Oak Park's house history detective

Oak Parker creates page that researches historical items found in homes

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

If these walls could speak, what would they say?

Sometimes it's what's inside the wall that has a story to tell — and under the floors … and up in the attic.

Oak Parker Amy Srodon knows this better than most through her passion project, which aims to tell the stories of historical objects people find in their homes.

Sometimes it's as simple as a glass medicine bottle for some long-ago elixir. In other cases it's children's clothing, or pages from old newspapers.

Other objects are more substantial, though, like the terrazzo floor a couple found underneath the purple shag carpeting in the basement of their home.

"Laid out in a starburst pattern, it radiates from the center of the room, and each corner features a different design: a rooster (a connection to the rooster weathervane on the roof?); a dancing couple; a bullfighter; and an 'over-served' fellow, passed out against a lamp post," she wrote in a recent post.

Srodon, who works in marketing and communications at the University of Chicago, has researched about a dozen items on her new Facebook page, "OPRF found + lost," and hopes to gain more attention, mainly so people will bring her more items to research.

Her efforts go far beyond doing simple Google searches on the various items Oak Parkers have brought her. For instance, Srodon was able to identify the names of family members whose birthdays were written on wooden beams in an attic using, in part, information from Ancestry.com. 

The names were significant in that they were all recorded by the parents and grandparents of actor Bob Newhart.

The owners "heard from neighbors that comedian Bob Newhart's grandparents once lived in their 1910 American Four Square on South Taylor, which sat empty for 20 years before they bought it," Srodon wrote in the post.

"They'd noticed the kids' chalk drawings and writing on the attic's wood beams, with mini CT and KY license plates from 1954 nailed to the walls."

Srodon said in a recent telephone interview that she was able to cross-reference the birthdays with the family members' birthdays on Ancestry.com. Srodon also learned that Mary Caroline Newhart, Bob Newhart's aunt who was born in 1909, attended Rosary High in River Forest before the school became Trinity High School.

"She graduated in 1926 and it was the last graduating class before the school became Trinity," Srodon explained.

She said an archivist at the school sent her yearbook photos upon request.

"That was really exciting for me because the homeowners didn't know what they had in the attic," Srodon said.

The whole project really began for Srodon around 2000, when she moved to Oak Park and found a linoleum rug in the crawl space in the attic of her 1916 bungalow. The rug was created for children and features a checkerboard and characters from Mother Goose stories, among other things.

Srodon wrote that a worker discovered the linoleum rug and at first had no idea what it was.

"I followed the worker to the north side of the house and he got out his flashlight — 'It's something colorful, but your bedroom is built right over it — I might be able to cut a piece of it out though.' He sliced whatever it was up with his utility knife and then started dragging it out from the crawl space — what ended up being 9 feet long," Srodon wrote in her post.

"In the dim attic light, it looked like a rug for kids with nursery rhymes and game board designs — sort of like an early version of those car/road rugs everyone with a kid seems to end up with — but it was made out of old, brittle linoleum. Immediate Googling, then heartsick when I realized he'd just cut up a 1950's Armstrong Quaker Linoleum Rug."

Rachel Berlinski, operations manager of Oak Park River Forest Museum, said in a telephone interview that it's not uncommon for residents to bring in items found somewhere in their homes. They often want to know who lived there before them, she said.

Kids' toys, clothing and newspapers are the most common, she said. Berlinski assists residents in their research. "If people want to know who lived in the house, we have the ability to do that; that's always fun to see their stories or how many people have lived in the house," she said.

Frank Lipo, executive director of the museum, said finding historical items in homes helps make history come alive for people. "These kind of little, but cool, things open up people's eyes," he said. "History goes from the abstract to, 'This is right behind that wall over there.'"

Srodon said that since she's been posting about the historical items on Facebook, she's already found a following, and people are beginning to bring her items to find out their history. She's hoping to get more, so she can continue her history sleuthing.

"I love a mystery," she said.

tim@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Amy Srodon  

Posted: April 17th, 2019 1:01 PM

@Susan Montgomery, if you still have those items I would love to do a story on them! Just contact me through the FB page.

Susan Montgomery from Chicago  

Posted: April 17th, 2019 9:57 AM

I grew up in an Oak Park home that dates to 1875. In the late 1970s, my brother and I went to our attic to explore what was beneath the floor boards. We found a pamphlet, "Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills," an old porcelain doll's head and, most significantly, four Scientific Americans from 1881, rolled up and beneath the floor. Such fun! Felt like someone from the 1880s wanted this to be found by a subsequent owner!

Jeremy Burton  

Posted: April 17th, 2019 8:57 AM

@Dion Ewald. Using your PIN number to your property, you can do a search on who owned your home in the property search records at the County Building / Chicago City Hall. It's open to the public and the staff there is usually helpful. It's not perfect, but it can be a treasure trove of information in addition to checking with OP Historical Society and seeking original construction permits at OP Village Hall.

Amy Srodon  

Posted: April 16th, 2019 4:23 PM

@Sandy Lentz, happy to research your neighbor's find if they are interested. I did another post about auto mechanic's overalls discovered in a house, some maybe it's a thing!

Amy Srodon  

Posted: April 16th, 2019 4:22 PM

@Dion Ewald, you can research your home's history at the Oak Park and River Forest Historical Society or look at old census records online, but that's a bit trickier without the family's last name. http://oprfmuseum.org/

James Edward Wilson from Chicago  

Posted: April 16th, 2019 4:12 PM

Greatly enjoyed reading your article and that it included a great story on Mary Caroline Newhardt. As it turns out, my late mother, Elizabeth Catherine Wilson nee Whitlock, also graduated from Rosary High School...Class of 1926. Back in 1992, my mother and I stopped in at Trinity High School and fortuitously, they had a loose photograph of the last class of Rosary High School. I took a picture of it with my 8mm and had the picture enlarged. It is now hanging on my living room wall. I was born in Oak Park in 1937 and lived at 1130 Columbian Avenue. Baptized at St. Giles. Hurray for Mary Caroline and Elizabeth Catherine.

Dion Ewald  

Posted: April 16th, 2019 3:57 PM

Is there a registry of previous homeowners by address? I'd love to know who preceded me in my house.

Sandy Lentz from Oak Park  

Posted: April 16th, 2019 3:50 PM

A neighbor of ours found a pair of workman's overalls in the wall: wonder what he wore home?

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