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By John Rice
Before there were blogs, tweets and emails, there were letters. Personal correspondence has declined drastically as a result of electronic communication, but thankfully some of the important letters have been preserved. Among the treasures the Historical Society maintains is a letter from Forest Park founder, Ferdinand Haase, to his children. The letter is not dated. It was probably originally handwritten in German. The typed transcription details significant moments from Haase's adventurous life and provides glimpses of long-ago Forest Park.
Haase wrote the letter because he thought his children would be interested in how their parents got their start in this country. For Haase, the saga begins when he lands in New York on July 3, 1849. He was 22 years old and had crossed the ocean alone. In New York, he met up with some natives of his hometown, Lingen, Germany, and they started out on the arduous journey to Chicago.
They traveled by water: up the Hudson River, down the Erie Canal and across Lake Erie by steamer to Detroit. From there, they boarded a train to New Buffalo, Michigan. They crossed Lake Michigan by sailboat to the new metropolis known as Chicago.
"It was a sorrowful looking place," Haase writes. "The last of the spring thaw had swept away most of the bridges over the Chicago River."
The city didn't look promising, but Haase found work as a harness maker. When business declined during the winter, he decided to head to New Orleans, traveling down the newly-constructed Illinois & Michigan Canal and finishing the trip by steamer from St. Louis. On their way south on the Mississippi, the "Sultana" ran aground several times. To lighten the load, passengers had to disembark and run along the river bank.
In New Orleans, Haase found a good-paying job as an upholsterer. He was well-established, but his stay was interrupted by a letter from home. His parents had decided to sell their mill and inn and they summoned Haase home immediately "to bring my folks and my brother to America." He quit his job and took the "Bremer," a cotton ship, back to Germany. The ship was struck by a violent storm that stripped the railings from the deck. The sailors and passengers needed ropes to get around. "Finally, after 35 days at sea, we arrived at Liverpool, with ship and constitution much damaged."
Haase finished his trip by paddling down rivers and streams to his family's farm. Back home, he was quite the novelty, an immigrant who had returned from America. His family had a prosperous business but he was determined to take them to the U.S. There was one problem: "I then tried to get a passport but failed as I had gone off to America without it the first time."
The Haase family was finally ready to leave on March 15, 1851. It took their sailing ship Kopernious six weeks to reach New York. Haase probably didn't mind the long voyage because he met his future wife, Wilhelmina Zimmerman, on board. From New York, he repeated his waterborne journey to Chicago. The Haases settled on the near North Side of the city, on Illinois Street, between Dearborn and State where he learned the wagon-making trade and was once again successful.
However, the family was not content to stay in Chicago.
"My father and I looked around for some land on which to locate and finally bought the beautiful oak forest on the east bank of the Des Plaines River." Perhaps the setting reminded them of their home on the Ems River in Prussia. The Haase homestead and dairy farm was thus founded, "on which you, my children, were all born."
The farm stretched 248 acres and Haase built a small home (18 x 24 feet) for his new bride. They were married on Oct. 28, 1851.
"The neighborhood was still wild," he wrote. "There were no houses nearer than Lyons. The locality that later became Oak Park consisted of three houses and one log house."
Their main work on the new farm was raising cattle. The land was good for grazing; they had fresh water and plenty of wood. They used the lumber to build a barn for their dozen cows. Eventually, the Haase herd would number 30 head.
"We also acquired a team of oxen," he wrote, "and used them for hauling hay." The family then broke the prairie sod to raise potatoes and vegetables.
Needing to build more structures, Haase constructed a wooden sled to haul stones from the river. They used these to build a henhouse, corn crib and milk cellar.
The final sentence of the letter reads: "Two years later, on the 26th of October, 1853, Ida, our first child was born. Your Father, Ferdinand Haase."
People today are not accustomed to writing letters. But what a great gift Haase's letter was to his children — and now to the people of Forest Park.