If you want to find out about Forest Park’s connection to Bill Clinton, the international labor movement, ghosts, the Smithsonian, Elizabeth Taylor, fluoridated water and mobsters, the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce has the tour for you.
The inaugural voyage of the Forest Park Historical Tour: “Dead or Alive” takes place on Oct. 21 at 3 p.m.
Sponsored by the chamber, the tour will consist of a narrated bus ride visiting some intriguing and historical locations scattered throughout the village of Forest Park. At several sites, the bus will stop and participants will be able to explore on foot.
Initiating the idea for the tour was Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore.
“As a store that specialized in history, many of my customers have come into the store looking for information on the history of Forest Park,” Aleksy said.
His own curiosity was piqued and Aleksy said organizing a tour was a great opportunity to explore the village’s unique history. Because so many of the sites are spread out, traveling by bus seemed an ideal way to present the tour.
Aleksy also has a personal interest in exploring Forest Park. Aleksy has embraced the village since moving his bookstore to Madison Street from nearby Oak Park.
“I take pride in my local community,” he said.
Conducting the tour will be John Rice, columnist for the Forest Park Review.
Rice has researched the history of the sites on the route.
“We’re so lucky that John is doing the tour,” Aleksy said. “He adds so much with his personality, knowledge and sense of humor. He makes it so interesting.”
Also involved in researching the tour is Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce.
“My father, Bob Haeger, was the publisher and editor of the Forest Park Review from 1972 to 1986,” Kokenes said. “I was able to share old photos and books.”
Information has come from many sources, including the Historical Society of Forest Park, which provided photos for the tour’s brochure. Village residents like Dave Novak of the park district shared memories and interesting tidbits of information about Forest Park with the tour organizers during several practice runs of the tour.
Kokenes noted that Forest Parkers have long had a sense of humor about the village’s reputation as a watering hole among its dry neighbors and its renown for having more dead residents than live ones.
“We’ve been known as the place to get a good drink and bury people,” she said.
But organizers said the bus tour could help present some of Forest Park’s other attributes that distinguish the village from other western suburbs.
“I always encourage my friends to look above eye-level when they visit,” Aleksy said. “The tops of the buildings on Madison are like a German village.”
The timing of the tour has worked out well in terms of preparing for next year’s centennial celebration of the founding of Forest Park. Aleksy said it wasn’t planned to coincide with next year’s celebration, but the two events do compliment one another.
Kokenes said that the chamber is hoping the tour will inspire people to explore Forest Park beyond the sites offered on the ride and perhaps offer a boost to the economy.
While not wanting to give away too much of what’s included on the tour, Rice said that one of his favorite stops is Showmen’s Rest, the section of Woodlawn Cemetery reserved for circus performers. Quite often mistakenly thought of as the burial site of elephants, Rice will share the actual story of the circus train wreck of 1918 and the performers who are buried there.
There is a wide range of history included in the 2.4-square miles that make up Forest Park, from native Potawatomis to present day shops, and much of it is covered on the chamber’s tour.
“People will find tons of Forest Park history that they were not aware of,” Kokenes said.