Sin in Suburbia (3-2-1953)

Suburban Chicago was not all wholesome, white bread, “Leave It to Beaver” land in the 1950s.  On this date the Tribune published an expose of gambling and vice just outside the city limits.

And we’re not talking Cicero or Calumet City here.  This was in the Northwest suburbs!

The Wagon Wheel

The Wagon Wheel

Looking for some gambling action?  The place to go was the Wagon Wheel, on Montrose Avenue just west of Narragansett.  The little roadhouse had been operating in Norwood Township for close to 20 years.

The front room of the Wagon Wheel looked like any workingman’s tavern.  But behind the bar was a mirror with two-way glass.  The lookout sat there.  His job was to pass on anyone who wanted to gamble.

If the lookout gave thumbs up, you were admitted to the back room.  In the afternoon a bookie covered bets on horse races at tracks throughout the country.  Poker games took over in the evening.  Two or three tables would be going at once.  Occasionally a roulette wheel was brought in.  The action went on all night, often to 6 a.m.

The Wagon Wheel was the oldest, established, permanent gambling house in the northwest ‘burbs.  But it wasn’t the only one.  The Ballard Inn, the Beverly Tap, and the Forest Lounge were also popular.  The Florentine Saloon, in Niles Township, offered slot-machines and a singing bartender.


Vic’s Tavern

Prostitutes were also available, if you knew where to go.  The most notorious house was Vic’s Tavern, on River Road near Higgins.  Vic was the madame.  You negotiated with her in the public room.  Then you were taken to the second floor to meet with whichever of the two women was on duty.

The Sunrise Inn was another brothel, a few miles down River Road from Vic’s.  This was a key club, which meant that only members could use the facilities.  The Cook County business license in the lobby said it was a “tourist camp.”

All these spots were in unincorporated areas, under jurisdiction of the Cook County sheriff.  Raids didn’t seem to bother the operators.  “If someone does set this joint up to knock it over,” one bartender bragged, “everything will be as smooth as silk.”

The old gambling dens and brothels are long gone.  And in 2015, a mammoth casino operates in the Northwest suburbs at River Road and Devon, under license from the State of Illinois.





7 Responses to “Sin in Suburbia (3-2-1953)”

  1. 1 kyle L March 2, 2015 at 11:34 pm

    One suburban vice query- were speakeasies present dry communities such as Evanston post-prohibition?

  2. 3 lupachi1927 March 5, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    There was at least one in Glenview! The Hackney’s chain actually started life as a speakeasy in the back of the owner’s house, selling booze and burgers to the locals back in the 1920s.

    • 4 J.R. Schmidt March 5, 2015 at 6:01 pm

      I’ve been going to Hackney’s since the early sixties, and I never knew that the Harms Road location had that history. Now that I think of it, I believe that Meier’s Tavern on Lake Avenue started as a speakeasy, too.

  3. 6 chrism March 12, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Are any of these buildings still around? I also heard from the owner of Mitty’s, now the Heights in Harwood Heights, that the building was formally a brothel. They also had a supposed tunnel to a building down the block but it could be just rumor.

    • 7 J.R. Schmidt March 15, 2015 at 9:40 am

      I grew up a few blocks from the Wagon Wheel, and all us neighborhood kids knew about it. I think that building is still there.

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