I saw the first firefly of the summer. I was digging into the cooler for another beer when I caught a quick glimpse of his tiny green butt leaving a phosphorescent streak along the garden’s edge. I’ve always been good at noticing the little details in the background, which my wife defines as “you never pay attention” but I define as “looking past the obvious”. Not surprisingly, she didn’t notice the little guy. Also not surprising is that I couldn’t find another beer.
Even as a kid I had a habit of looking past the obvious. In the summer my parents would take us to KiddieLand (sadly closed for good in 2009 because the world desperately needed another Costco) almost every weekend. It was a working man’s Disneyworld built opposite a gritty urban intersection in Melrose Park. My sister and I squirmed in the back seat of our Buick, straining our necks every time as we pulled up. She wanted to be the first to glimpse the magical (and wonderfully retro) “Jack and Jill” Kiddieland Kids swinging from the Maypole signage in the parking lot, but me, I always noticed the Maywood Park Race Track looming right behind it. Even as a kid I thought the contrast was striking, and I didn’t even know what horse racing was.
Worse yet, while all the other kids ran for the Race-A-Bouts or Little Dipper Rollercoaster, I dreaded walking past “Chuckles” the child-eating clown. Don’t remember Chuckles? Most kids never noticed him. His distorted head pushed through the brick wall behind a concession stand, looming over a pathway to the merry-go-round. I was terrified to walk past him for fear he would spring to life and suck my soul into his tobacco-stained greasepaint maw. The year the park closed I took my daughter for one last visit and pointed him out, still hiding in the shadows, still my worst nightmare even after all these years. She started crying. Smart girl.
So it’s no surprise that I consider ‘Hidden Chicago’ (WTTW11 Chicago) to be can’t miss TV. It’s a special that focuses on “fascinating fragments of Chicago’s historical past”—the details in the background. It seems there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t notice some odd caveat in the shadows along my walk to work. Sometimes it’s ghost signage on a brick wall for a long shuttered retailer, or an overlooked monument or out of place grave marker in a park. Those relics of faded history fascinate me and I’m always on the lookout, even if it means I bump my head on a low hanging branch or stumble over a curb.
That’s what makes living in Downers Grove so interesting. Any community that’s been around since the 1830s is bound to be full of bits of history—if you know where to look, that is. Here are a few I’ve found, and for those of you who have been livin’ in these parts a lot longer than I, please feel free to add to my list.
(Note: almost everyone is familiar with the Main Street Cemetery and the Tivoli Theatre so I’ve skipped over them to dig a bit deeper into the offbeat, overlooked and forgotten).
Perry Hutchinson Park: Oh sure, you know Hummer and Fishel, but do you know Perry Hutchinson? The “park” is located just South of the BNSF Railway on Main Street. If you’re looking for monkey bars or a sandbox, don’t bother. The parcel of land is barely large enough for a picnic table. A weathered plaque dedicated by the Lion’s Club in 1970 marks its location. I wish I knew who he was.
Elizabeth Tracey mural, Downers Grove Post Office: Titled “Chicago, Railroad Center of the Nation” the mural was commissioned in 1940 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal Arts Project”, which provided funds for artwork for federal buildings. When the building was remodeled in the 90s the wise village planners chose to keep it in the building. It’s beautiful. I hope email never completely makes post offices obsolete so I can continue to enjoy it.
Fallout Shelter Signage, Moose Lodge: This may come as a shock to anyone born after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but there was a time when Americans lived in fear of nuclear war. As such, some buildings with sturdy below ground basements were designated “fallout shelters”, where you could live like a mole for 20 years until the air cleared, and marked with yellow and black “trefoil” signage. Although the threat of nuclear war has long passed, many of these signs still exist on older buildings. The Moose Lodge is one such building. What better place to wait out a nuclear winter than a lodge that has two-dollar taps?
Muriel Mundy building: Bricked up passageways always remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask Of Amontillado”. This one is located on the south side of the building at Main and Curtiss. I’ve read that this building was originally a fire station but I’ve never been able to confirm it (and that seems odd since the original fire station #1 building is just to the northwest at Oak Tree Towers) but it seems plausible. I’m sure many revelers have stumbled out of nearby Another Round late at night and swore they saw ghostly apparitions strolling in and out of this doorway.
Historic Brick Street Plaque: Although a new plaque commemorating the historic brick streets of Downers Grove was dedicated in 2009, the original plaque is still located just opposite of it on Franklin Avenue. Only a handful of the bricks in the area still have the original “Purington” stamp, indicating they were manufactured by the Purington Brick Co. in East Galesburg, Illinois. They are also highly collectable, so if you ever see someone hunched down on Linscott Avenue in cover of darkness with a crowbar in his hand, call DG’s finest.
Another historical oddity found in this area are fading street names carved into the sidewalk intersections, presumably so drunks walking home after a long evening out could keep their heads down and still know where they are going.
Flagpole dedication plaque (East of Main street station): You’ve passed this flagpole a thousand times, but have you ever noticed the little dedication plaque at the base? It was dedicated to the girls and boy scouts of Downers Grove in 1940.
Downers Grove is flush with dedication plaques, from the freedom memorial at the south end of Fishel Park to the melancholy memorial marking the Burlington Railroad Twin Cities Zephyr train crash in 1947, located in the Main Street Metra station. We have a plaque for everything.
Lumber stamp (my living room): Living in an old Sears home is an adventure in home improvement and futility, but sometimes I discover bits of history that make it almost worth it. When we remodeled our dining room for the fourth time I found old paper “stamps” on the back of the trim, indicating where they were from and where they should be installed. They now hang framed in our home. Come by and I’ll show you. Bring beer.
Original Pierce Downer Well: Just south of Ogden, the well is marked with a simple sign on the west side of Seeley Avenue. If you didn’t know the original Pierce Downer home was across the street you could easily drive past it thinking it was an oversized flowerpot. Legend has it that if you look down and see your reflection in the water you are exempt from property taxes for one year.
Contrary to popular belief, the Downers are not buried at the Main Street Cemetery but rather on their farm along Linscott Avenue, between 4516 and 4524.
Fireplace (southwest corner of Ogden avenue just east of the 355 expressway): Everyone knows the Pierce Downer story, but little is remembered about the regions fifth settlers: The Nesbits.
Old Josaih Nesbit would have been the original settler of Downers Grove but his carriage became stuck during a flood along the way and by the time he arrived weeks later old Pierce had all ready established himself in the area. It was a slight that Josaih never got over and he hated the Downers with a bitter resolve, so much so that he built his home a few miles west of the Pierce Downer home and spent years trying to convince his neighbors to call the area “Nesbit Grove”. They never did and old Josaih died bitter and alone after accidentally consuming poisonous mushrooms in the spring of 1885. Sadly, a lightning strike ignited a moonshine still on the Nesbit farm years later, burning it to the ground so only the fireplace remained, where it stands to this day as a reminder of dreams lost and hopes unfulfilled.
All right, I made that last one up but until someone can definitively explain to me what that fireplace is doing there, I’m going with the Nesbit legend.