Farming in the City (4-20-1932)

As the Great Depression moved into its third year, unemployed Chicagoans were finding new ways to make ends meet.  Some of them were becoming farmers.

The Cook County Board was setting aside sections of its forest preserves to be plowed, with local relief agencies distributing seed to any needy person willing to work the land.  International Harvester had leased property on the Southwest Side, so that some of its 4500 laid-off employees might have a section to cultivate.

Meanwhile, out in the neighborhoods, community leaders were becoming active in the back-to-the-soil movement.  So were organizations like the Red Cross, the Urban League, and the Cook County Federation of Women’s Clubs.  City people were planting gardens in backyards and vacant lots.  Potatoes, turnips, carrots, and parsnips were the most popular crops.

Instead of waiting passively around for a hand-out, Chicagoans were taking the initiative in working their way out of the hard times.  After all, the city’s motto was “I Will!”



Hef’s Galewood Homestead

Many Chicago tours will take time to point out the massively-elegant brick-and-limestone building at 1340 North State Street. Today it is divided into condos.  In an earlier era it was the original Playboy Mansion.  Hugh Hefner lived here from 1959 through 1975, before decamping to Los Angeles.  This is where he perfected the persona and lifestyle that made him famous—or notorious, depending on your point of view.

The South Side apartment building where Hefner created Playboy magazine is long gone.  But his childhood home still stands on the city’s far West Side, at 1922 North New England Avenue.

Hugh Hefner was four years old when his family moved into the newly-built brick home in the Galewood section of Austin. His father Glenn was an accountant, his mother Grace a homemaker and part-time teacher.  The year was 1930, and the Depression was just getting underway.  Glenn had to work long hours to scrape by, leaving the raising of Hugh and his younger brother mostly to his wife.

The Galewood neighborhood was still sparsely settled during the 1930s. Hugh remembered growing up amid prairies and prairie animals, with gas street lamps and milk delivered from horse-drawn wagons.  During the week he went to the Sayre Elementary School, a couple of blocks from his home.  Sundays meant services at the local Methodist church.

Hugh was an underachiever at Sayre. Teachers observed that he was intelligent, yet would work hard only at those things which interested him.  He seemed to be living in a world of his own.  He liked to write stories and was especially skilled as a cartoonist.

At Steinmetz High School, Hugh reinvented himself. Outside the circle of his closest friends, he’d always been shy.  Now he upgraded his wardrobe, adopted a confident demeanor, and literally forced himself to become more outgoing.  He also began referring to himself in the third person as “Hef.”  “I became the imaginary adolescent, the teenager I wanted to be,” he later said.

It paid off. By sophomore year Hefner had become the leader of the school’s self-styled sophisticates.  He wrote copy and drew cartoons for the school newspaper, appeared in plays, and even filmed his own fifteen-minute horror film.  As a senior he was elected president of the Student Council.

Hefner graduated from Steinmetz in January 1944. World War II was on, and shortly afterward he enlisted in the army.  Trained as an infantry rifleman, he wound up serving stateside as a clerk.  He was discharged as a corporal in 1946.

Hefner used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana. His girlfriend Millie Williams was already a student there.  He graduated from the accelerated program with a degree in Psychology in 1949, married Millie, and returned to Chicago.

The newlyweds moved in with Glenn and Grace on New England Avenue. They made do with a single large bedroom.  Postwar housing was in short supply, and they didn’t have much money, anyway.  While Millie worked at the nearby Mars candy factory, Hugh drifted through a series of jobs.  He enrolled in a graduate program in Sociology at Northwestern, but dropped out after one semester.

In the spring of 1952 Millie Hefner became pregnant. The couple finally moved out of the house in Galewood, renting an apartment at 6052 South Harper Avenue.  Hugh saw his cosmopolitan new neighborhood near the University of Chicago as “a sort of Greenwich Village.”  It was here that he put together his magazine in the fall of 1953.

Hugh’s parents continued to live on New England Avenue while their elder son became famous. Glenn Hefner died in 1976.  Grace sold the house and moved to Arizona nine years later.  She died in 1997, at the age of 102.

Hugh Hefner made a number of sentimental journeys back to Galewood in the years following his move to Los Angeles. The 1992 documentary Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time includes scenes from one such trip.  After his death last year there was some discussion about turning his boyhood home into a museum.  Nothing has been done as yet, and the house remains a private residence.


Then and Now, Ogden-Washington

1937–Ogden Avenue @ Washington Boulevard, view southwest

2018–the same location

Looking down Ogden Avenue in 1937, the large building in the distance at Monroe Street is a Wieboldt’s department store.  Facing Union Park on the right, at 1549 West Warren Boulevard, is the Viceroy Hotel.  Just visible on the left side of the photo—at what was then 1523 West Ogden Avenue—is the apartment building where Walt Disney lived in 1917 while attending McKinley High School.

The Wieboldt’s store is now condos.  The city has purchased and renovated the old Viceroy Hotel—since there’s now a Viceroy Hotel on State Street, I don’t know what to call that yellow brick building on Warren.  And today a parking lot for Pipefitters Local 597 occupies the site of Walt’s teenage home.


The Great Chicago Statue Quiz #5—Answers

(1) WHO is this?  Monsignor John J. Egan (1916-2001)

(2) WHERE is this?  1001 W. Belden Ave.

(3) WHY does this person deserve a statue?  Educator, Activist


The Great Chicago Statue Quiz #5

(1) WHO is this?

(2) WHERE is this?

(3) WHY does this person deserve a statue?


Then and Now, Central-63rd Place

1949--Central Avenue @ 63rd Place, view north

1948–Central Avenue @ 63rd Place, view north

2014--the same location

2018–the same location

We are near the southwest corner of Midway Airport.  Here streetcars on the 63rd Street line turned onto Central Avenue, ran south for a short block, then continued on 63rd Place and through open prairie to a terminal at Narragansett Avenue.  I’ve been told the reason for this was because residents objected to having streetcars on 63rd Street west of Central.  However, I’ve not been able to confirm the story.

Buses replaced streetcars during the 1950s, and now they stick to 63rd Street.  A few of the buildings here have been torn down, to provide a clearer flight path for modern aircraft.  In any event, that plane in the newer photo doesn’t seem to have any problems.


Johnny and Phil

The Cubs have been around, under various names, since 1876.  The White Sox have been with us since 1901.  At some time in our lives, most of us Chicago boys have dreamed of playing with one of the teams.

Of course, few people grow up to be major leaguers.  The Chicagoans who do usually wind up with other ballclubs.  Even those local boys who do make it onto one of the local teams—like Moose Skowron, for instance—often spend part of their careers on the side of an enemy.

With the baseball season underway, let’s look at two players, one from the Sox and one from the Cubs.  Both were natives of Chicago, and both played their entire major league careers in a Chicago uniform.  And both of them were stars.

Johnny Mostil was born in Chicago in 1896.  When he was a boy, his family moved a few miles over the state line to Whiting.  He started playing semi-pro baseball as a teenager.  He was mostly an infielder.
Mostil played 10 games for the Sox during the war-year 1918.  The war ended, the regulars returned, and Johnny went back to working at Montgomery Ward’s and getting in some ball on the side.  Then the “Black Sox” scandal hit.
Suddenly the Sox needed players.  Mostil rejoined the team as an outfielder in 1921, and showed superb defensive skills.  Writers compared him to the legendary Tris Speaker.  Once Centerfielder Mostil managed to catch a fly ball in foul territory, something even Speaker never did.

He became one of the team’s most popular players.  During his rookie year, his former colleagues at Ward’s staged a Johnny Mostil Day at the ballpark.  People in Whiting were proud of him.  Traffic on the South Shore Line spiked whenever Mostil and the Sox were playing at Comiskey.

Mostil twice led the American League in stolen bases.  He could hit, too—his batting average was usually over .300, peaking at .328 in 1926.  That year he was runner-up for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

The Sox were in spring training at Shreveport in 1927.  On the morning of March 9, Mostil tried to commit suicide by slashing his chest and wrists with a razor.  The team announced he was suffering from neuritis, and had endured constant headaches and sleepless nights.  Insiders whispered that he was depressed over a shattered love affair.

Mostil recovered and came back late in the 1927 season.  But he was never the same player.  The Sox released him in 1929.

He later managed in the minor leagues, and eventually became a White Sox scout.  Johnny Mostil died at his home in Midlothian in 1970.

Phil Cavaretta was born twenty years after Mostil, in 1916.  Unlike Mostil, he made it to the major leagues quickly.  He was only 18, and a few months out of Lane Tech, when the Cubs signed him in 1934.  In his first appearance at Wrigley Field, he hit a home run.

The next season Cavaretta became the Cubs’ regular first baseman.  He developed into a solid left-handed hitter known for his hustling style of play.  Injuries plagued him.  Separate broken ankles kept him out of action for much of two seasons.

Cavaretta was rejected for World War II service because of a hearing problem.  Now in his late 20s, he hit his playing peak.  In 1944 he made the All-Star team for the first time.  The next year was Cavaretta’s year.

In 1945 Cavaretta hit .355 to win the National League batting championship.  He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, and led his team into the World Series—the last time the Cubs made it that far until last year.  Though the team lost, Phil batted .423 for the seven games.

After the war ended, Cavaretta was named an All-Star twice more, showing he was more than a wartime flash.  Meanwhile, the Cubs were going into a long decline.  In 1951, Cubs’ owner P.K. Wrigley made his most popular player the team’s manager.

Cavaretta continued to play part-time.  His record as a manager was mixed.  Just before the start of the 1954 season, Wrigley fired him.  Always honest, Cavaretta had told his boss that the team had no hope of making the first division.

After 20 years with the Cubs, Cavaretta now signed with the White Sox as a first baseman and pinch-hitter.  He got into 71 games and hit .316.  That proved to be his last hurrah.  The Sox released him early in the 1955 season.

Phil Cavaretta stayed in baseball another two decades, managing in the minor leagues, working as a hitting coach, and doing some scouting.  He died in 2010 at the age of 94.  At the time of his death he was the last major leaguer to have played against Babe Ruth.