Skokie Historical Society


BEFORE THE WHITE MAN CAME
by Bertha Rosche

A hundred years ago forests stretched from the north Branch of the Chicago River nearly to Crawford Avenue. East of Crawford lay that level open treeless prairie extending to ridge Avenue, which nearly received the name of East Prairie. From the Northwestern and North Shore tracks where they cross Oakton, on the east to the Canal was a slightly wooded swamp. There are persons still living in Skokie who remember it and recall that it afforded good duck hunting. In the spring it was so filled with water that rowboats could be used there, and when the water was unusually high they could be rowed even to where the canal now meets the North Branch near Kedzie and Foster. In years of extreme high water the lake sturgeon sometimes came up the Chicago River and the North Branch into the East Prairie swamp.

The Potowatomie Indians had claimed the land from the southern end of the lake to approximately the Illinois-Wisconsin line and back to the west fifty to seventy miles. Indian boundaries were indefinite. This land was gradually acquired by the white men by forced treaties. The present Skokie was part of the region ceded by the treaty of 1821. The previous treaty, 1816, had established as it's northern limit the old Indian Boundary, which beginning at the lake at the point which not divided Evanston from Chicago, runs along Rogers Avenue and Forest Preserved Avenue to the Des Plaines River. The treaty of 1821, taking the old boundary as a starting point, included all the land north to the present Kenilworth and west of the Des Plaines River.

THE WHITE MEN COME

The first settler within the limits of what is now Niles Township was Joseph Curtis. He came here from England and built a log house near the river in Morton Grove. That was about 1831, two years after the Treaty. In 1832 or 1833 John Dewes, also from England, came and built just north of Mr. Curtis. But both these men returned to England after a few years.

Then came a Mr. Ruland by ship down Lake Michigan, meaning to settle in the new town of Chicago. It had at that time about a thousand inhabitants all down around the mouth of the river. But it being night the captain of the ship missed Chicago! He therefore, obligingly landed Mr. Ruland in the woods somewhere along the north shore. He came back inland to a spot about a mile west of where the Milwaukee road crosses Oakton Street and there made a dugout in a sandbank and partially roofed it with sod and bark.

In the 1840's settlers began coming to the open stretch of land which we know as East Prairie. There were the Rodgers, Hoffmans, Schwarz's, Rueschers and Finkes. In 1845 George Proessel came and Wolfgang Harrer with his sons Michael and Henry came from Bavaria. Their descendents still live in the township and are prominent in community affairs.

The very first white man to live in our part of the township was an Irish bachelor by the name of O'Brien. He built a little log cabin where a large brick home of Mrs. Clara Blameuser now stands, across the street from the Public Library.

Apparently he did not live here long, for we know no more about him.

The first man to come and building permanently in Skokie was Henry Harms, who came from Mechlenburg, Schwerin, Germany, to Chicago in 1851, and in 1854 bought farm land here and built a frame house very nearly on the site of the present Municipal building. In later years he had a hotel and hardware store where Urbanus now has his filling station.

During the 1840's the political unrest in central Europe precipitated the mid-century migrations to America, and brought to this area our earliest permanent settlers, among them the Ahrens, Klehms, Blameusers, the Paroubeks, Langfelds, Busschers, Hoffmans, Galitz's, Harms and John Brown who became one of the first mayors when the village was incorporated. By 1850 the population warranted the incorporation of a township and it was formed that year.

The level land, the fertile new soil, and the proximity of growing Chicago with it's increasing demand for food supplies made market gardening the natural occupation here, and the trail running southeast across the prairie direct to the city soon grew into a muddy rutted road which was later planked and after 1865 was named Lincoln Avenue. As there was little money in the township treasury to pay for lumber and labor, tollgates were established with a charge of five or ten cents per vehicle. One such gate was in the bend where Lincoln School now stands. It consists simply of a log with one end balanced on a post, and the children of that day delighted in swinging it open and shut to help the toolkeepers.

Another story of Lincoln Avenue shows the simplicity and cooperation in town affairs in early days. In 1895 the old road had become nearly impassable. To save the small funds in the treasury George H. Klehm, the newly elected clerk, stood out on the road an entire week asking every driver to haul one load of gravel to fill in. One hundred sixty-nine loads were hauled and the road was repaired at no cost to the town.

The first public school within the present bounds of Skokie was where the old Fairview School recently stood, on Carpenter Road at Howard Street. It was one story high and of brick with a later second-story frame addition. It was also the place of the first church services held in our village. Lincoln School was originally on Niles Center Road a half block south of Main Street. Its use was discontinued when the present Lincoln School was built in 1928, but stood until 1939. St. Peter's Catholic School was built in 1873. Its first teacher was Henry Kolf who remained two years, after which it was put under the management of the Sisters of St. Dominic.

St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran church was organized May 5th, 1867, with about forty or fifty families who had been meeting in the schoolhouse to worship. They bought a half acre of land from Peter Blameuser and built a church and school room with space for the pastor's living quarters in the basement. The next church was St. Peter's Catholic. It was established the next year, 1868, with thirty-five members. They built a frame building on two acres donated by Peter Blameuser.

When the membership outgrew it they erected the large brick church which stands at the fork of Lincoln Avenue and Niles Center Road. The third of the old churches was St. Paul's Lutheran, formed by a withdrawal of members from St. Peter's Evangelical. They built the structure on Carpenter Road. They also had quite a thriving school conducted in German.

Among the early business places started here was the old Niles Center Public Market. It was an outdoor sales area on old Market Street, now called Warren Avenue. There the farmers brought their vegetables and livestock. Horses from Chicago which could no longer stand traveling on the hard paved streets of the city were often sold here quite cheap and were a good purchase for the farmers because of the soft soil of the farms and truck gardens they could still put in many useful years. Among the other early enterprises were the blacksmith shop established in its present location about 1886 by Herman Gerhardt who came here from Pomerania. The Stielow greenhouses on Terminal north of Main was established in 1874.

Fires were fought by bucket brigades until May of 1881 when the fire department was organized. Many of the names on the first list of volunteers are those of families still living here: Blameuser, Klehm, Siegel, Harrer, Paroubek, Hachmeister, Kirscht. Chris Blameuser took the new engine to the first fire. In 1887, the engine house was built, the old fire station on Floral North of Oakton.

NILES CENTER

The village was incorporated in 1888 and received its name as appropriate to its location in the center of Niles Township. The first president was Adam Harrer and the next was John Brown. Sons of early settlers made up most of the names on the roster of first officials. The fire engine house served as meeting place for the council.

We shall skip over the two decades of slow but continuous development which followed, to the fire of 1910. On a small scale it resembled the great Chicago Fire of 1871. That fall also had been very dry so that roofs were like tinder and ready to take the smallest spark. It also happened in October and began in a barn back of a saloon in the village. They day was windy and it spread by leaps and bounds. It began about noon and was not conquered until late the next day. Not only the fire department but everybody had to take a hand. Men were on all the housetops with water buckets and mops and brooms sopping down the shingles. At this time Niles Center did not have a water system, so water had to be carried from wells. Morton Grove and Niles sent their firemen, followed by Evanston and Chicago with an engine and company apiece. Hose was laid to Peter Blameuser's lagoon near Oakton and Niles Avenue. It was said that that little pond saved the town.

The fire verified the old adage that it's an ill wind that blows no good, for out of it grew the decision to have a water system. A deal was shortly made with Chicago to secure a pipeline here. This in turn necessitated a sewage system. The sewers were laid to the Drainage Canal which had been put through a few years earlier.

Between 1910 and 1916 gas and electricity were brought to the village and a street lighting system installed. Lincoln Avenue and the other most important streets were paved. Niles Center got the first mile of concrete road outside Chicago, and the bridge over the canal at Oakton was built and the Northwestern Railway extended its line here providing the first public transportation to the city. Other landmarks of the steady progress of the village were the establishment of the State Bank (now First National) in 1907, the Skokie Press, first printed in 1922 and the News in 1925. The Municipal Building was built in 1927. The Public Library, a project of the Cosmos Club, now Civic Woman's Club of Skokie, was opened in February 1930 with 1,000 books. (As this is written the number is well over 17,000).

Now we come to 1938 which marks the end of the first fifty years of the village of Niles Center, a little more than a century since the first white man arrive in 1831. That same year the high school was built and was opened in February 1939. Then the pupils of Fairview were moved to Lincoln School and the old building closed after a half century of service.

SKOKIE

Thus the village began taking on the aspects of a modern suburb. It was still quite rural with wide-open prairies giving sometimes a mile vista. At the same time it had the advantage of being only an hours distance from the Loop. Migration from the city increased steadily real estate men began complaining that occasional prospective purchasers objected to the rustic sounding name of Niles Center. Tessville's change of name to Lincolnwood proved their point by the sudden rise in sales. Descendents of the old families naturally clung to the familiar name, and feeling ran high on the subject. Eventually the village council selected the name "Skokie" and sent it to Springfield for confirmation. It was appropriate as being the old Indian designation for this whole region. It means Great Swamp.

This brings our chronicle down to recent developments. We have the largest area under village government in the United States. It has the most rapidly growing population in Chicagoland, in fact in the state. Having less than 5,000 population in 1930 it had increased by 1940 to 7172, and by 1950 to 14,821; probably now over 17,000. Already the schools that seemed so roomy ten years ago are over-crowded and all are building or planning additions. As this goes to press Fairview district opens its new building near the old site.

Quite a far cry from the days of planked Lincoln Avenue and fishing for sturgeon up Oakton Street! As the metropolitan area inevitably and relentlessly creeps out and engulfs us, we can sympathize with the old timers who turn nostalgic thoughts back to the quiet rural village of their youth.

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Skokie Historical Society