Forest Park turns 100-again!

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By Anna Poplawska

Forest Park seems to like 100th birthday parties. And why not.

This weekend it will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its incorporation as the town of Forest Park. Previously, though, it has celebrated the 100 years since its initial settlement, then the 100 years since it became part of the Village of Harlem.

This time around, the celebration is of incorporation as a town. And the party weaves together multiple threads from Forest Park's fascinating history.

Centennialfest, this weekend's festivity, sports a carnival atmosphere and is an intentional reminder of the Forest Park Amusement Park, which also opened in 1907. Starting Friday and running through Sunday, Centennialfest will include a magic show, games, fireworks, and kiddie rides, as well as more daring rides for the older kids. The attractions harken back to what was, at the time, the only amusement park in Illinois and one of the largest in the country. The park drew visitors from all over Chicago and beyond. After a downturn in business due to Prohibition, there was a fire in 1922, which led to the decision to close it down permanently.

Since this past spring, the painted elephants along Madison Street have also been a part of this celebration. And like the carnival, the elephants are another link to a notable piece of local history. Sally Cody, a coordinator of the centennial celebration and a long-time village staff member, says, "Elephants have long memories, and, combined with Showman's Rest, make a good mascot for Forest Park."

Showman's Rest is a memorial at Woodlawn Cemetery at Desplaines and Cermak Streets. It marks the final resting place for members of the Showman's Circus, a traveling troupe that suffered numerous casualties, including animals, in a fiery train wreck near Gary, Ind. The 53 performers who died were brought to Forest Park for burial. The site in the cemetery is called Showman's Rest and is guarded by four elephant sculptures in each corner.

Centennialfest will include a booth displaying photographs of historical Forest Park, souvenir items for sale, and little booklets in which residents can write down their favorite memories of Forest Park. Those reminiscences will be compiled into a book by Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries and Sleuth's Bookstore on Madison Street. Aleksy is one of over 200 community volunteers who have helped to make this event possible. In addition, $65,000 has already been contributed by local businesses and residents to fund the project.

Rich Vitton, president of the Forest Park Historical Society, says, "One of the ironies is that this is the third time that Forest Park has celebrated its centennial birthday celebration. This isn't so much a celebration of our founding as a city, as it is the celebration of when we got the name Forest Park. Before that we were the Village of Harlem."

In 1956 Forest Park had its first centennial celebration, which commemorated the arrival of the first settlers. Ferdinand Haase, who settled here in the late 1850s, is often credited, but French fur trader Leon Bourassa purchased government land here in 1839.

In 1984, there was a second centennial celebration to commemorate when the settlement became the Village of Harlem. In 1907 the borders with River Forest shifted and Forest Park had to re-incorporate. On Aug. 12 of that year the name was changed to avoid confusion, because there was another Harlem already in Illinois.

Nevertheless, according to Ferdinand Haase's journal, large sections of Forest Park were still all wilderness when he came here and purchased the land from a fur trader. He turned it into a park for his friends in Chicago to come out and visit the country, complete with boat rides on the Des Plaines River. But when the constant party got too rowdy and out of control, he sold the land again. Part of it went to the Masonic Order, which founded Forest Home Cemetery. A constant stream of commuters continued to visit Forest Park to visit their departed loved ones. Among the most famous "permanent" residents, are the radicals who were accused of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago.

It was the proximity to Chicago and the wide open spaces in Forest Park, which continued to define the village and channel its growth. In 1907, it became the home of the Harlem Race Track, which later became the Amertorp Torpedo Factory and is now the site of the Forest Park mall.

Charles Lindbergh flew mail in and out of Checkerboard Field, located along Roosevelt, now Miller Meadows. He frequently stayed overnight with friends in Forest Park, and one eyewitness said he made the decision in Forest Park to go on his solo TransAtlantic flight.

In 1936, local businessman Emery Parichy started the Parichy Bloomer Girls, a member of the new professional women's softball league, at Parichy Stadium, Harrison and Harlem. Some of the women who were involved went on to play in the All American Girl's Baseball League, which was commemorated in the film "A League of Their Own." This includes Wilma May Turner, who became the highest paid pitcher in the league. Parichy also started the country's first baseball museum, preceding Cooperstown by several years.

Forest Park's centennial birthday celebration will take place Friday, Aug. 31 from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from noon to 11 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. It will take place at 7700 W. Van Buren. An unlimited Carnival Ride Mega Pass good for the entire weekend is available for advance purchase at village hall, 517 Desplaines Ave., for $40 or for $45 at the event. Daily passes and individual ride tickets are also available. For more information about daily events, go to www.forestpark.net.

With gratitude to the late Dr. Frank Orland, whose tireless efforts in recording Forest Park history can be found in his Chronicles of Forest Park.

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