Paving the Way to “Progress”: Olson Park Then and Now

“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

Olson Park attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors per year

Tuesday, falling in the middle of the work week, is the busiest day of the week at the site of the former Olson Park

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.

And here’s a slide show of the park in its heyday: http://www.flickr.com//photos/34525991@N03/show/with/3251677208/

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