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Tony Cesare: The Secrets, History and Mystery in 'Hidden Downers Grove'

Looking for our fragments of history

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 so I’ve skipped over them to dig a bit deeper into the offbeat, overlooked and forgotten).

Perry Hutchinson Park: Oh sure, you know and , 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, : 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, : 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. to wait out a nuclear winter than a lodge that has two-dollar taps?

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 ): 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.

Susan Carroll June 18, 2012 at 02:09 PM
I don't know that the south side of DG has as many of these. I know my parents told me that there used to be a lake right around where I live now (near where Divine Savior church stands now at the corner of 67th and Main) and some of those tiny ranch homes near there are the remnants of what used to be summer cottages people from Chicago had built along it. I don't know if that's true (you can research it while looking up Perry Hutchinson.) Also, there are other odd "parks" between Main and Woodward, south of 63rd, that are nothing but patches of grass with a park bench looking out onto them. No playground equipment, no soccer goals, not even flowers. Or even a tree. Just a bench looking out onto grass. So you can watch it grow?
John Regals June 18, 2012 at 03:11 PM
The Muriel Mundy building was originally the Farmers and Merchants Bank, which went belly-up during the Depression. The first library occupied the second floor (1890s?) until a building could be built on the site of the present library.
Tony Cesare June 18, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Wow, thanks John! I imagine people running through that arched entrance desperate to withdraw their life savings.
Kristin McCann June 18, 2012 at 04:48 PM
Wow, Tony, I believed that last part! Sounds good to me!
Robert Bykowski June 18, 2012 at 05:39 PM
As always, Tony, but just slightly more this time: great column!
Edward G Hoffmann June 18, 2012 at 06:51 PM
The neighborhood east of Main St to Saratoga Ave on the west, between 63rd St and 67th St was known as Andersonville up until the early 60's when it was renamed Downers Grove Estates. The name Andersonville comes from the fact that many of the first homes in the neighborhood were built by and lived in by the rather large Anderson family. I was born and raised on Saylor street and except during the numerious floods in the area there was no lake. There was a creek that ran east/west along 67th St but that was turned into a drainage culvert that is buried along the R/W in front of Divine Savior. It extended to a glade just east of Dumham Rd. and in our youth we called it the swamp where we spent many a summer day exploring and playing in the exposed part of the creek bed. The houses were a mixture of converted box cars and shacks from pre WWII to the "newer" stick built bugalows and ranch style houses which were mostly built in the post war boom. All were added onto or remodeled over the years and a few even still stand today I'm told.
Susan Carroll June 18, 2012 at 07:39 PM
Thanks, Ed. I'm thinking some real estate agent told my parents that story way back when they were looking for houses out here, to make the area sound better!
Maryann Wolcott June 18, 2012 at 08:20 PM
Interesting but, I think you should have contacted the Downer Grove Historical Soc or gone to www.downersgrovehistory.org for more info. They have a new website that is loaded with information and pictures past and present.
Tony Cesare June 18, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Now that you've posted the link I hope more people will, thank you!
Tony Cesare June 18, 2012 at 09:27 PM
Hmmm, nothing about the Nesbits...
Edward G Hoffmann June 18, 2012 at 09:32 PM
Please excuse my error, that should be the neighborhood west of Main St not east. Been gone along time but that was a silly mistake...*shrug*
Suzanne Matthies June 18, 2012 at 11:45 PM
Not sure , but I think Perry Hutchinson and The DG Lions Club were instrumental in raising money, purchasing and planting trees and shrubs in downtown D.G in the 1960's. Does anyone else remember this to be the case?
joseph a pritasil jr June 19, 2012 at 12:12 AM
you really had us going with the Josiah Nesbit story . I've always been curious about that fire place and would love to know its story.
Mary H June 19, 2012 at 03:29 PM
According to a former co-worker, there was a small lake at the northwest corner of 63rd and Main. (where Ace Hardware, CVS, etc are located.) Her father used to take her fishing there as a child in the early 1900's. It would explain some of the water drainage issues that we faced when we lived just off 62nd place years ago.
Mark Thoman June 19, 2012 at 09:23 PM
"Lake Carpenter" resurfaces infrequently now that the street and sewer were redone a couple years ago.

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