It began life as the Forest Park Business Men’s Association, on March 21, 1912, at the Roos’ Hall. The first president was cedar chest manufacturer Albert C. Roos. Now, almost a hundred years later, the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce is still going strong. Of the 350 plus businesses licensed in Forest Park, 201 are members of the Chamber. According to the Chamber’s Executive Director Laurie Kokenes, this is an extraordinary percentage of business participation. “Most communities have less than half their businesses joining the chamber.”

Haeger was Kokenes’ father and her predecessor as the chamber’s director. She proudly displays his old typewriter in the chamber office, as Haeger was also the publisher of the Review. “We used to house the chamber in the “Review” office,” Kokenes recalled, “Now the Forest Park National Bank gives the chamber and Main Street free rent.”

A town’s Chamber of Commerce is typically a part-time operation but Kokenes is able to monitor the phones forty hours a week. She fields all types of inquiries. “People think the Chamber of Commerce knows everything.” Indeed, the chamber acts as an information center for the whole village. The most common questions Kokenes gets are also the most mundane. “What’s the phone number for the pool? What kind of garbage can we throw out? Is this Park Forest?”

Kokenes directs these last callers to the chamber of that far south suburb. Otherwise, she manfully tries to answer a wide range of questions. “I get a lot of calls asking about Roos Cedar Chests,” Kokenes said. “They’ll tell me they inherited a cedar chest and ask if the company is still in business.” A more obscure question was posed to her recently, when a caller from Canada inquired about some candy with French writing on the wrapper that reportedly came from Forest Park. Kokenes e-mailed Ferrara Pan and they identified it as one of their products that are made in Canada. Once again, Kokenes was able to satisfy a curious caller.

Trivia aside, referring callers to local businesses pumps money into the Forest Park economy. People call looking for goods or services, or just to learn the name of the new restaurant in town. “A widow called looking for a funeral banquet site,” Kokenes said. Being a widow herself, Kokenes was able provide some on-the-spot counseling. She also goes the extra mile when a caller needs a village service. “I hook them up with the right village official.”

Besides fielding phone calls, Kokenes attends a lot of meetings. She is on no less than nine committees and chairs two of them. The chamber’s promotions committee, for example, is hoping to sponsor tours of Forest Park, commencing in 2006. Other committees focus on planning social gatherings and community events. “Our events fill the bars and restaurants to capacity,” Kokenes said, “And all the businesses benefit. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade brings a lot of people to Madison Street and they stay on the street. The registers may not ring in the shops and stores that day but the exposure is valuable.” The Christmas Holiday Walk accomplishes the same purpose.

“There’s been a dramatic increase in business activity in Forest Park,” Kokenes said, “The town has a new energy and spirit. The business owners have created a dynamic new group of Madison Street merchants called M2. The health of downtown is important to the whole community.”

Yes, but what about commercial areas that aren’t thriving as well as Madison? “The chamber doesn’t do economic development, like the village and Main Street we work to promote existing businesses. One of the problems we have is that we can’t close Roosevelt Road for festivals and parades. There’s still a benefit, though, to the Roosevelt Road businesses belonging to the chamber.”

Back in 1913, the business association faced some of the same issues as modern Forest Park. For example, a committee raised money to install ornamental light poles, not unlike those that are now gracing Madison Street. The businessmen east of Circle Avenue, had to make a specific request for the new lights. To further enhance the street’s appearance the association planned to sprinkle Madison to keep down the dust.

Another association plan that would still be timely today involved having the village issue $40,000 in bonds to build a new village hall. They also arranged for Forest Park to have its own post office, telegraph office and to change the name of the train depot from Altenheim to Forest Park. From the association’s expenditure reports, it was obvious that it was a male-only club. A meeting didn’t go by without an outlay for Iron Beer and cigars.

In 1924, the association changed its name to Chamber of Commerce. Whereas the old group had to form a committee to arrange an Automobile Trip, the chamber now faced streets clogged with cars. As far back as 1934 they struggled with the issue of adequate parking.

In 1936 it was reported that 180 WPA workers were employed at the park project on Harrison Street. Today, we still admire the Tudor building those displaced workers constructed. Another boon to local children were the chamber sponsored Halloween parties, which were intended to keep them from more destructive activities. The members must have felt like kids themselves when they were treated moving pictures of airmail service, hunting dogs in action and the sinking of battleships in the Great War.

Not all of the chamber’s ideas were sound ones. A proposal to host a Street Dance was objected to as not being practicable. This didn’t stop the chamber from hosting an indoor dance at the Triangle Café. The cost of the meal and entertainment was only $1.35 per plate, as hall rental ran only $8.00 in those days.

In many ways, the chamber acted as a benefactor to their beloved community. In the spirit of Chicago merchants like Marshall Field, who gave so much to the citizenry, the chamber minutes noted, “Businessmen have more noble desires than the mere gain of money.” Chamber members were intent on improving every aspect of life in Forest Park, not just increasing their profits.

A list of the past presidents of the chamber reads like a pantheon of Forest Park patriarchs: from A.C. Roos to Ernest Reich to Fred Trage. Who can forget Homer Bale, who operated Homer’s Restaurant? The roll call continues with Howard Mohr, Louis Calgagno and Don Peaslee. In more modern times, Carl Schwebl, Lenore Koca and Dave Novak headed the chamber. And to show that what goes around comes around in Forest Park; Judy Trage is the current president.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball...