Posts Tagged 'Business'

Chicago’s April Fools

What do Rod Blagojevich, Paul Harvey, and Jack Dempsey have in common?  They’re all on my list of Chicago’s April Fools—people who made foolish decisions, and should have known better.  Last night I was on Justin Kaufmann’s “The Download” on WGN-Radio, and talked about all of my April Fools.  Here’s the link—  http://wgnradio.com/2017/03/30/exploring-the-history-of-chicagos-most-notable-fools/

The Prairies of Montrose Avenue

Back in the days before autos were common, most Chicagoans traveled by public transit. That meant by streetcar.  If you were starting a business and wanted customers to have easy access, you set up shop near where the streetcars ran.  By the 1920s commercial strips had developed along most of the car lines.

The city encouraged this development with zoning regulations. Blocks along arterial streets were reserved for commercial construction.  The lots there remained vacant while the nearby side streets filled up with homes.  Then, when enough people were settled in the neighborhood, businesses would be eager to buy and build on those commercially-zoned lots.

Our prairie, looking in from center field toward home plate

1959—Our prairie, looking in from center field toward home plate

That’s what happened in my Portage Park neighborhood. Grandpa Price built the second house on the 4300-north block of Mason Avenue in 1922.  By the end of the decade, the block was filled with bungalows and two-flats.  Meanwhile, a few isolated stores had sprouted up along the commercially-zoned vacant lots on Montrose Avenue.

Then the Depression hit. Then World War II hit.  Then the postwar auto-boom flight to the suburbs hit.  By the time I came along in the 1950s, most of Montrose Avenue from Central west to Narragansett was still commercially zoned, and still vacant.

We called those vacant lots along Montrose “prairies.” This seems to have been a term used in all parts of the city, as readers’ comments indicate.  In our neighborhood, the local boys would clear a prairie and set up a baseball diamond.  There were at least five of them along Montrose.  One of them even had a backstop.  Looking back, I wonder who paid for it.

Montrose Avenue, 2017---Where are the prairies of yesterday?

2017—Montrose @ Menard, and where are the prairies of yesterday?

Our particular prairie was at what’s now 5919 West Montrose Avenue. Unlike most of the other prairies we weren’t a corner lot, so our baseball field was only about 80 feet down the right field line to the old Sinclair gas station.  But like most of the other prairies, we had to deal with dog owners using our beloved ball field as a canine toilet—in those days, they weren’t expected to clean up afterward.

Sometime around 1960 the city relaxed the zoning along Montrose, and all those prairies were soon filled with yellow brick houses and apartment buildings. Today it makes for an interesting streetscape, bridging two eras.

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Tucker On Trial (10-4-1949)

The Tucker Torpedo had been hailed as The Car of the Future.  Today, automaker Preston Tucker went on trial in the Chicago courtroom of Judge Walter La Buy.

Now 46 years old, Tucker had been involved in the auto industry since his teens.  At heart he was a promoter.  According to a friend, Tucker was such a great salesman that “he could sell a Chrysler to Henry Ford, and a Ford to Walter Chrysler.”

Preston Tucker

Preston Tucker

In 1946 Tucker launched his own car company.  He leased the largest factory building in the world, the 475-acre Dodge Chicago Plant at 76th and Cicero.  The plant had been used for making aircraft engines in World War II, and was now vacant.

Tucker soon produced a stunning prototype.  It was sleek and sexy, “the kind of car Flash Gordon would drive,” someone said.  The Tucker Torpedo was also ahead of its time in many of its engineering features.

To finance his venture, Tucker sold stock.  Then he ran into production problems.  Only 50 cars were produced.  The Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating Tucker’s stock sale.

Tucker claimed that Detroit auto companies were behind the probe, trying to stop a potential rival.  In June 1949, Tucker and seven associates were indicted in federal court.  They were charged with multiple counts of mail fraud, conspiracy, and SEC violations.

In 2016 we assume that the identity of jury members will be protected.  When the Tucker trial opened on October 4, the newspapers actually printed the jurors’ names, home addresses, and occupations.  Among those deciding Tucker’s fate were an electrician, a garage owner, a phone company exec, and four housewives.

On the same day the trial began, another judge ordered the lease on Tucker’s Southwest Side plant cancelled.  The building reverted to the federal government.

Tucker Torpedo proto-type

Tucker Torpedo prototype

The trial lasted three months.  The defendants were found “Not Guilty” on all counts.  Tucker was free, but had no factory and was deeply in debt.  No more Tucker Torpedos were ever made.

Preston Tucker died in 1956.  Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 movie, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, was a sympathetic account of the automaker’s story.  Jeff Bridges starred.

Portions of the onetime Tucker auto plant are now the Ford City Mall.  The surviving Tucker Torpedos have sold at auction for as much as $2.9 million.

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Whitcomb Judson’s Bright Idea (8-29-1893)

Whitcomb Judson was a Chicago inventor.  In 1889 he’d developed a type of streetcar that ran on compressed air.  When that wasn’t commercially successful he turned to the problem of fasteners.  Legend says he was tired of wasting time lacing up the high-top shoes then in fashion.Judson

Judson came up with a hook-and-eye system that was opened and closed by a sliding fastener.  He called his invention the clasp-locker.  Though he first applied for a patent in November 1891, he did not receive formal approval until August 29, 1893—123 years ago today.

Soon afterward Judson successfully exhibited the device at the Columbian Exposition, and later founded the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture it.  In our own time Whitcomb Judson’s clasp-locker is in common use under a different name.  We now call it a zipper.

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Chicago Under Construction in the 1970s

Some months ago I posted a few pictures of the old Senate Theatre on Madison Street, as it fell to the wrecker’s ball in 1976.  I also took some pictures of local construction projects during that same era.  Here are a few of them—

1971--Touhy Avenue @ Kedzie

1971–Touhy Avenue @ Kedzie

This is now the Winston Towers complex.  Note the old gas tank in the background, at Pratt and Kedzie.

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1972--North Avenue @ Sedgwick

1972–North Avenue @ Sedgwick

In 1972 the city widened North Avenue between LaSalle and Orchard, so all the overhead wires for the trolley buses had to be redone.  Less than a year later, CTA junked the trolley buses and had that new wiring taken down.

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Kimball Avenue @ Lawrence

1974–Kimball Avenue @ Lawrence

CTA was replacing the 1907 terminal of the Ravenswood (Brown) ‘L’ line.

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1976--Diversey Avenue @ Nagle

1976–Diversey Avenue @ Nagle

Thunder Mountain Ski Resort didn’t work out, so The Brickyard Shopping Mall was under construction on the onetime site of the Carey Brick Works.  More recently, the mall itself has been rebuilt.

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1978--Clark Street @ Roosevelt

1978–Clark Street @ Roosevelt

Dearborn Street Station had been closed, and the Dearborn Park development was being built on the old railyard.

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The Wrigley Himself

Wrigley Field.  The Wrigley Building.

Two of Chicago’s most famous landmarks are named Wrigley.  If you’re into architecture, you probably know about the Wrigley Mansion, too.

Wrigley is a gum company.  But the word has become so identified with a product that we forget there was somebody named Wrigley who started it all.  After all, when you hear “Disney” or “Ford,” do you first think of Walt or Henry?William Wrigley

Older Cub fans remember long-time team owner Phil Wrigley.  The man we’re talking about here is his father, William Wrigley, Jr.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1861.  The Wrigleys of that era made soap.  William moved to Chicago when he was 30, planning to operate a branch of the family business.

“Everybody likes something for nothing,” he said.  So along with each can of scouring soap he sold, Wrigley included some baking powder as a bonus.  The baking powder soon proved more popular than the soap.

What would you do?  Wrigley switched over and made baking powder his primary product.  That meant he needed a new bonus item to go with the baking powder.

Now Wrigley began giving way two sticks of chewing gum with each box of baking powder.  And once again, the bonus became more popular than the original product.  So much for baking powder.  Wrigley started making gum.

In the 1890s, chewing gum was just catching on in America.  Wrigley had many competitors, but he was a born marketer.  “[William Wrigley] was the last of the super-salesmen,” Bill Veeck later wrote.  “He was a well-upholstered, jovial man who liked people and knew what made them tick.”

Wrigley enjoyed his work, saying that nothing great was ever done without enthusiasm.  In the early years he did most of the selling himself.  Even when the company became a global success, he never quit pushing forward.  New flavors were always being tried.

Wrigley ad

The promotion never stopped.  When he moved into a new market, he hired attractive women to walking around passing out free samples.  Merchants who sold the most Wrigley gum were given free gifts–lamps, razors, fishing tackles, cookbooks, and whatever.  And he advertised everywhere.

By 1910 millions of people were chewing gum.  If you asked them why, they probably couldn’t have explained it.  William Wrigley had become one of the richest men in America.  He began branching off into other fields.  One of his projects was Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, which he made into a renowned resort.

With his nose for publicity, Wrigley decided his gum company needed a headquarters building that people would talk about.  In 1921 he bought a site next to the new Michigan Avenue Bridge, and erected the magnificent terra-cotta wedding cake we all know so well.  It was the first major office building on what was to become the Magnificent Mile.

And the Cubs!  All his life, Wrigley had been a baseball fan.  When he got a chance to buy stock in the team in 1916, he jumped at it.  A few years later he had the controlling interest.

Wrigley--ball game

He renamed the ballpark Wrigley Field, spruced it up, and added an upper deck–the vines came later.  He also spent money on the finest available players.  The Cubs won the pennant in 1929 and set a major league attendance record.

As Wrigley grew older, he devoted more of his time to his Western operations.  Son Phil took over the gum company.  The Cubs were run by William Veeck Sr.  His last business venture was the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.

William Wrigley Jr. died in 1932.  If you seek his monument, there are some dandy ones around Chicago.

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Huck Caverns

John Huck rates a footnote in most Chicago history books. In 1871 his home on Fullerton Avenue was the last building destroyed by the Great Fire. Less remembered is Huck’s peculiar legacy to State Street.

A brewer by trade, Huck arrived in town from Germany in 1846.  The next year he opened Chicago’s first lager beer plant next to his residence on Chicago Avenue at Rush Street.  The tree-lined property also became the city’s first beer garden.

Huck prospered.  In 1855 he began constructing a sprawling complex of brewing buildings and malt houses along what’s now the east side of State Street, just north of Goethe.  He also moved into a new home on the lakefront at Fullerton Avenue.

By 1871 the John A. Huck Brewery had become one of the largest breweries in the country.  Running underneath the property was a series of underground tunnels.  They were sunk at a depth of 20 feet to provide a naturally cool storage area for kegs of Huck’s beer.  The tunnels were finished in masonry and measured 10 feet high by 20 feet wide.  The entire labyrinth stretched back and forth and around for a distance of nearly two miles.

Like Huck’s home, the brewery was destroyed in the 1871 fire.  The property along State Street stood vacant for years.  In 1878 Huck laid plans to rebuild, but died before he could start construction.

The Huck family scrapped the brewery project and sold the property.  During the 1880s the area began its transformation into the Gold Coast.  Elegant mansions rose on the site of old John Huck’s brewery.

Below ground, the lager tunnels remained.  Inevitably, they were discovered by the neighborhood kids.  Exploring the Huck caverns became a rite-of-passage for a boy wanting to avoid the awful taunt of “Chicken!”  The caverns were unlit, and it was a time before flashlights, but the youthful explorers were resourceful.  They made candle lanterns out of tin cracker boxes, and were all set.

Local parents were distressed.  They warned their sons that the caverns sheltered homeless people, fugitive from the law, or other disreputables.  There were rats down there, too.  Cave-ins were a constant danger.

Of course, all these lurid tales had the opposite effect on adventuresome boys.  The caverns became an even more popular playground.  City officials finally bowed to adult pressure, declared the caverns a safety hazard, and sealed them off around 1900.

Then, in 1927, when construction began on the new Ambassador East Hotel, some of the old lager caverns were rediscovered—and promptly obliterated to make way for the hotel’s foundations.  In more recent times, high-rise buildings with deeper foundations have gone up on nearby lots.  It seems likely the tunnels are gone forever.

Yet no one can say for certain whether all of John Huck’s caverns have been destroyed.  Perhaps some of them remain.  Perhaps a visionary promoter will locate them, and transform them into a tourist attraction.

Underground Chicago, anyone?

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