Higher Taxes on the Way! (7-31-1927)

Motorists were crowding gas stations this evening, trying to beat the new state tax of 2 cents per gallon going into effect at midnight.  A gallon of gas was selling for 16 cents, so the tax of more than 10% was pretty steep.  Gas station attendants were noting that customers were telling them, “Fill ‘er up,” instead of settling for five or ten gallons of fuel.

Gas Station

The Chicago Motor Club had filed a complaint that said the tax was discriminatory and unconstitutional.  However, with the state poised to collect an estimated $15 million a year in revenue, the legislature had enacted the tax anyway.  The oil companies said there was no plan to add another penny onto their prices to cover the cost of administering the tax.

That was nearly 90 years ago.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.



Skip’s Drive-in

If your from Chicagoland and of a certain age, you know about Skip’s.  Located on the south side of North Avenue, just east of First Avenue in Melrose Park, this was our most famous teen-magnet drive-in from the 1950s into the 1970s.  Technically, it was the Fiesta Restaurant.  Everyone called it Skip’s.

I have no idea if there was a real Skip.  I didn’t hang out there.  I spent most of my teens hanging out in bowling alleys, and didn’t have a car to cruise the suburbs.

Skip's Drive-In (aka Fiesta)

Two of my friends were Skip’s regulars—J Greaser from my high school, and Henry K from bowling.  They seemed to be there every weekend.  I did tag along with Henry K once.  He’d borrowed his dad’s Chrysler New Yorker, convinced the young ladies would be impressed by the chrome and tailfins and horse-power.  Like most of Henry K’s schemes, it didn’t work.

Years later, in 1976, I took the picture of what was left of Skip’s.  It was being torn down to make way for a Polk Brothers store.  Now, of course, Polk Brothers is also nothing more than a memory.

You’ll meet people who claim that Skip’s was the inspiration for Arnold’s Drive-in on the TV show Happy Days.  Maybe it was.  Could be it wasn’t.  But does it really matter?


The ‘L’ Beauty Show (7-23-1910)

Ever get bored riding the ‘L’?  Tired of texting, or talking on the phone, or reading the paper, or daydreaming?  Want to just look out the window and watch the city go by?

A hundred years ago there wasn’t much to do on the train except read the paper or look out the window.  That’s why there was an ‘L’ floral contest.  The idea was to get the people along the line to spruce up their property.


In 1908 the Tribune had partnered with a fertilizer company to select Chicago’s best front porch garden.  The new contest was sponsored by the Northwestern Elevated Railroad, one of the city’s privately-owned transit companies.  Northwestern’s service covered the modern Brown line, and the Red line north of Belmont.

The contest was open to all outdoor floral displays visible from the Northwestern tracks.  Five judges from the Industrial Club had been riding around in a special train to inspect the entries.  The winners were announced on July 23, 1910.

Northwestern did not skimp on the prizes.  First place in any of six categories was worth $50, over $1200 in today’s money.  Cash was awarded for backyard gardens, window boxes, and porch displays.

No one was surprised that one of the awards went to Mathias Overton of 3649 North Sheffield Avenue—he had taken the grand prize in the Tribune‘s contest.  The most startled winner was Mrs. J.P. Hutchinson of 5430 North Winthrop Avenue.


“I entered my garden as a joke on my husband,” Mrs. Hutchinson said.  “He told me what I thought was pretty no one else would think was pretty, and that it was foolish to enter.”  Then she added, “Just think how I can laugh at my husband now!”

Another delighted winner was Reverend Paul Roberts of St. Joseph Catholic Church at 1107 North Orleans Street.  His garden, located behind the church, was an arrangement of geraniums, pansies, Zanzibar beans, and other plants, surrounded by neatly-trimmed hedges.  “I had no idea of winning a prize,” he said.  “I’ve always been interested in plant life, and spend all my spare time tending the garden.”

The Tribune called the 1910 floral contest “The ‘L’ Beauty Show.”  Maybe it’s time for CTA to sponsor a revival.



Then and Now, Lake Park-50th

1950--Lake Park Avenue @ 50th Street, view south

1950–Lake Park Avenue @ 50th Street, view southeast

2015--the same location

2015–the same location

Lake Park Avenue runs parallel to the Illinois Central tracks.  In 1950 the section between 47th and 55th Streets was lined on both sides with commercial structures.  Most of the buildings here dated from the years just after the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  Many locals feared that the neighborhood was in decline.

Urban renewal came to the area in the late 1950s.  The old buildings along Lake Park were demolished, and the street itself was relocated 200 feet to the east, hard by the IC embankment.  Today the site of the earlier photo is the athletic field of Kenwood Academy.


Five Days of Hell (7-16-1995)

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.”

Mark Twain said that.  Ordinarily, Chicagoans would have laughed along with this famous bit of wisdom.  But after five days of hellish heat, few people were in the mood for humor.  The situation was becoming serious.

It began on Wednesday, July 12.  That day the temperature at O’Hare reached 98.  On Thursday the high was 106, a new record.  Friday got to 102, and Saturday topped off at 99.  It was humid, too—none of that “dry heat” business like Phoenix or Vegas.

Now it was Sunday.  No rain in the forecast.  No cold front.  Would temperatures bounce back over 100 again?


Out in the neighborhoods people were dying.  The papers said the toll had already passed 300.  Most of the victims were elderly, and had no air-conditioning.

Chicago had suffered through a major heat wave in 1934.  There had been fewer deaths then.  And air-conditioning had been rare in those days.

But crime had been rare, too.  Sixty years before, people in stifling apartments could leave their windows open all night without fear.  Thousands had beaten the heat by sleeping in parks.  Those options weren’t practical in 1995.

One thing had not changed.  As soon as temperatures closed in on 100, private citizens began opening fire hydrants.  Once again, there were pictures of kids in bathing suits running through the spray—that was as much of a heat wave cliche as the man frying an egg on the sidewalk.


The city had set up eleven cooling stations.  Though the program had been widely publicized, few people were showing up.  Meanwhile, the county morgue was overwhelmed with heat-related deaths.  Refrigerated trailers were pressed into service to store the backlog of bodies.

Sunday, July 16.  The Mercury climbed to 94.  It hovered there, then slowly dropped.  Monday’s temperatures were in the 80s.  The worst of it was over.

The final death count was about 700—there was no way of getting an exact figure.  A few critics blasted the Daley administration for its response to the crisis, or ComEd for the widespread power outages.  But most Chicagoans were satisfied just to have cooler weather.


Then and Now, Lincoln-Webster

1942--Lincoln Avenue @ Webster, view northwest

1942–Lincoln Avenue @ Webster, view northwest

2014--the same location

2015–the same location

During the first half of the 20th Century, Lincoln Park was a working-class neighborhood with a large German population.  Lincoln Avenue was originally a trail called Little Fort Road, which led to the settlement of Little Fort, today’s Waukegan.  The local Germans nicknamed the street Kaiser-Wilhelm-Straβe.

In 2015 the old German settlement has dispersed.  There have also been some physical changes around this intersection—the building peaking out of the far left of the older picture was one of many structures cleared to make way for Oz Park.  The Lincoln Park area now has some of the city’s highest property values.


Cross of Gold (7-9-1896)

On this date, a little-known, 36-year-old newspaper editor gave a speech before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The next day he was the party’s candidate for President of the United States.

The economy was in bad shape in 1896.  The country was arguing about how to solve the problem.  Put simply, it was about Gold vs. Silver.

Governor William McKinley

Governor William McKinley

The Gold group wanted each dollar in paper money backed by a dollar’s worth of gold.  They thought America needed a stable currency to bring back prosperity.

The Silver group wanted paper money backed by both silver and gold.  That would put more money in circulation, and lead to inflation.  But in the short term, the economy would rebound.

The Republicans nominated Governor William McKinley of Ohio for president.  He was a Gold man.  When the Democrats gathered in Chicago for their convention, none of their possible candidates seemed very exciting.

They met at the original Chicago Coliseum, at 63rd and Stony Island.  On the second day, July 9th, various delegates gave speeches about the party platform.  William Jennings Bryan was one of the Silver speakers.  He had served in Congress, and was now editor of the Omaha World-Herald.

Bryan was young, handsome, and dynamic.  He had a deep, booming voice that carried to all corners of the hall—which was important, since microphones hadn’t been invented yet.  And he knew how to give a speech.

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

Maybe it wasn’t what he said, but how he said it.  His Silver arguments were nothing new.  But two minutes into his oration, the delegates were interrupting him with applause.  As he went on, the applause came more often, and grew louder.

Then Bryan concluded, with imagery from the Bible—“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this Crown of Thorns!  You shall not crucify mankind upon a Cross of Gold!”

The convention had become a revival meeting, and the delegates went wild.  They stood on chairs, shouting themselves hoarse.  They threw hats, handkerchiefs, umbrellas, and anything else handy, into the air.  The party had found the man to lead it into battle.

One speech had done it.

Bryan was barely a year older than the age requirement for president.  He was the youngest person ever nominated—and still is.  He waged a vigorous campaign through all parts of the country.

In the end, the voters chose colorless competence over charisma.  McKinley was elected.



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