Forest Park a tourist destination?

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By TOM HOLMES

That village to the east of Forest Park has Frank Lloyd Wright and Earnest Hemingway to attract tourists from all over the world, but Forest Park?

Well, it turns out that a tour sponsored by Oak Park has been taking people to Forest Park's cemeteries for years. Recently, the Historical Society of Forest Park began offering a similar cemetery tour.

Still, Augie Aleksy, the owner of Centuries and Sleuths, 7419 Madison Street, wanted to both reclaim Forest Park's history for ourselves and provide one more reason for people to visit our stores and restaurants.

"We have so much to be proud of," Aleksy declared. He recruited John Rice, known for his weekly second page column in the Review, to be tour's leader. Rice did his homework, assisted by Rich Vitton from the Historical Society, on Forest Park. This research was important, because, unlike the Wright studio and the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park where what is interesting is visible, what is fascinating about Forest Park is often written on the pages of historical documents and no longer able to be viewed.

Rice started the dress rehearsal run of the hour long Tour of Forest Park on June 5 at the Blue Line station on Desplaines Avenue. "Welcome to Forest Park," he began. "This area has been inhabited for many centuries. In fact, the bones of a wooly mammoth were found here, with an arrow imbedded in the bone." He jumped ahead several thousand years to 1907 when the "Forest Park Amusement Park, which rivaled Coney Island" was opened where commuters now board the El.

Of interest to Forest Parkers on the tour was Rice's description of the Des Plaines River as being in "pristine condition" at the end of the Nineteenth Century, a popular place to swim and the location for an excursion on a boat named the White Fawn depicted in a mural in the post office lobby.

As the bus pulled up to the Altenheim, Rice informed his listeners that scenes from Harry and Tonto with Art Carney and The Package starring Gene Hackman were shot at the stately building. On Roosevelt Road Rice told us that an establishment known as the Torpedo Tap, situated where Andrea's Restaurant now feeds hungry patrons, once served as the headquarters for mobster Sam Giancana. He added that when the FBI wired the joint, the Forest Park police were not told of the wiretapping because many of them frequented the place.

And, oh yes, the cemeteries. Rice noted that some of the victims of the Eastland disaster are buried in Concordia cemetery. The tour bus from the Community Center stopped in Woodlawn Cemetery where statues of elephants guard Showman's Rest. Buried there are victims of a circus train accident in Indiana.

In Forest Home Cemetery Rice pointed out the Haymarket Martyr's Monument, where four of the defendants at the Haymarket Trial were buried after their execution. He said that 10,000 mourners had come out by special train to Forest Park to attend the funeral. He added, "It is the only cemetery monument in the US that is one the list of historic sites and visitors come from around the world to see it. Radicals from around the world seek to be buried in its shadow."

As it turns out, a successful tour of a village is often as much entertainment as it is a history lesson. Rice wove much humor into the fabric of his tour presentation.

He finished his account of a band of Pottowatomies being forcibly moved from the land now occupied by Forest Home cemetery to a location in Kansas by saying, "Several Irish settlers accompanied the Native Americans to the reservation, because at that time, being an Indian was a step above being Irish."

Commenting on how people used the land along the Des Plaines River as a site for picnicking and swimming, he said, "The picnic crowds eventually became too rowdy, so [Ferdinand] Haase [the early settler who owned the property] searching for a quieter sort of clientele, turned it into a cemetery."

Rice did not forget the bottom line of the tour, which the Chamber of Commerce was sponsoring. The last thing he said was, "Our final stop will be Madison Street, where you'll enjoy a delicious lunch and a chance to browse. Thanks you for visiting Forest Park."

The twelve participants on the maiden voyage had words of thanks for Bev Thompson, the Community Center Director and bus driver for the day, and praise and encouragement for Aleksy and Rice.

For information on future tours, call the Chamber of Commerce at 366-2543.

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