's plenty to see.

When we think about history in our villages we tend to think of Oak Park, suggests Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. "It's a bigger community, things are larger in scaleâ€"Frank Lloyd Wright's Home and Studio, tourism, the war memorial."

But that mindset sells River Forest short. "River Forest has as much history: grand homes, places where history happened. And there's a richness in what's [here] now, in what remains," Lipo says.

A prime example is Harlem School. Built by River Forest's founding father, Ashbel Steele, in 1859, the brick building at 7776 Lake St. is used now for District 90 administrative offices. At its start, it served as a schoolhouse for not just River Forest but also what are now Maywood, Forest Park and Oak Park.

"It has continuously served for school or school-related purposes, an amazing run," notes Lipo. "I would hazard an educated guess that there are only a handful of pre-Civil War public buildings in the whole metro area serving their original use."

Trailside Museum, originally a private home and then a school, dates to 1874. The River Forest train station, 401 Thatcher Ave., was built a few years after the tracks were elevated in 1911. The pumping station at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Berkshire Streetâ€"it looks more like a two-story brick house than water worksâ€"was completed in 1928. The commercial building at the southeast corner of Lake Street and Thatcher Avenue is perhaps River Forest's oldest commercial block.

Lipo also points to grand mansions that survive in River Forest, like the pre-Civil War David C. Thatcher house at 511 Edgewood Pl., and the 1874 Solomon Thatcher, Jr. house (no relation) at 516 Keystone Ave. Along with six other historic homes, these will be on the April 9 housewalk that kicks off the 125th Anniversary events (for a complete list of events, see the sidebar on page 43).

There are also, of course, a number of Frank Lloyd Wright sites in River Forest. One that's perhaps not so well known is the Waller Gates at the corner of Auvergne Place and Lake Street. Designed by Wright as the entrance to the Waller estate (remodeled by Wright and torn down in the 1930s), the stone gates were saved by preservationists in the late 1980s. Still inside the gates are the Wright-designed Williams and Winslow houses.

Another notable local architect, William Drummond, worked for Wright for a time in his Oak Park studio, but lived in River Forest. Drummond buildings still standing include the River Forest Women's Club, 526 Ashland Ave., the River Forest Methodist Church, 7970 Lake St., the River Forest Public Library and Drummond's home at 559 Edgewood Pl.

For a complete tour of historic River Forest homes, Lipo suggests picking up a copy of Jeanette Field's book, A Guidebook to the Architecture of River Forest. Published in 1981, with a second edition in 1990, it's still available for purchase at the Historical Society in Pleasant Home at 217 Home Ave.

Keystone Park occupies land originally owned by the Thatcher family, according to the History of River Forest, published in 1938 to commemorate the 1936 centennial (100 years after Steele moved in). It was the home of the River Forest Baseball Club, organized in 1902 and incorporated in 1903 as the River Forest Athletic Association. The team played semi-pro games, and fans who jammed the park's grandstand were rewarded immediately with a championship in 1903.

For a "real sense of history" and the area's "natural beauty," Lipo recommends a stroll in Thatcher Woods. "There's no place in Oak Park to get a sense of the landscape like you can in the forest preserve," he says. Historic sites include the place where the Steele family cabin once stood (south of Lake Street near the train viaductâ€"look for non-native plants and a mound); the site of the Bickerdike and Noble Sawmill just north of Lake Street, and the remnants of an Indian snake effigy mound near Augusta Street and the river.

"A lot of people value and are interested in history, but are too busy to give it much thought," says Lipo. "A 125th birthday gives us a chance to learn about things that are gone and to realize there are still these great old buildings. It's a chance for people to see that these cool things still exist."

Here's the calendar of anniversary events, provided by Laurel McMahon, president of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest and chair of the 125th anniversary committee.

April Street banners installed

April 9 Parade of Elegant Homes housewalk

April 15 Grand reopening of Keystone Park

April 16 Official opening of soccer/baseball/ softball season. Teams will sport the River Forest 125th Anniversary logo

May District 90 essay/multimedia contest on "Proud Heritage, Bright Future."

May 1 Walk of faith; a visit to 11 houses of worship

May 14 Des Plaines River cleanup

May 30 Memorial Day parade, followed by ceremony and picnic at Constitution Park

June River Forest Public Library display of Dist. 90 student essays, Dist. 90 summer school iMovie project on the history of River Forest

June 5 Day in Our Village booth

June 17 Village cocktail party at Dominican
University, a fundraiser for the
restoration of the Cummings
Memorial. Exhibition of River
Forest artists at Dominican gallery.

July 4 South of the Tracks Society


July 12 Whole Foods community benefit day, to benefit Cummings Memorial

August RF Library display on local authors

Aug. 5 RF Park District ice cream social,
Tom's cool car show

Sept. 5 Showcase at OPRF student center
(through end of semester)

Sept. 10 Clear Skies Festival

Sept. 21 "Historical Perspective View of the
Judeo-Christian Religious Presence
During the Past Centuries," a film
by Cliff Johnson with discussion, at
West Suburban Temple Har Zion

Sept. 24 Makin' Tracks 5K run

October RF Library display on the history of
the village

Oct. 6 "The Influence of Dominican
Education in River Forest"
discussion at Trinity HS

Oct. 8 OPRF Homecoming parade through
River Forest and Oak Park,
Fire/police/municipal open house

Oct. 16 Tale of the Tombstones tour of
Forest Home Cemetery

Oct. 22-3 Installation of plaque over library
centennial time capsule

Oct. 24 Village board commemoration
ceremony at 125th anniversary of
RF incorporation

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