Archive for the 'CHICAGO HISTORY HAPPENED HERE' Category

Lost Landmark: Evergreen Country Club

April is here. The golf clubs come out of the basement and into my car’s trunk. And yet the time is bittersweet. I’m starting another season without my favorite course—Evergreen Country Club.

Evergreen was located at Western Avenue and 91st Street in Evergreen Park. It wasn’t fancy and it wasn’t a great course. But in its own funky way, it was historic.

The site had originally been part of the Ahern farm. In 1924 the family opened an 18-hole daily fee course. Also on the property was a road house called the Beverly Gardens. At a time when most golf was played at private clubs, there weren’t many courses open to the public.

All sorts of people played Evergreen in those days. The most famous regular was Machine Gun Jack McGurn, Al Capone’s chief trigger-man. McGurn was a scratch player who once competed in the Western Open. Big Al came out to the course a few times, too.

John Dillinger also visited Evergreen, but not to play golf. On New Year’s Eve 1933, Dillinger and six pals stuck up the road house, shot it out with the local cops, and got away with $500.

I grew up on the Northwest Side, and never got around to playing Evergreen until the 1990s. Then I fell in love with the place. The Beverly Gardens had long since burned down, and the clubhouse was a little frame building with asbestos siding that looked like a renovated tool shed. But the green fees were cheap and it was seldom crowded.

The course was split in half by a live freight track, which you crossed four times during your 18 holes. Many of the holes were wide open and easy. A few were tricky, with narrow, tree-lined fairways and blind shots to elevated greens. Some were just weird—on the thirteenth, you teed off at roof-level of the houses behind you on 93rd Place.

One thing I appreciated was that the course was never littered with goose droppings. The greens crew simply let their dogs run free, and that kept the geese away.

By now the course was owned by Anna May “Babe” Ahern. She’d been born on the property in 1907 and was listed as the club pro. All the years I played at Evergreen, there’s was talk that the course was going to be sold to a developer, or Wal-Mart, or the Village of Evergreen Park. But like Babe Ahern, Evergreen went on.

On October 14, 2010, I holed-out a full 5-iron shot on Evergreen’s seventeenth. In nearly fifty years of golf, it was only my second eagle. Not wanting to spoil my mood, I skipped the last hole and walked off the course.

That was the last shot I ever hit at Evergreen Country Club. The next month Babe Ahern finally found a buyer who would pay her price, and the month after that she herself died, at 103.

I’ve driven past Evergreen’s site a few times in recent years.  I’ve seen the development that has taken place.  I realize that change is inevitable.

But sometimes it comes too damn quickly.

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Joe Louis’s Home

Joe Louis was born in Alabama and grew up in Detroit. He spent his later life in Las Vegas.  But during the twelve years he reigned as heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he lived in Chicago.

Born Joseph Louis Barrow in 1914, he dropped his last name when he began amateur boxing as a Detroit teenager, so his mother wouldn’t find out what he was doing. As Joe Louis the kid fighter attracted the attention of John Roxborough.  Roxborough, one of the city’s gambling kingpins, became Louis’s manager.

In 1934 Louis turned pro. Roxborough began grooming him for a shot at the heavyweight championship, and that meant a move Chicago, where Louis could train under Jack Blackburn. Local promoter Julian Black joined Roxborough as a partner.  He found Louis an apartment on 46th Street off South Park Way (King Drive).

Joe and Marva

Louis quickly rose through the ranks with a string of knockouts. During one of his gym sessions he noticed Marva Trotter, a secretary at the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper. They started dating.  On the morning of September 24, 1935 Joe and Marva were married in New York.  Joe then went off to Yankee Stadium, knocked out ex-champ Max Baer in four rounds, and went back to his hotel and Marva.

The new couple settled in at the Rosenwald Apartments at 4648 South Michigan Avenue. The 454-unit complex had been built by white philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to provide decent housing for the city’s African Americans.  Louis later said that the Rosenwald “was the most fabulous building black people could live in at the time.”  Gwendolyn Brooks, Nat “King” Cole, and other prominent Chicagoans were also residents.

Louis continued winning in the ring until Max Schmeling stopped him in June 1936. Louis then rebounded with a new string of victories.  On June 22, 1937, he knocked out James J. Braddock at Comiskey Park to become the new heavyweight champion.

Marva was not at the fight. According to the Tribune, she listened to the action on the radio in their apartment at 4320 South Michigan Avenue.  After the fight, Louis had trouble driving back the few blocks home through the crowds.  “I thought all of Chicago was standing outside my house,” he wrote in his autobiography.  “Marva and I had to come out, I don’t know how many times, and wave at the people.”

Joe Louis’s Chicago Home

Exactly when the Louises relocated from the Rosenwald is unclear. According to the 1940 Census, Joe had purchased the three-story apartment building for $7500—about $140,000 in today’s money.  Their personal flat had five rooms.  At that time the tenants in the other five units paid rents ranging from $40- to $65-a-month.

One year to the day after he’d won the heavyweight title, Louis took care of his old nemesis, Max Schmeling, in just over two minutes. In the course of twelve years Louis would successfully defend his title 25 times, more than any other boxing champion.  Some critics scoffed at his challengers as the Bum-of-the-Month Club.  More likely, Louis was just too good for anyone.

Louis served in the army during World War II, mostly fighting exhibitions. When he came out of the service, his skills had noticeably deteriorated.  He won a few fights, but the magic was gone.  In October 1949 he announced his retirement from the ring.

Meanwhile, Louis’s marriage had also deteriorated.  Joe liked the ladies, and the ladies liked Joe.  Joe and Marva divorced in 1945, remarried in 1946, then divorced a final time in 1949.  Marva kept the two children and the apartment building on Michigan Avenue.

The rest of Louis’s life was not happy. He had trusted too many people with his money, and the Internal Revenue Service came after him for back taxes, which he couldn’t pay.  A boxing comeback was an embarrassment.  He had health problems and battled substance abuse.  His final years were spent as a greeter in a casino.

Joe Louis died in 1981. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  A few years after his death, his favorite local golf course—Pipe O’ Peace in Riverdale—was renamed Joe Louis the Champ Golf Course.  The apartment building he owned on Michigan Avenue during his glory years remains a private residence.

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Death in the Evening

The intersection of State and 63rd  Streets looks pretty much the same today as it did on May 25, 1950.  This view is probably the last thing that Paul Manning saw.

Manning was a 42-year-old CTA streetcar motorman.  At 6:30 on this spring evening he was piloting his southbound car down the tracks in the center of State Street.  There were no expressways yet and the ‘L’ didn’t go past 69th Street, so Manning’s car was crowded with rush hour commuters.

A heavy shower had passed through the area.  Just ahead, the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct was flooded.  Since electric streetcars could not operate through standing water, a CTA supervisor was on duty.  He was diverting southbound cars into an emergency terminal on the east side of State.

Manning approached the intersection at full speed.  He must not have known that the viaduct was impassible.  Nor did he see the supervisor running toward him, frantically waving his arms.  The car hit the open switch.  Instead of continuing south on State, it lurched violently to the left, across the oncoming lanes of traffic.

5-29--generic streetcar.jpg

Mel Wilson was driving a tanker truck northbound on State.  The truck was loaded with 7,000 gallons of gasoline from a refinery in Whiting, Indiana.  Wilson had just cleared 63rd Street when the turning streetcar slammed into him.

There was a moment of awful silence, then the truck exploded.  Flames shot through the streetcar and rolled down State Street, igniting everything in their path.  Trees, cars, buildings—in thirty seconds the block had become a vision of hell.

At the rear of the burning streetcar, the conductor forced open the back window and about a dozen people escaped, many of them on fire.  They were the lucky ones.  The exit doors had jammed.  The rest of the passengers were roasted to death.

Fire alarms jangled in all the South Side stations.  The department rushed thirty-three pieces of equipment to the scene.  The sound of the explosion and the black smoke rising through the air attracted hundreds of spectators.  Squads of police were called out to hold back the crowds.

5-29--wrecked streetcar.jpg

Firemen worked through the night, extinguishing the stray flames and searching for survivors.  The next morning, with the odor of burning flesh still in the air, city crews went to work dynamiting the shells of seven buildings.  Over 150 residents had lost their homes.  Thirty-three people were dead, among them motorman Paul Manning and truck driver Mel Wilson.

As a result of the accident, the CTA refitted the rear exit doors on its vehicles, so they could be manually pushed open.  The policy of replacing streetcars with buses was accelerated.  By 1958 the last trolley was gone from Chicago’s streets.

The definitive account of the incident is The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster, by Craig Allen Cleve.

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Tastee Freez/Cal’s Creemy Whip/Toot’s Drive-In

The Drive-In Formerly Known As Cal's (1975)

The Drive-In Formerly Known as Cal’s Creemy Whip (1975)

During the 1950s Chicago had a bunch of ice cream drive-ins called Tastee Freez.  Our local branch was located on the southwest corner of Montrose and Central.

Everyone had a personal Tastee Freez treat.  Mine was the dip-top, vanilla ice cream covered with frozen chocolate syrup, served in a square cone.  However, I usually bought a sundae because of the premium attached to the dish—little plastic statues of presidents or baseball players or Jesus and his twelve apostles.

Around 1965 the shop became known as Cal’s Creemy Whip.  Cal’s last name was Hilton, and he claimed to be related to James Hilton, the famous author of Lost Horizon and other novels.  I don’t know whether Cal was telling the truth.  I also don’t know whether he misspelled “creamy” on purpose.

Cal eventually sold out.  The place was spiffed up and became Toot’s Drive-in.  By that time I’d moved out of Portage Park, so I stopped by only occasionally.  Toot’s closed a few years ago, and the old building was finally leveled.  There’s a more “modern” restaurant on the site now.

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Original Carl’s Red Hots

Carl's Red Hots (1975)

Original Carl’s Red Hots (1975)

Carl’s Red Hots opened on the northeast corner of 83rd Street and Jeffery Boulevard in 1954.  I’m from the Northwest Side, so I didn’t stumble upon it until twenty years later.  I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and I’d often drive down to Carl’s when I had a few hours between classes.  The little shack reminded me of the original Tast-e Hast-e in my old neighborhood.  And in 1974, 45 cents was a cheap price for a Vienna dog with fries.

In 1981 the church next door bought the property for an expansion project.  Carl’s moved across the intersection to a new building, and it’s still in business there.  But I miss that old shack.

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Mahalia Jackson’s Home

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was one of the thousands of black Southerners moving north to Chicago during the 1920s. She opened both a beauty salon and a flower shop, but her real talent was in singing. Over the course of forty years she became the most celebrated Gospel singer in the world.

The Chicago Tribute marker in front of her home at 8358 South Indiana Avenue tells us as much. What it doesn’t tell us about is the struggles Jackson had merely to live there.

8358 S. Indiana Ave.

8358 S. Indiana Ave.

Jackson liked to practice her singing at night while she cooked and cleaned her flat. The landlord complained about the noise, so Jackson saved her money and bought her own apartment building. That didn’t work, either—now her tenants were saying she was too loud.

In 1956 Jackson decided the only solution was to buy a house for herself. Driving around the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side, she stopped at a number of homes with “For Sale” signs out front. At each one, she was told that the property had just been sold.

Chatham was an all-white area. Though restrictive covenants had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court, that didn’t seem to matter. “The attention I had been getting from white people for my singing had sort of confused me,” Jackson wrote later. “They still didn’t want me as their neighbor.”

Jackson then went to a real estate agent. A white surgeon had a house on the market at 84th and Indiana. When told the identity of the prospective buyer, the surgeon said he was “proud to sell my house to [Mahalia Jackson].”

The news of Jackson’s purchase sent the neighborhood into a frenzy. A local Catholic priest who tried to calm things was ignored. Protest meetings were held. Jackson received hostile phone calls at all hours of the night, threatening to dynamite the house.

The situation didn’t improve when she moved in. Rifle bullets were fired through her window. A police guard was posted, and remained in front of the house for nearly a year. “I hadn’t intended to start a crusade,” Jackson recalled. “All I wanted was a quiet, pretty home to live in.”

Early in 1958 Edward R. Murrow brought his Person-to-Person interview program to Jackson’s home. Jackson used the occasion to invite the local kids over for ice cream and cake, and a chance to appear on TV. When many of the children did show up, Jackson thought she was finally being accepted.

A cynic once described integration as “the time between the first black family moving in, and the last white family moving out.” Jackson’s neighborhood followed that course. Scared by panic-peddling realtors and afflicted by their own prejudice, all the whites eventually cleared out.

“The white people swore we would ruin it,” Jackson wrote about the neighborhood in her 1966 autobiography. “They said it would be a slum overnight. But it hasn’t changed. The grass is still green. The lawns are as neat as ever. Children still whiz up and down on their bikes.”

So it was in 1966. And so it still is today.

—30—

Skip’s Drive-in

If you’re 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 the western ‘burbs, 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?

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