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Local History:    Charles N. Field's Memories

WESTCHESTER – The Early Years

In 1832 Aaron Parsell, the first white settler, built a cabin in Section 29, the area that later became Westchester. The prairie soil was very rich and the farming excellent. German farmers were attracted to the area. In 1858 they established the historic Immanuel Lutheran Church at what is now Wolf and Cermak roads. The names of some of these farmers remain as exceptions to our otherwise all English street, namely Heidorn, Evers, Boeger, Mandel, and Haase. The area near the church became an active social center when a stage coach inn was built on the northwest corner. To control this possible "den of infamy" the Lutheran Church persuaded the Village of Hillside to extend its boundary south on both sides of Wolf Road to include the church and the tavern. This stage coach stop became very popular for travelers enroute from Chicago to Batavia, Geneva and other settlements on the Fox River. This stage coach in later became the first Lilac Lodge.

Now we move forward about 90 years to 1924 when a number of fast talking promoters approached the farmers offering them $700 to $800 an acre from land that was only valued at $200 to $300 per acre. Thus was created the Great Proviso Mystery! The promoters kept the real purpose an iron clad secret until they had acquired about 2200 acres, which is about the size of Oak Park.  Rumors were rampart: Was the land being bought for factories, steel plants, locomotive shops or other manufacturing?  To top it all there was a rumor that Standard Oil had found oil and were buying up the area around their finds. Up to that time Chicago suburbs had developed near railway stations with nearby stores.

The Great Proviso Mystery was uncovered when surveyors arrived to layout streets, water mains, sewers and also the spur line from the Aurora & Elgin RR in Bellwood to 22nd Street and Mannheim with a right of way dedicated west to Wolf Road. Stations were built at Harrison, Roosevelt, Canterbury and 22nd Street. The yards were located at what is now Gladstone Park.1      (Photo of the trolley at the Canterbury station from the Collection of Gordon E. Lloyd)

 The round trip fare to the Loop was 25 cents with service every thirty minutes during rush hours. A one car "toonerville trolley" from 22nd Street met the trains at Roosevelt for the trip to the Loop. My photos of the Westchester "L" stops were artistically reproduced and now hand on the wall behind the tellers at the First Federal Savings and Loan.

One of the principal financial backers of the Westchester project was Samuel Insull, an electric utility and rapid transit corporate officer. Insull was born in England and was responsible for the decision to give English names to the Village and its streets. The financial backers hired urban planners, architects and contractors to build Westchester.  The select two principal real estate developers, George F. Nixon & Son and the William Zelosky company to sell the lots and to build homes for those that did not have their own building contractor.   Westchester’s zoning specifications and building requirements surpassed many of the older suburbs.  These two firms had many promotion schemes to entice potential buyers to Westchester.  One plan was to organize "week-end excursion" to the Village. They absorbed the "L" fare, and served lunch prior to a general promotional talk which was followed by the "pitch" to couples by each salesman.  Also the Loop Sears store provided a large area near their furniture department where layouts of Westchester and it advantages could be promoted. Typical floor plans and actual furnished rooms were displayed. In the 1920’s developers would only build for bonified lot buyers and so they concentrated on selling lots. High powered promotion resulted in the sale of many lots but only scattered homes were built in the Village by the 1929 Crash.2

Prior to this construction workers laid the water mains, the double sewer system, paved streets and walks, erected ornamental street lights, planted parkway trees and laid the tracks for the rapid transit to Chicago.

The superintendent chosen to build Westchester was Grant N. Britten who rented the former Pflugh farm house on Mannheim just north of the I. C. tracks3. Construction barracks for "singles" and small huts for families were built near Harrison and Mannheim. Ruben Nelson rented the converted old Lutheran schoolhouse (today’s Franzosenbusch Prairie House) for his wife Stella and their daughters.  Ruben was the Office Manager & Time Keeper for the Westchester project.  Stella often told the story, with a twinkle in her eyes, how a bootlegger offered to give her a new fur coat if she would let him store booze in her barn.  The Nelson’s rented this old school house for about four years until they were able to move to a new two flat building at 1423 Newcastle Avenue.

As there were insufficient bonified permanent residents many of the 175 construction workers "swore" they were residents so they could vote in Britten’s red barn on October 30, 1925 to Incorporate the Village of Westchester. The Lord must have accepted their oaths as later one of the construction sheds became the "shell" of the original sanctuary of the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church which was the first church established in the new Village.  At the first election on December 12, 1925 the 35 votes cast elected Otto J. Tatterow as the first president of the Village. The original Westchester Trustees include Grant N. Britten who became the second village president and at the same time he served as the first president of School Board 92½. Another of the original Westchester Trustees was Wesley Panttila who later became the second Police Chief and served many years in that capacity. Ruben Nelson worked many years in the village office and later was named Village Manager and then elected Village President.

School district 92½ was created on December 4, 1928 from District 88 in Bellwood, District 93 in Hillside and District 92 in Broadview.  Before the creation of District 92½ students either went to the Immanuel Lutheran school or to a one room public school on 22nd Street in North Riverside near the Belt RR.3  The first election of a three member Board of School Directors was held on June 5, 1929.4  In August 1929 new residences were made available for classes at 1623 Newcastle (across the street from Divine Infant Parish) and in the 700 block of Newcastle.  There was one teacher and about sixteen students of all ages in each of these two homes.  A two room Grant N. Britten School opened in September 1930 followed by the George F. Nixon School in January 1931. For a year before these schools were opened the school board paid cab transportation for some students assigned to Bellwood and Broadview schools. The three member school board continued until the Spring of 1948 when the increased Village population permitted the election of a seven member Board of Education.

Bill Gardaphe became the first Westchester-born child on January 9, 1929 to the Charles Gardaphe family of 738 Newcastle Avenue.

From almost the beginning  Westchester has had a reputation for heated village elections.  An early election made the front page headline of the Chicago Tribune.  It read "RILEY WINS IN WESTCHESTER".  This apparent prediction appeared the morning the polls opened.  The Tribune could make this forecast as Bill Riley opposed his brother Ralph Riley for President. Bill and Ralph lived in the same two-flat but personal differences resulted in them only communicating through their wives.  Another year a candidate for President hid in the trunk of a car to overhear a possible payoff by a scavenger to the sitting Village President.  Other campaigns voiced accusations about new developers, the possible overlooking of building violations, etc.  Westchester’s heated elections increased when the unique three party contests replaced the two party system.  The Village is unique in this respect as neighboring communities operated on a two party system.

Campaign handbill for Grant N. Britten, April 18, 1931.

Early in 1935 Oak Park friends suggested we all drive out to Westchester as they had heard there were homes with reasonable rents. Jo and I had never been in the Village and really did not know where it was located. Possibly that was because we could drive and did not have to learn by taking advantage of Westchester’s paved streets and no traffic. Westchester was known as the "learner’s heaven".

After viewing several homes on Hawthorne Avenue we decided to rent a five room English Bungalow with an unfinished second floor for $40 per month including a stove and refrigerator.  After moving in during May 1935 we learned that we had helped break a renter’s strike against a raise in rent from $37.50 to $40.00.  Needless to say the strike failed when the bond holders’ realtor opened an office in the Village.

1For more information on Westchester Branch line, read the Westchester's Rapid Transit Line.
2For more information on the extensive planning and preparation, read the Westchester Tribune Sep 28 1926 front page.
3The line was known as the Belt RR (the Indiana Harbor Belt Line) before it became part of the Illinois Central Rail Road.
4Mr. Reiche (the owner of the store used as the first Village Hall) was a member of the first school board.

For more on Westchester's history please read:

The above material is primarily a composite of several articles written by Charles N. Field.

Last Modified:  09/17/2003