Following is a guest post by Mark Piekarz, a musician who has lived in Avondale for the past several years.
The experiences of immigrants in America through time, despite differences in origin, generations, and regions of the country, have core similarities which are often discussed: feelings of being stuck between identities (and thus belonging nowhere), resistance from older strata of immigrants, economic hardship, and social difficulties.
Among those entering the country of Polish extraction was one Antoni Jax, arriving in 1889 at around age 40, and settling near the Chicago’s Polish Triangle at the intersection of Division, Ashland, and Milwaukee.
It would be wrong to say that Jax came from Poland, since the country did not exist then; it had been cleared off the map of Europe almost a century prior to his emigration, and would continue to be missing for almost three more decades. To be specific, he came from modern-day Gniezno, which at that time was located in the Kingdom of Prussia, one of the states that carved territory from the Poland of old.
After his arrival, details of his personal life are scarce, due to an apparent disregard for fame or any other notoriety. We know that he was an organist at St. John Cantius near Milwaukee and Chicago, and St. Hedwig in Bucktown. He lived for a period at 1954 North Damen Ave (which was called Robey Street at that time). We also know that his last known address was listed in the 1920 Census as 2921 North Allen Avenue in Avondale, between Milwaukee and Kimball.
His body of work survives as a large number of musical stage plays. Written in the Polish language, they tackle a breadth of subject matter that was unheard of in Polish immigrant circles. While about a third of his plays were set in Poland in historical settings, the rest were either set in the U.S., or were set in then-contemporary Poland on themes of emigration.
One of the reasons why Jax’s output is so notable is that the vast majority of Polish-language theater works written in the U.S. pointed back to Poland: describing heroic history, national disasters and aspirations. For a fair number of Polish immigrants, the journey to the U.S. was not necessarily thought of as permanent; members of this mostly educated and more influential class might’ve had the resources to return someday, and often didn’t come to the U.S. for purely economic reasons in the first place. While keeping knowledge about Poland’s past alive, these works almost entirely neglected the reality for most immigrants. For people whose aim was entirely in making life here permanent, and in practicing self-segregation into supportive communities, there were few practical opportunities for adults to learn about American history.
Based on the titles of his musical stage plays, it seems that Jax made a concerted effort to provide insight into then-current events in America and Polish-America. Following is a list of some English-language translations of his titles involving American themes.
Set in America:
The Adventures and Troubles of the Photographer
The Alderman’s Daughters, and the Candidates For Their Hands
The Chicago Street Urchin (alcoholism)
The Editor Is Waiting
Freedom and Slavery (about the U.S. Civil War)
From Pennsylvania To California
If You Want To Live Happily, You Should Be a Scout
Like Father, Like Son: The Polish “Uncle Sam”
The Mayor’s Son
The Professor’s Wig
The Rich Playboy in America
The Two Rascals In America
Set in Poland, on theme of immigration:
The Aunt From America
The Cousin From America
From the little that’s been written about Antoni Jax, tickets for his productions always sold extremely well. And it follows that the librettos for his stage plays were printed in large enough numbers to leave a lasting trace. But if we move forward in years from the last of these productions until his death in 1926 – about ten years – his death registered barely a mention. Only one of the Polish-language dailies active at the time gives notice – and that, a basic ”time and place” treatment.
Why not more?
If Jax had shortcomings – and it has been suggested that his writing was rough compared to the learned (true!) traditions of Polish drama – has there ever been a substantial canon of fine theater produced by any foreign-language communities in the U.S.?
One of his contemporaries, Szczęsny Zahajkiewicz (1861-1917), came to the U.S. in the same year, but eventually received a hero’s farewell at his passing. Although he had been published already before coming to the U.S., this really doesn’t explain the wide discrepancy between these writers’ acceptance in part of what I’ll call the “Polish Writers’ Elite” in Chicago Polonia.
For someone who took to heart specific issues which meant a great deal to immigrants, I don’t think there is an answer yet to why Antoni Jax hasn’t found appreciation.
Some 949 days ago, I took the afternoon off work to meet Daniel Pogorzelski and Jacob Kaplan at a senior center to see their presentation on the Avondale neighborhood. That day we discussed writing a book (along with Elisa Addlesperger), which was officially released on July 21, 2014.
So that’s my excuse for not keeping this blog up to date.
Here’s a schedule of our book signing events, where you can pick up a copy of the book and get it signed by the authors.
July 27 @ 6 PM
2918 N. Central Park, Chicago
August 23 @ 3 PM
2579 N. Milwaukee, Chicago
September 2 @ 9 PM
2319 W. Belmont, Chicago
September 6 @ 6 PM
4018 N. Cicero, Chicago
November 18 @ 6 PM
3454 W. Addison, Chicago
Harold Washington Library
400 S State St., Chicago
If you’re not in Chicago, you can pick up a copy online at Arcadia Publishing. I hope you enjoy reading about Avondale’s history as much as we did uncovering it!
Following is a guest post by Ray Gehring, who grew up in the Avondale area in the ’50s and ’60s. This is a revision of an article previously published on April 15. 2013.
This photo of the Dad’s Root Beer plant along the Avondale stretch of the Chicago & Northwestern railroad tracks is an iconic image from our childhood. The sign on the left was one of two large neon signs that shouted “home!” to us whenever we returned from vacation, or just a weekend out of town. The other sign was even bigger, a giant “rolling” neon Budweiser sign located a half mile farther down the tracks. Both logos are gone now, but in their day they lit the Chicago night sky.
Visible to all who drove the Kennedy Expressway at night – one a factory, the other a warehouse – these big, bold, authoritative logos represented our narrow world to the wider one. Seeing them at a distance was both thrilling and reassuring, as it meant that the world we knew was still there. That tomorrow, as our parents went off to factories not unlike the one displayed above, we’d be hanging out with our friends, playing endless games of Pinners, Fast-Pitch, Cork-Ball, Line-Ball and Murder Dodge at the schoolyard. Or looking for turtles down by the dirty banks of the Chicago River. Or hunting snakes up on the railroad tracks. Maybe climbing up onto the freight cars lined forty-deep in the heart of the freight yard between Kedzie & Kimball. Or just hanging out on some corner, laughing and joking, living for today. Whatever we’d be doing, seeing the Dad’s and Budweiser signs gradually come into view meant that we were home, back in the best city and the best neighborhood a kid could ask for.
The Avondale tracks played such a major role in our lives. As in any neighborhood with a freight yard running through it, there were concealed slits cut into the fencing at key junctures along the fence route. But we were kids, rather than walk to a hidden opening we simply scaled the 8 foot fence, barbed wire and all. The small fence that you see in the photo above is not the type of fence that I’m referring to. The fences that we scaled were high and topped with barbed wire. The fence in the photo is low and has no barbed wire because it’s running along (what is today) The Kennedy Expressway, where pedestrians aren’t allowed.
One place where we went over the fence was in the alley that ran between Albany Avenue & Troy Street, just north of Roscoe. Another good spot was the old coal-yard fence at Cornelia & Sacramento. Both access points are gone now, gentrification having turned coal yards and railroad trestles into condos, strip malls and office complexes. And while it’s fashionable to suggest that on nights when you have only the alley cats and the stately Elston Avenue moon as your guides you might still catch a glimpse of the old places, what’s fashionable ain’t what’s true. There are no ghosts out of times long gone in Avondale, no vestiges of decades past; redevelopment leaves nothing in its wake.
Once up on the Avondale tracks you could walk southeast all the way to downtown, or northwest all the way to Wisconsin. If you went southeast the neighborhoods quickly got worse; soon you were in the type of white ethnic inner-city slum that mid-century novelists and sociologists carved out careers from.
Today we chose northwest, not for reasons of safety, for reasons of snakes. We were hunting snakes today and there were more and bigger snakes northwest of us.
Along the way we took a few minutes at the old iron Elston Avenue bridge to check out the downtown skyline. Chicago’s downtown was ever-changing, always growing taller and more dense. At the Kedzie trestle we stomped our feet as hard as possible, working up a solid vibration that – mixed with the rumblings from the big American cars racing past down below – made the bridge vibrate. Past Kedzie now, for a brief moment factories & warehouses on both sides, but soon the walls fell away and the whole world opened up.
We had entered the Avondale Freight Yard, a massive expanse of city railroad easement filled with trains from all across the country. You could hang in the yard for hours, branching out and exploring wherever the tracks took you. Oftentimes, especially in summer, that’s exactly what we did. We played in the freight yard after breakfast until lunch, after lunch until the bells of St. Veronica told us it was dinner time.
Inside the yard were trains from everywhere. Many were “staged” for a period of time, a night or two, perhaps a week. As kids we’d heard rumors about what was on these trains. All sorts of stuff, it was said. Food, clothes, toys, pinball machines, furniture, building materials, auto parts, sports equipment, even musical instruments. But of paramount importance: liquid refreshment from The Anheuser-Busch Company, of St. Louis, Missouri. During the teen years, when we were greasers – juvenile delinquents in baggy grey work pants, black Army-issue combat boots and black or grey Cabretta leather jackets – we confirmed these rumors many times over. And if what Mark Twain said about stolen watermelon was true, well, it goes double for beer. But for now we were just kids, aged 9-12, and the tracks were still our special place for cutting school, catching snakes, smoking cigarettes, paging through stolen Playboy magazines, playing poker, crossing paths with hobos & Boxcar Willies, and watching teenage rumbles from afar.
We continued northwest through the freight yard, crossed the Kimball Avenue Bridge and walked down into a small swatch of Illinois prairie behind the Arvey paper factory. This little patch of littered ancestral grass and the occasional shade tree was filled with very large, very mean garter snakes.
There were garter snakes all along these tracks of course, and inside the freight yard too, but the ones behind the paper factory, with its dyes, glues and chemicals were true Midwestern monsters. They lived under leaking barrels of toxic waste and feasted on deformed baby rodents. In wintertime, any waste that had seeped into the ground close to the barrels would freeze into a yellow-green sludge. Sometimes, like a toxic caulking agent, the sludge would freeze over a snake hole, forming a nice yellow-green cap over the hole. Come Spring, we’d break the sludge into chunks with our pocket knives, often finding a sleepy snake still hibernating underneath. These beasts were huge: 3 feet long, fat and aggressive, with wide snapping mouths that held multiple rows of small but very sharp teeth. Inverted teeth, made that way by Mother Nature in order to “hang onto” their prey. The snakes that we caught behind the paper factory were exactly like the one in this video.
We’d catch them with bare hands, laughing at the bites. But when a big one bit you a price was paid. It started as a mild sting & bleed, lasting only a few hours. But soon the real torture: THE ITCH. A full week of non-stop, bacteria-infected snake-itch that no amount of Bactine or rubbing alcohol could alleviate; you had to beat it mentally.
The first time I heard about gangs was on these tracks. We were west of Kimball, in the prairie behind the Arvey paper plant, in the land where the big snakes roamed. It was just me and Larry O., hot on the trail of a large Midwestern garter that was heading for cover in the deep brush when four older kids emerged, Vietcong style, from an underground fort. Before we could turn and run they were on us.
Ugh… Frankie and his psycho pals. I knew Frankie, did not care to know his goons. They’d taken advantage of a natural gully to dig an underground fort and into a hill that sloped up towards the tracks. They’d covered their work with plywood and branches, making it indistinguishable from the natural brush. Frankie & Co. ushered us down into their lair of evil intent and we had us, as they say in New Jersey, a sit-down.
Their bastion was crowded and smelled of fresh earth. The side walls were fortified with large slabs of cardboard and the floor was also of cardboard. “Nice!” I thought, but kept the compliment to myself. They had flashlights for card and dice games and Pepsi bottles – some full, some empty – lined one wall. I knew stolen pop when I saw it, and I wanted one badly, my mouth dry as dust.
Frankie’s droogs helped us empty our pockets, so nice they were! Before leaving home I’d swiped two Kool Filter Kings from my folks, wrapped them in folded notebook paper and Scotch tape, carried in the back pocket so they’d bend but not break. Larry, who didn’t smoke, had brought me one of his old man’s Pall Malls.
Frankie wasn’t his real name. His real name doesn’t matter. What matters is that he was a legend in our neighborhood. Two years older and kicked out of every school in his own community, Frankie’s family found amnesty in ours. But so did his assortment of older brothers and all of their psycho pals from the old neighborhood. Seemed like every time you walked past Frankie’s house there was a gaggle of goons hanging out front. Some were family, others had walked up from the old neighborhood, where life was lived a lot closer to the bone. Me and Larry O. liked to think of ourselves as worldly and maybe a little tough. But compared to these guys we were Pillsbury Doughboys.
The droogs rifled through our stuff while Frankie dryly explained their need for money and smokes. “We’re fresh out. Had to give to my brother. You guys gonna bail us out, here?” Of course we agreed to help. After all, he was hurting and it was the right thing to do.
We didn’t have much money, a few pennies to place on the tracks when a train flew past. So they took our combs and cigarettes along with what little change we had. The money we expected to lose, and the comb tax was what it was, but the cigarette action was totally unacceptable. When I protested Frankie threw me a reptilian “whatta-YOU-gonna-do-about-it,” sneer. But then, just a few seconds later, he grew suddenly cooperative, almost gracious, agreeing to return one smoke each. It was as if he were rationing, looking to hurt but not injure. Frankie didn’t want to scare us off the tracks forever. He wanted to have a little good will stored up, so that the next time they jumped us we’d know it was just the inevitable cost of freedom. Larry later gave his smoke to me, so I had me a sweet two smoke afternoon.
But now Frankie put it to us, “Hey! Whadda youz two doin’ here anyway? Whaddaya, stoopid? Youz guys gotta get outta here now, Simon City is coming.”
“Simon City?” we repeated, having no idea what that meant.
“Yeah, they’re coming up from Nort’ Av’noo to rumble the Bellaires.”
“Koz Park is comin’ too Frankie,” one of the droogs added.
Koz stood for Kościuszko, a park named after the Polish general and located one mile southwest of the dirt hole we were sitting in. I knew Koz Park well. My oldest brother played for a softball team there and I often rode my bike to his games. I could clearly picture a group of a dozen or more young men marching across the softball diamonds and onto Diversey. They’d be marching east and would cross Diversey heading north at Lawndale. They’d then cut northeast through the big St. Hyacinth parking lot. Staying east on Wolfram they’d now head north onto Central Park. Cross Milwaukee Avenue and take a northeast dogleg through the Elbridge Avenue Fire Station parking lot. Now north up the alley to Belmont, cross Belmont at Drake and head straight east down Melrose. A quick left at Kimball and they’re here. Walking fast, boppin’ to the beat of the street, pounding fists into palms and occasionally breaking into a trot, they could cover the mile in ten minutes. I realized that we had a very good chance of seeing this rumble.
My thoughts were interrupted by Frankie’s concern for our safety “Yeah, Nort’ Av’noo and Koz Park are both comin’ and you guys are goin’. Ya got five minutes to scram. If those guys find you here they’ll stomp your faces into the ground,” Frankie let us know.
Well, I did not want my face stomped, into the ground or anywhere else. And I’m pretty sure that Larry O. didn’t want his face stomped either. But we did want to see Simon City. Simon City, what a name! Hollywood could not invent a name like that, it was far too cool. We wanted a glimpse of these bad-mofos. Hell, we’d have settled for a glimpse of the Bellaires, whoever they were.
Larry and I were released and told to go home. Of course, we didn’t. We hung around, just far enough out of sight to be forgotten. Hung around and around and around. Fifteen, twenty, thirty five minutes. Finally, we had to admit, there was nothing worth hanging around for.
We started back east towards our neighborhood, crossed Kimball at street level and climbed back up into the freight yard, with its hobos and trains full of beer. We walked slowly, aimlessly, with eyes trained steady on the south. We wanted a glimpse of these warriors from Koz Park and Nort’ Av’noo and we weren’t going down easy.
We came to a long line of cars and monkeyed our way to the top of a caboose, stood tall, peering south down Kimball all the way past Belmont to Barry. Nothing. No Simon City, no Bellaires. Just the hot sun’s rays, shimmering back up and into the atmosphere, like somebody had spread a fresh coat of shellac onto the streets below.
We sat on the roof of the car while I enjoyed the Pall Mall, saving the Kool Filter King for next. The sun was high and the roof was hot, but we were city kids and city kids never wore shorts; our legs did not burn. Finally after stubbing out the Kool on the roof of the car we came down.
There was now a new destination in mind. The hot sun had driven the snakes down in their dens until sunset, we had no coins to flatten under the barreling wheels of a passing train, seemed like the smartest thing to do was pick up our pace and get to where we could soak our heads under a hose, then see who was out at the schoolyard. I found a loose railroad spike in the weeds. They said that a Don Drysdale fastball clocked-in at one hundred miles per hour. I wound up slowly, deliberately, drew my arm back like a sling and delivered. CLANK! The spike made a satisfactory ring off the side of an empty car.
Ho hum. We never did see either gang that day. But over the years we saw plenty of action up on the Avondale tracks. Not gang fights, that was never our thing, other types of action. Most of it could and perhaps should have earned us stomped faces. Yet somehow, and I’m not really sure how, we always managed to emerge unscathed.
The Avondale tracks and their surrounding factories & warehouses were our wilderness, our playground, our clubhouse, our retreat from the world, our place to brag boldly and dream big. Today’s kids are kept indoors or shuffled from activity to activity by adoring parents. They’ll never know the freedoms that we knew. Nor will they know the feelings of optimism & security that comes from living in a country with factories and warehouses alongside its railroad tracks; a country that builds things.
Back then, within walking distance of these railroad tracks The Hammond Organ Company was pumping out the B3’s and C3’s, plus the L and M 100’s that gave geniuses like George Gershwin and Jimmy Smith (from Blue Note Records) their signature sounds. Indeed, every serious organist from Felix Cavaliere to Stevie Winwood used a Hammond. And if you were a drummer, both Ludwig and Slingerland were just two beats down the street from Hammond. Florsheim was stamping out shoes known for their quality, as was their competitor, Stacy Adams. Mars Candies was busy cooking up Snickers & Milky Way Bars, and Schwinn Bicycles were rolling off the assembly lines faster than Americans could ride them away…
Good jobs and two political parties in Washington that worked together for the common good. How’s that for a country? People who settled their differences civilly. Sure, you might get dragged down into a dank hideout that smells like a grave. And those who did the dragging might even recite a laundry list of all the bad things bound to happen, if you don’t bail ‘em out. They might rifle through your pockets. But they always left you with something. You walked away with a few smokes, a little hope. These Sharpies nowadays… they ain’t leavin’ you with nothin’. They want it all and they’re taking it. The only thing you’re gettin’ is the bill. The bill and that gnawing, worm-like, uniquely American sense of dread.
Today, the lone remnant from the old Dad’s Root Beer plant that once employed hundreds is the turret, which serves as historical centerpiece for a swanky new condo complex. I don’t know what became of the Anheuser Busch warehouse, or its massive, rolling neon Budweiser sign.
It’s important to learn the origins of the street names in your neighborhood. That way, if you’re trying to give someone directions to a place but can’t remember the name of the street, at least you might remember some tangential trivia that might help jog your memory.
“Where’s the laundromat?”
“It’s over on that street… I forget the name. Starts with a D.”
“No, no, not Division. It’s named after some brewer from the 1830s. Cat who took over that brewery down in the loop. The street’s got the same name as the brewery and the brewer.”
“Dogfish? Dragonmead? Those don’t sound right.”
“Naw, it was a German name.”
“Yeah, Diversey. Michael Diversey. Lill & Diversey Brewery. They say that was a huge building, four stories high with a three story tower. Over at the corner of Michigan and Chicago before it burned down from the Chicago fire.”
“So where’s this laundromat?”
“Laundromat? I thought we were talking about beer?”
Avondale Streets Named after Distant Places
You have probably speculated that many street names derive from places in America. For example, the adjacent north-south streets Albany and Troy are named after the respective cities along the Hudson in New York. Avondale and Roscoe derive from small towns in Pennsylvania, and Springfield is in fact named after the capital of Illinois. Likewise, California, Francisco, and Sacramento all relate to the state of California. A couple of streets are named after Indian villages- Milwaukee from the village at the current site of the now great city, and more esoterically, Washtenaw, which was an Indian settlement in Detroit. Other streets named after places include Monticello, after Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate, Richmond after Richmond Virginia, Newport after Newport Rhode Island, and Oakdale after a town on Long Island.
A handful of Avondale street names refer specifically to Chicago geography. In the 1850s and 1860s, Western was in fact the western boundary of Chicago. Lawndale was named after the Lawndale neighborhood, and School was named after the Nathaniel Hawthorne School at Clifton and School. Maplewood was an early village predating Logan Square and Avondale, known for an abundance of planted maple trees. Artesian borrows its name from a 1,200-foot deep Artesian well near Chicago and Western Avenues. Somewhat more cryptically, Central Park refers to the former name of Garfield Park, which is the east-west midpoint across the city along Madison.
Only three street names draw inspiration from places outside of the United States. These include Karlov, named after a resort city in Hungary; Christiana, after the former name of Oslo Norway; and Melrose, after the Melrose Abbey in Scotland.
Avondale Streets Named from Military History
A fair number of streets were named after historic figures of international significance, mostly for prominent roles in past wars. Barry Avenue takes its name from Commodore John Barry, known as the “father of the American Navy.” St. Louis either directly references the city or its namesake, King Louis XIV. Wellington is named after Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who famously defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. The twenty year legal battle resulting in the renaming of Crawford Avenue to Pulaski Avenue after American Revolution hero Casimir Pulaski is a long story worth its own blog post.
Three street names directly tie to the Civil War- Belmont Avenue named after the Battle of Belmont; Gresham, named after General (and subsequent U.S. Secretary of State) Walter Q. Gresham; and Kearsarge after the USS Kearsarge, which sank a confederate ship in 1864.
Avondale Streets Named after Prominent Chicagoans
By far the most common inspiration for street names in Chicago is the names of the real estate developers themselves. While most of these people today are mere footnotes in Chicago history, they certainly were influential in their time due to their wealth, land holdings, and sometimes political prowess. These include the following:
Frederick Henry Avers
James L. Campbell
Cornelia Dyer, the 7-year old granddaughter of mayor Walter S. Gurnee
Michael Diversey, a highly successful brewer
John Burroughs Drake, who daringly bought the Michigan Avenue Hotel at a drastically reduced rate during the great Chicago Fire of 1871
D.C. Eddy, a lawyer and banker
Fletcher brothers (Isaac, Japhet, Abraham)
John Hume Kedzie
John Jacob Ridgeway
John A. Rockwell
Jesse Spaulding, a lumber baron
Dr. Sidney Sawyer, one of the northwest side’s largest landowners
Thomas P. Talman
Dr. Robinson Tripp
Henry Whipple, who was also a Methodist Episcopal Minister
Avondale Streets Named from Various Origins
Addison Street was named after Dr. Thomas Addison, a British doctor who first described the disease known as Addisonian anemia. Mozart is, of course, a reference to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Some street names have less certain origins, and many of the listings above are based on strong historical evidence but not necessarily historical proof. Some of the more debatable street names include George Street (named after King George III, St. George the Dragon Slayer, or Sam George, the Chicagoan who famously killed a bear in downtown Chicago in 1834), Fairfield (named after landowner Asa Fairfield, or Colonel John Fairfield), Harding (landowner William Harding or Civil War captain and landowner Frederick Harding), Hamlin (landowner L.M. Hamlin or Hannibal Hamlin, vice president under Abraham Lincoln), and Henderson (real estate developer A.H. Henderson, merchant Charles Mather Henderson, or early settler Colonel Richard Henderson).
Avondale Streets Named after Early Avondale Settlers
While the names of most streets in Avondale reflect citywide, and not local history, a number of the neighborhood’s shorter streets, particularly around Milwaukee and Kimball, relate directly to local landowners. These landowners include:
John Brown Dawson, also a barber and Methodist minister
Elbridge Hancey, a wealthy lawyer
Frederic Haussen, also a prominent member of the Chicago Public School board and the Jefferson Township board of Trustees
Irene Gross was the granddaughter of major landowner Charles E. Gross, and the namesake of a rare street taking on someone’s first name
Tular J. Woodard
Most of this research comes from a single source, Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names by Don Hayner and Tom McNamee. But much remains to be learned about these Avondale-based landowners, who are remembered today by little else than their namesake street signs.
Later in the 1910s, larger theaters began cropping up in Avondale which would eventually replace the smaller nickleodeons. These included the Crescent (2915 N. Milwaukee), the Rose (2958 N. Milwaukee), the Milford (3311 N. Pulaski), and (in the 1930s) the Fox which was an expansion of the Elston nickleodeon at 3167 N. Elston. It is estimated that by the 1920s, more than half of America’s population attended movie screenings on at least a weekly basis, and all of the larger Avondale theaters survived into the late 1940s.
Nationwide box office revenues peaked in the early 1940s during the economic boom triggered by World War II and the use of cinema as a tool for nationalist propaganda. However, overall attendance began to decline in the late 1940s due to several factors including the suburbanization of America, international competition, and the ongoing legal battles between independent cinema operators and the theater chains. This trend was further exacerbated by the rise of the household television in the 1950s.
Mirroring these national trends, most of the remaining Avondale screens closed, with the Fox, the Rose, and the Crescent all closing their doors between 1949 and 1951. The Milford survived for several more decades, supported by the strength of the H & E Balaban circuit, adapting to Polish audiences in the 1960s, and functioning as a budget second-run theater in the late 1970s before finally closing its doors in 1990.
Crescent (also Nita) 2915 N. Milwaukee
The Crescent was built in 1910 as an 800-seat silent movie house and stage theatre, featuring a 2/6 Wurlitzer. Around 1935, it was renamed the Nita and continued to show films until around 1950. Although the building caught fire in 1952, it still stands today.
Milford 3311 N. Pulaski
In 1917, the Milford, named after the cross streets of Milwaukee and Crawford (now Pulaski), was the last movie theater to open in Avondale. Seating 1175, it was initially run on the Ascher Brothers circuit and featured silent movies, a theater organ, and an adjacent ballroom. While the Fox and the Dale closed around 1950, the Milford was picked up by the H & E Balaban circuit and survived for several more decades.
Adapting to changing neighborhood demographics and societal trends, the Milford featured Polish films in the 1960s and early 1970s. Then, during the emergence of the two-tier cinema market in the 1970s, the Milford outbid its competitors in the second run market (the Bryn Mawr and the Des Plaines) by offering admission for 60 cents (50 cents for kids) while surviving primarily on revenue from popcorn and candy sales. In the mid-1980s it tested the Spanish-language market before closing its doors for good in 1990. Just a few years later, the building caught on fire and was demolished in 1994. Today it is replaced by CVS.
The Rose (also Round-Up and Dale) 2858-2860 N. Milwaukee
The Rose opened in 1914 as a 700-seat theater. While enjoying a successful run for its first few decades, the Rose occasionally made the news in relation to petty robberies during the Great Depression. In 1931, the theater’s janitor found a 76 year-old woman beaten unconscious over a purse containing 28 cents. On Sunday, September 18, 1934, The Rosewas one of four theaters robbed by a group of teenagers known as the Sunday Gang.
In 1936, the theater was renamed The Dale (as in AvonDALE), and continued to endure. By 1949, when the theatre was operated by the H & E Balaban circuit, it was renamed the Round-Up and played exclusively Westerns. One www.cinematreasures.com commenter remembers the Round-Up in 1950:
“as a kid we would go there in cowboy attire and check our capguns at the desk where they would all be hung on a pegboard with a claim check.”
In 1950, the theater was renamed back to the Dale, but closed shortly after. The lobby was then used as a storefront, while the theater was adapted for storage. Last operating as Zacatecas Mexican restaurant, the building was demolished in 2009 in true Chicago style.
From 1890 to 1910, America was rapidly transforming into a predominantly urban industrial society, just as motion pictures were becoming established as the dominant form of mass entertainment in the country. Avondale experienced its greatest growth spurt around this time, while by the early 1910s, converted storefronts known as nickelodeons began showing short silent films often with phonograph or organ accompaniment. Due to the low cost of these films (the name nickelodeon literally comes from “nickel” as in 5 cents, plus “odeon” as the Greek word for theater), these screenings drew large crowds amongst immigrants and the working class. Unlike saloons, whose business greatly suffered due to this trend, women and children were also significantly in attendance.
Several such storefront theaters were known to exist in Avondale in the 1910s- the Diversey (3018 W. Diversey), the Enterprise (2829 N. Milwaukee), the Drake (2905 N. Milwaukee), the Linden (3018 W. Belmont), the May (3159 N. Elston) and the Elston (3167 N. Elston). These screens, likely mirroring national trends, were unsanitary and cramped with fold-out chairs, but the same audiences would return again and again to watch different films each week. By mid-decade, these small screens were already victims of their own success, as larger theaters were needed to accommodate the crowds. In Avondale these same storefronts which once operated as nickelodeons were adopted for other uses. Interestingly, all six of these buildings still stand today.
The Diversey (also Weber) 3018 W. Diversey
This theatre was initially named after the building’s owner, W.J. Weber, who opened it in 1912. Soon after it was renamed to Diversey, and was known to run films until at least 1915. By 1919 it was operating as an auto body shop.
The Drake 2905 N. Milwaukee
The Drake, a 300 seat theater once operating at 2905 N. Milwaukee, is not to be confused with the much larger Drake which existed at 3548 W. Montrose. It was known to operate as a nickelodeon from 1912-1919. Still standing today, the building has housed a variety of businesses and organizations over time, including a variety store, the Polish American Council’s service center and Chicago Salvage (pictured here).
The Elston (also The Fox) and The May 3167 N. Elston and 3159 N. Elston
The Elston initially opened in the 1910s as a small 300-seat theatre at 3167 N. Elston.
Just down the street from the Elston, the May (3159N. Elston) was known to be showing films from at least 1916 to 1917 before the building was occupied for decades by the Ravenswood Foundry.
By the 1930s, the Elston was renamed the Fox and later expandedto include the center building shown here, with space for 800 seats. The theater closed in 1949 but the building has been used for manufacturing and storage ever since.
The Enterprise 2829 N. Milwaukee
The Enterprise was a small nickelodeon built in 1912 and known to be operating until at least 1914. The building has had an eclectic history since then, being used as a hardware store, Paris Drapery, a Greek restaurant, and now a taqueria featuring live mariachi on Sunday nights.
The Linden 3018 W.Belmont
The Linden, not to be confused with the larger Linden on 63rd street, was a small silent movie house in the early 1910s. The name Linden likely derives from the historic name of the surrounding subdivision, named “Unter Den Linden” after a famous district in Berlin. The building currently houses one of over 400 locations of Honey Baked Ham, which has established a successful business model while baking one ham at a time and using a patented machine to cut ham in a continuous spiral.
It may be that the same types of people who once visited the Linden Theater now rent movies on Netflix to watch at home over the internet. Meanwhile, Honey Baked Ham has endured for a three-decade run at this location. Perhaps this is because no one has yet invented a way to transmit ham over the internet. And for that, at least, we should be thankful.
“Only a democracy could have thought that land could have been set aside, not for the rich and nobility, but for everybody for all time”
-Ken Burns, producer of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
The intersection of Diversey and Pulaski near Avondale’s southwest border today has the distinction of being fronted by parking lots on all four corners. The sprawling industrial complex on the northwest corner, while in good condition, has stood vacant since Macy’s warehouse departed several years back. But, for over four decades in the middle of the 20th century, the view from the top floors of the now vacant industrial complex formerly housing the Olson Rug Company might have appeared like a “giant rug which could give inspiration to artists and weavers,” according to a 1953 Chicago Daily Tribune article.
Walter E. Olson, who designed Olson Park with his wife Ida, was a bit of a weaver himself, driving across Wisconsin and Illinois to select types of rocks, birch trees, and stumps in order to assemble his vision. Olson, much like Teddy Roosevelt and Frederic Law Olmsted, believed that everyone deserved access to nature. Understanding that “most of his employees could not afford a summer home like his [40 acre estate in Eagle River, Wisconsin], he sought to “bring the outdoors to his workers.” The park, which initially covered 10 acres along Pulaski, ultimately stretched out over 22 acres surrounding the rug factory and featured a rock garden, picnic area, bird sanctuary, duck pond, spruces and pines, flowers, ravines and caves, paths of birch railings, bridges, and most notably- three waterfalls, one reaching 35 feet in height.
During the height of the Great Depression in 1935, sales were slow at Olson Rug. So, Olson put some 200 of his employees to work for over six months to recreate a slice of rural Wisconsin along industrial Pulaski, using debris from the 1871 Chicago fire amongst other materials. By the time they were done, Avondale had essentially another public park- operating independently from the park district, but eventually open free to the public from 8 AM to midnight. While this became the setting of tranquil lunch breaks for his staff, the park attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors per year.
The park officially opened on September 27, 1935, what was then American Indian Day in Illinois (fourth Saturday of September) as well as the 100th anniversary of a treaty resulted in the final expulsion of the Pottawatomies, Chippewas, and Ottawas across the Mississippi. The three waterfalls in the park represented each of these tribes, which all had members in attendance. The park itself was “figuratively” deeded back to the Indians.
Throughout the decades, regular events at the park included tribal songs and rituals by Chief Thundercloud of the Ottawas, archery demonstrations from atop the waterfall, a Green Corn Festival (in 1950) when the Great Spirit provided blessings for a bountiful harvest, a recreation (in 1958) of John T. McCutcheon’s famous Injun Summer painting using mannequins, and an extravagant Christmas display featuring lights, candy canes, reindeer, and Santa sledding along the length of a hanging wire. Though it may have seemed as much theme park as nature park, the fact remains that Olson Park was always free to the public.
Olson’s achievements proved time and again that giving back to the community is good business practice. While creating a tourist attraction in the area helped raise local property values, Olson proved newsworthy for numerous charitable acts. In 1933, he enabled his employees to become Good Fellows to a hundred needy families and matched their contributions dollar for dollar. During World War II, customers could send in old wool rugs, rags, and clothes which the rug company would turn into a carpet sold at half price. Well after the war, he launched an art scholarship, and even today his memorial foundation supports a public library in rural Wisconsin.
Olson Rug Company continued to succeed well beyond World War II, expanding its Avondale plant twice in the 1950s through employee investments. In 1962, however, the business was sold to Stephon-Leedom Carpet Company, and in 1965 the Pulaski plant was sold to Marshall Field. Marshall Field, as promised at the time of sale, initially continued to maintain the park. By the late 1970s, though, they presumably needed to replace a nearby parking lot surrendered to the city to make way for a firehouse. More than three decades later, I may be one of very few tourists to visit the parking lot formerly known as Olson Park, but memories of this park still endure today.
Though Avondale typically has been known as a working class neighborhood, the presence of Virgil M. Brand in the area a century ago marks a bold exception. Though Brand lived in a humble bachelor’s pad atop his (recently demolished) brewery on the west side of Elston Avenue in neighboring Logan Square, he turned a property on the east side of Elston in Avondale into an extravagant picnic grove- featuring a beer garden, bowling alley, hobby horses, dancing pavilion, shooting gallery, photo booths, merry-go-round, a ‘fruit column’ (likely a tribute to the famous fruit column of Stuttgart, Germany)1, and a restaurant tent. I haven’t the foggiest idea what a ‘Plattdeutsches Buern-Krog’ (shown in the northern map) might be, but his pockets were deep enough to build one that was almost 3,200 square feet!
Virgil Brand wasn’t entirely a self-made man- his father, Michael Brand, had been an original partner in the business that eventually became the Anheuser-Busch brewery. However, he worked as a bookkeeper at his father’s brewery, and by 1899, after his father’s death, he started a brewery of his own with two brothers and a cousin.
Interestingly, Brand’s enduring legacy seems more tied to his famous coin collection than anything else. At one time holding the title of President of the Chicago Numismatic Society and acquiring a collection reaching over 350,000 coins worth an estimated $2 million by the 1920s, he “entered each and every purchase in a journal, and his legacy included more than 50 volumes of original and photocopied data detailing the contents of his collection.” According to an article in the Numismatist, for Brand “to desire a coin was to own it if it could be purchased”- presumably thanks to his massive fortune as a beer baron.
The ultimate decline of Chicago brewing is typically attributed to Prohibition (1919-1933). However, Brand’s untimely death in 1926, reputedly resulting from food poisoning at a restaurant catering to the poor, may have accelerated the downfall of the Avondale paradise that once was the Brands picnic grove. In the 1920s (it’s unclear whether this began before or after Brand’s death), residents of Avondale petitioned the board of the new River Park District to purchase Brand’s site, and by 1927 it was formally acquired. Facilities at the time included basketball and tennis courts, a horseshoe pitching field, and an athletic field converted for ice skating in the winter. By 1934 the park was consolidated into the Chicago Park District.
Little evidence remains of Brand’s old picnic grove, and the original brick structure that served as a fieldhouse (presumably part of the old bowling alley) was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a new, larger fieldhouse which, like disco music, could only have been considered aesthetically pleasing during the 1970s. However, in the northeast corner of the park, three monstrous and ancient black poplar trees still stand, perhaps made strong by the beer-soaked grounds.
1 The fruit column originated at Cannstatter Volksfest, which celebrated a successful harvest in 1817 following years of drought caused by the massive eruption of the Tambora Volcano in Indonesia in 1815.
[Following is a guest post by fellow Avondalite Elisa Addlesperger]
Located adjacent to the C&N.W. railroad, the village of Avondale was established as early as 1869.(1) Even before the Chicago Fire, developers were counting on expansion beyond the city borders. A real estate advertisement for a property located near the intersection of Milwaukee and Diversey boasted a “10 minutes’ walk to depot, commutation fare 6 1/4 cents.”(2)
The name “Avondale” is pleasant and rather bland, almost like that of a modern suburb. When beginning my research, I presumed a developer was appealing to the then-fashionable craze for all things related to ancient Scotland. However, according to an unpublished guide on Chicago street name origins, both the street and area were named for the town of Avondale, Pennsylvania by developer John Lewis Cochran. (3) Cochran established several subdivisions on the north and northwest side of Chicago, often naming streets after towns in his native Pennsylvania. (4) On September 6, 1869, the worst U.S. mining accident to date occurred at the Avondale Colliery in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. A wooden coal breaker flue caught on fire, trapping and suffocating 110 mine workers. Obvious oversights (mostly for economy) by the owners, such as providing only one exit, and attaching furnace ventilation into the mine shaft, directly contributed to the disaster.(5) The tragedy was extensively covered in Chicago newspapers, and Mr. Cochran might have chosen the name to commemorate the memory of those lost.
2. Chicago Tribune 29 Mar 1872.
“For sale, MAPLEWOOD $259 BUYS a choice residence lot in Wisner’s Milwaukee-av. Addition. First payment $50 and $3 per week until paid. Title perfect. Abstract to each purchaser. This property fronts on Milwaukee and Diversey avs., near school. Logan Park, boulevard, artesian well; 10 minutes’ walk to depot, commutation fare 6 1/4 cents. We take you to see the lots free of charge. Office open evenings…WISNER BROS.”
3.Chicago History Museum. http://www.chsmedia.org/househistory/nameChanges/start.pdf “Avondale Ave., 2800W 2900NW to 6800. Named for the community of Avondale in the NW corner of the Logan District. Named by subdivider John Lewis Cochran after Avondale, PA. Chicago Ave., Holcomb Ave., Roberts Ave., Euclid Ave., Railroad Ave., (Libby St. at 4800N 5200W)-Avondale Ave., 3650W 3600 to”
By the 1920s, the iconic force of the movie house had become so powerful in the public mind that the brightly lit marquee, touting the latest movie playing in town, became a sure sign that a main street or neighborhood shopping area had “made it”
-Michael Putnam, in Silent Screens
Long before the advent of the household television and the dominance of major motion picture companies, the single screen independent movie house was as common in Avondale as in any other thriving neighborhood. At least ten movie houses, most of them offering a single screen, opened in the neighborhood in the 1910s.
While movie attendance began to decline after 1946 with the dominance of the household television, many other factors influenced the decline of independent cinema. The battle between major movie companies (Paramount, Fox, Warner Brothers, Loew’s) and trade associations of independent theatre operators played out over several decades. In 1948, independent cinema scored a major victory when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the notion that major companies held an illegal monopoly. However, the control of production and distribution and strength of advertising (largely through television) enabled the major forces in cinema to ultimately triumph. By the 1980s, the 1948 consent decrees were virtually abandoned.
Still, traces of small cinema remain in Avondale. Most of the buildings remain standing, though those that do have been completely gutted and repurposed. Following is a summary of known movie houses within the bounds of Avondale.
Dates in Operation
Honey Baked Ham Company
warehouse, mostly gutted and used for storage
North Chicago Dental Clinic
was Chicago Salvage
May have been demolished (Jazz Age Chicago); may be same building as Carniceria Mejor (Cinema Treasures)
Demolished a few years ago by Wilcox Company realtors