Big things have always happened in Wicker Park. Long before The Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair, back before Nelson Algren and Albert Parsons, a wandering mastodon lay down to die on the south side of what would some day become Wicker Park. One can imagine it lumbering down Division, stopping for a drink at Rainbo Club, maybe getting its picture taken in the photo booth, mugging for the camera, making it onto the calendar.
Its bones were exhumed in 1885 and given to the Chicago Academy of Sciences. That big elephant had no idea what it presaged.
According to Elaine A. Coorens in the book WickerPark from 1679 thru 1929, the land that would one day become the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago remained an unspoiled savannah of tall grass and intermittent trees for more than a millennium. Frequented by prairie chickens, geese, grouse, eagles, hawks and wild turkeys, it was a peaceful place interrupted now and then by feral violence. Bear, wolf and deer wandered amidst the blue stem and golden rod. Occasionally a member of the Sauk or Ottawa tribe would wander through in search of game. And then the white men arrived.
The Spark that Ignited the Boom
In 1803, the United States military established a fort at the mouth of the Chicago River. It lasted only nine years when marauding Indians attacked and killed many of the inhabitants. The fort was rebuilt in 1816 along with a non-military settlement that languished through the next decade with a tiny population never exceeding fifty.
And then in 1825, in faraway New York State, something extraordinary happened. The Erie Canal opened, connecting the Hudson River across 363 miles to Lake Erie. Ambitious easterners began to eye the portage of Chicago as a potential gateway to the Mississippi and imagined the construction of a similar canal there.
The population of Chicago grew to a paltry 150 between 1825 and 1833 as engineers arrived to assess the situation. And then with their endorsement of the canal project, the population exploded. From 1833 to 1843 the population shot up to 7,580. Seven years later it soared to 28,260. Chicago was on the map and a full fledged land boom was under way.
The Wicker Brothers
The land on which the Wicker Park neighborhood sits was bought and sold several times by speculators in the 1840’s and 50’s, much of it coming to rest in the hands of Charles and Joel Wicker. The Wickers were originally from Vermont and came to Chicago by way of New York in 1839. They were grocers.
By 1861, Charles got involved in politics and made his name advocating for the retention of downtown lakefront property for public use. He became an alderman. Records indicate that in 1867 he and others purchased a large, sparsely populated tract of land spreading out from either side of the old Milwaukee plank road. They subdivided it and laid out the streets. In the middle of it, a triangular portion was set aside for a park. It appears that neither Wicker ever actually owned the land for the park nor lived in the district that bears their name. Yet it’s a sure thing they prospered from it as increasing numbers of people poured into the burgeoning neighborhood.
Musical Instruments, Cigars and Beer
In the 1870’s and 1880’s the Wicker Park district became a magnet for newly arrived German immigrants. They came mainly from the southern part of Germany and were skilled tradesmen. Along with them came Norwegians, many of whom were upper-middle-class, and some of whom built the first mansions and elegant homes in the area. But the majority of Germans and Norwegians in Wicker Park were working class people who labored as carpenters, joiners, cabinet makers and painters, feeding the building boom that ensued after the Great Fire of 1871.
There was plenty of work to do. As early as 1857 the Rolling Mill steel works was manufacturing iron railroad tracks near the corner of North and Ashland Avenues, providing the neighborhood with its first heavy industry.
Some of the newly arrived immigrants eventually turned their skills to industries of their own, like Mathias Schulz who founded the M. Schulz Company in 1869, making pianos and organ cabinets. Later, William F. Ludwig, Sr. opened a drum manufacturing plant at 1728 N. Damen. Still later, Schroeder’s Piano Manufactory opened on Ashland Avenue.
Along with musical instruments, the Wicker Park district became known for cigars and beer. No less than three cigar factories graced the neighborhood by the late 1890’s. Edward Uihlein of the Joseph Schlitz brewing family opened sites in the neighborhood in the 1880’s and 90’s, while the Busch & Epps Malting Company resided near Bloomingdale and Ashland, and the Stenson Brewing Company kept quarters at Winchester and Bloomingdale.
Stately Mansions and a Signature Park
Impressed by the neighborhood, Uihlein built a large and stately mansion and was soon joined by a host of other tycoons, including O.W. Potter, the president of Illinois Steel, W.A. Weiboldt of Weiboldt’s Department Stores, and John Buehler, a prominent banker. The handsome Queen Anne, Second Empire and Italianate mansions along Pierce, Hoyne and Oakley are their legacy.
And at the center of it all was the park. Established in 1868, the 4.3-acre triangle of land was originally surrounded by a wooden fence to keep out wandering cattle. At its inception it had a large oblong pond spanned by a rustic bridge and was enhanced with landscaped shrubbery and winding footpaths.
In 1886, anxious police, fearful of anarchists in the aftermath of the Haymarket Riots, dug up much of the park looking for hidden bombs. In 1891 the park was completely overhauled, the pond filled in, the walks paved and electric lights installed. In 1895, the familiar cast iron fountain known as The Gurgoyle (Spanish for gargoyle) was installed. It lasted only 13 years before it was replaced by a clover shaped wading pond for children. That same clover shaped pond now serves as the basin for a replica version of the “Gurgoyle” dedicated on May 11, 2002, the centerpiece of the current park.
By the early 20th century the neighborhood had begun to change. Waves of Polish and Eastern Europeans began moving in. By the 1930’s Wicker Park was a distinctly Polish neighborhood, and one that, in the face of the Great Depression, was no longer so prosperous or well-to-do. For the next 60 years the neighborhood took on a different cast, one that would both restrain it and prepare it for its next incarnation, when the artists and bohemians began arriving, setting the stage for the gentrification of the late 1990’s.
Note: The content for this article was gleaned from the book WickerPark from 1679 thru 1929 by Elaine A. Coorens (Chicago, IL: Old Wicker Park Committee, 2003) 23-77