Archive for the 'CHICAGO HISTORY HAPPENED HERE' Category

Carl Sandburg in Chicago

Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders . . .

There was a time when every child in a Chicago school learned those words.  They are the opening lines of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago.”  This house, at 4646 North Hermitage Avenue,  is where he wrote them.

Sandburg was born in Galesburg in 1878, the son of Swedish immigrants.  As a young man, he drifted through a series of jobs—milkman, bricklayer, fireman, soldier, hobo, political organizer for the Social Democratic Party. Then he got married.

Time for stability.  Sandburg moved to Chicago and became a reporter.  He landed a job with the Daily News.  He’d been writing poetry for years, with little success.  That began to change.

His collection Chicago Poems appeared in 1916.  Another anthology followed, then a series of children’s books.  Sandburg was gaining a reputation.  His publisher suggested he write a Lincoln biography for young people.

Sandburg did the research, and more research.  In 1926 he emerged with Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years.  The children’s book had morphed into an adult book in two volumes.

The Lincoln book was a best-seller and ended Sandburg’s financial worries.  It also made him a literary lion.  For the rest of his long life, he was as famous for being Carl Sandburg as for anything he wrote.

Sandburg-Monroe (1962)

Sandburg with Marilyn Monroe (1962)

He moved to Michigan in 1930, and eventually settled in the hill country of North Carolina.  The Lincoln biography grew to a total of six volumes, with the publication of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years.  He won three Pulitzer prizes, two for poetry and one for the Lincoln books.  In 1959 he even won a Grammy for his narration of Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”
The house on Hermitage was built in 1880 by attorney Samuel B. Gookins.  Sandburg rented the second floor apartment from 1911 through 1914.  He later lived in Maywood and Elmhurst.  The Carl Sandburg Home is an official Chicago Landmark.  It is privately owned.

Though he lived elsewhere after 1930, Sandburg remained one of Chicago’s favorite sons.  In 1960 the city embarked on an urban renewal project in the Clark-Division area.  The idea was to stabilize the west end of the Gold Coast with a series of high-rise apartments.  They called the new buildings Sandburg Village.

Sandburg himself kept Chicago in his heart.  He often returned to the city that made him famous.  He appeared regularly on Irv Kupcinet’s TV round-table.  When Orland Park named a high school in his honor, Sandburg came to the dedication and had a grand time, telling stories and singing ballads.

He had been a workingman.  He always cultivated the image of the people’s poet, with rumpled clothing and unkempt hair.  A few years after the dedication, he decided to revisit “his” high school.  By then a different principal was in charge.  The new man thought Sandburg was a panhandler and threw him out.

Carl Sandburg died in 1967.  Some years earlier he had summed up his philosophy this way: “What I need mainly is three things in life, possibly four—to be out of jail, to eat regular, to get what I write printed, and then a little love at home and a little outside.”



Chicago’s Oldest Public Monument

Chicago has hundreds of statues, monuments, and historical markers. But unless you do a little exploring, you’re likely to miss the oldest one.

In 1833, as Chicago and the Midwest were starting to grow, Congress ordered a new survey of the boundary between Illinois and Indiana. When the survey was completed, a 15-foot high limestone obelisk was put in place on the shore of Lake Michigan, straddling the state line.

Illinois-Indiana Boundary Marker

Illinois-Indiana Boundary Marker

Civilization gradually engulfed the boundary marker. The shoreline was extended north by landfill. Multiple railroad lines came through. Commonwealth Edison built a huge generating plant. The South Park Commissioners laid out Calumet Park.

By the 1980s the marker was isolated and neglected among the rail yards. Allen J. Benson, a ComEd executive, convinced the company to sponsor its restoration, in conjunction with the East Side Historical Society and other interested groups. In 1988 the marker was moved 190 feet north to its present location, just outside the plant gate. A new base was added at that time.

Before the work was finished, Benson died. A plaque next to the boundary marker was dedicated to his memory.

Chicago’s oldest monument—and Hammond’s too, for that matter—is difficult to find. It’s located at what would be the intersection of State Line Road and 103rd Street.

In Memory of Allen J. Benson (1928-1987)

In Memory of Allen J. Benson (1928-1987)

The best way to get there is to approach from the north, via 95th Street. Go east on 95th past Ewing, then turn right onto Crilly Drive. Continue south on Crilly, along the western edge of Calumet Park, to the junction with Avenue G. Turn right on Avenue G, keep going south past the park’s Field House, until you arrive at 100th Street.

Now you will see some grade-level railroad tracks on your right. Ahead of you, parallel to the tracks, a small access road continues south-southeast. Follow this road to its end, at the old ComEd plant and the boundary marker.

The access road you just took doesn’t have an official name. This has led to some confusion. Since the road continues the route of Avenue G, most reference sources will tell you that the boundary marker is located on Avenue G, at 103rd Street-extended.

Trouble is, a few blocks away, there is a real intersection of Avenue G and 103rd Street.

So let’s end the confusion. Name the access road along tracks “Allen J. Benson Drive.” How expensive are a couple of street signs?


The Rise and Fall of Jesse Binga

Today the street where Jesse Binga lived is named for Dr. Martin Luther King.  That’s appropriate.  When the street was called South Park Avenue and Binga occupied house at #5922, the building became a symbol of the civil rights struggle.

Jesse Binga was a go-getter.  Born in Detroit in 1865, he started out to be a barber like his father.  He moved through a number of jobs before settling in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair.  A few years later he entered the real estate business.

Chicago’s African-American population was small at the turn of the 20th Century, but that was about to change.  Here Binga saw his opportunity.

During the first decades of the new century, Southern blacks began moving north.  Chicago’s neighborhoods were segregated, like most northern cities.  The newcomers settled in a narrow section of the South Side.  But as more people arrived, they began to burst the boundaries of the “Black Belt.”

Jesse Binga became the main agent of racial succession.  He bought property from whites who wanted to move out, fixed it up, then resold to blacks who needed a place to live.  He helped his community—and he got rich.

From real estate he moved into banking.  He took over a failed bank at 36th and State, and reopened it as the Binga Bank, the city’s first black-owned financial institution.  In 1910 he ran for the County Board as a Republican, but lost.  After that he steered clear of politics.

Binga moved into 5922 S. South Park Avenue in 1917.  The Washington Park neighborhood was then all-white.  He received death threats and the house was repeatedly bombed.  He had to hire 24-hour security guards. Binga defiantly refused to move, saying he was an American citizen and could live where he pleased.  Years passed before the violence stopped.

The Binga business empire reached its peak during the 1920s.  He rechartered his bank as the Binga State Bank and erected a new building at the northwest corner of 35th and State.  Next to it he constructed a five-story office building called the Binga Arcade.  He announced plans to open another, federally-chartered bank.

Then the Stock Market crashed.  The Depression followed, the Binga State Bank failed, and thousands of African-American depositors were wiped out.

Jesse Binga was wiped out, too.  He later served a prison sentence for embezzlement, though many people thought the charges were trumped up.  He spent his last years working as a janitor at St. Anselm Church, for $15 a week.

Jesse Binga died in 1950.  His home is a registered Chicago Landmark, and is privately owned.


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.


The Nazi Saboteur on Fremont Street

The apartment building at 2234 North Fremont Street has been renovated, but it’s still the same building.  On the morning of June 27, 1942, Herbie Haupt walked out the front door and into history.

2234-n-fremontHaupt was 22 years old.  He got into his new Pontiac and drove a block south to Webster, then turned right.  At the ‘L’ underpass another car forced him to the curb.  Three FBI agents emerged from the second car and placed him under arrest.  He was charged with being a German spy.

The U.S. had been at war with Nazi Germany for about seven months.  Haupt was one of eight men who’d been dropped off the Atlantic coast by submarine a few days before.  Their mission was to blow up American defense plants and transportation facilities.  The plan had been personally approved by Adolf Hitler.

Herbert Hans Haupt was born in Germany in 1920.  His family moved to Chicago when he was a boy.  He became an American citizen at age 10, and later went to Schurz High School.  While there he belonged to ROTC.

Haupt was in Germany when his native country declared war on his adopted country.  His explanation for this was vague.  He never denied that he’d been part of the sabotage mission.  He claimed to have joined the plot only so he could get back home to America.

The eight spies had landed in two groups.  One unit came ashore in Long Island, the other in Florida.  Soon afterward, two men from the first group decided to abandon the mission.  One of these men contacted the FBI.  The FBI began tracking the others.hhaupt

Haupt was part of the Florida group.  Along with another man, he took a train to Chicago.  The two of them were supposed to settle in and prepare for the next phase of the mission.  Haupt went to his parents’ apartment on Fremont Street.

Did they wonder why Herbie suddenly appeared?  They didn’t ask, he didn’t tell.  He seemed to have plenty of money.  He bought a new car.  He began dating a neighborhood girl.

Then the FBI nabbed him.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the eight terrorists be tried by military tribunal.  Their lawyers attempted to get the cases moved to civilian courts.  The U.S. Supreme Court denied the appeal, saying the accused were “unlawful combatants.”

All eight men were quickly found guilty and sentenced to death.  Roosevelt commuted the sentences of the two Germans who’d dropped out, giving them prison time for illegally entering the country instead.  The other six—including U.S. citizen Herbie Haupt—died in the electric chair on August 8, 1942.

In recent years, the Supreme Court ruling in the Nazi terrorist case has become part of the discussion about the Guantanamo detainees.  The building where Herbie Haupt spent his last hours of freedom is privately owned.



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.


“A Christmas Story”—Ralphie’s Real Home

It’s the holiday season, time for the annual broadcasts of A Christmas Story.

If you’ve somehow missed this movie, it’s a tale set a fictitious Midwestern city, in an unspecified year around 1940, centered around the everyday adventures of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker. The hook is Ralphie’s ongoing yearning for a particular Christmas present, namely an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action Two-Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle.

Radio raconteur Jean Shepherd’s short stories are the inspiration for the movie.  When filming began in 1983, Shepherd scouted out locations that reminded him of his boyhood in Hammond, and settled on a house in Cleveland.  A few years ago that house was purchased by an enterprising entrepreneur, who converted it into the Christmas Story Museum. Across the street is a gift shop that sells such artifacts as bunny playsuits and electric-sex leg lamps.

Jean Shepherd's cameo in "A Christmas Story"

Jean Shepherd’s cameo in “A Christmas Story”

But if you’re looking for a closer connection to the real events behind the story, you can join the fans who make a drive-by pilgrimage past Shepherd’s boyhood home. The frame bungalow still stands at 2907 Cleveland Street, just off Kennedy Avenue in Hammond.

Jean Parker Shepherd Jr. was born on Chicago’s South Side in 1921—about ten years before Ralphie Parker—the son of a dairy clerk. He grew up in Hammond, attending Warren G. Harding Elementary School, and graduated from Hammond High School in 1939. During World War II he served stateside in the U.S. Army.

After the war Shepherd began his career as a radio broadcaster in Hammond. He moved up through several larger markets, finally landing in New York in 1955. All the while he was establishing himself as a storyteller, gentle yet biting. Before there was Garrison Keillor, there was Jean Shepherd.

Shepherd also began writing short stories for magazines. The first collection of his tales, titled In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, appeared in 1966. Many of the incidents in the movie are drawn from this book. At various times he hosted different idiosyncratic series on public TV, most memorably Jean Shepherd’s America. By the 1980s he had a nationwide cult following.

 Jean Shepherd's Hammond home

Jean Shepherd’s Hammond home

Yet it was A Christmas Story that introduced Shepherd to the greater population. Though he continued to churn out stories and do the occasional radio or TV gig, the movie’s popularity fixed his reputation. When he died in 1999, the lede sentence of his obituaries usually referred to him as the “author and narrator of the beloved holiday film . . .”

The Shepherd family lived in various places around Hammond during the 1930s. They moved into the house at 2907 Cleveland Street in 1935. A carving in the attic contains the autographs “17 yrs. old. Jean Shepherd. 2/18/39” and “15 yrs. old. Randall Shepherd. 2/28/39.”

Unlike the museum in Cleveland, this is a private residence, and does not welcome visitors. However, the City of Hammond does recognize its favorite son with the Jean Shepherd Community Center a few blocks away in Dowling Park.