Just over three years ago, Kenneth Knack was browsing the local history section at a Chicago-area Border’s bookstore.
The native Forest Parker spotted a regional collection of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” – a series of history books that chronicle cities, towns and neighborhoods nationwide, using archived pictures and illustrations.
“Oak Park, Berwyn, Maywood all had books,” Knack said.
“Forest Park is much more interesting than those towns,” he added. “I thought there should be a book.”
Knack fancies himself an amateur historian and has spent years poring over Forest Park’s past.
In 2007 he contacted Arcadia and posed the idea of putting together a book of old postcards from Forest Park, ranging from roughly 1910 to the 1960s. But he didn’t have enough postcards, so the idea was squashed.
A year later, Arcadia contacted Knack and asked him to compile photographs for a picture book on the town’s history.
He spent the next two years borrowing and scanning photographs and illustrations from village hall, local businesses, cemeteries, churches, friends and friends of friends.
The result is a pictorial timeline chronicling the town’s roots – from the Native-American encampment along the DesPlaines River up to the present commercial district on Madison Street.
Most are aware of the omnipresence of cemeteries in the village, but did you know that settler Ferdinand Haase only decided to sell land that would become Concordia and Waldheim cemeteries in order to keep rowdies from Chicago out of his picnic grounds?
Or that famed evangelist Billy Sunday is buried at Forest Home Cemetery? Ironic because of the abundance of watering holes around town – the product of establishments that popped up in the 19th century to accommodate hungry and thirsty mourners before they returned home after burying their loved ones.
Other landmarks of yesteryear include a torpedo factory, a race track that included a golf course and an amusement park.
The latter attraction, aptly named Forest Park, opened in 1908 and took its name from the village, which had been called Harlem in the not-too-distant past.
The captions that accompany the photos Knack compiled are well researched, but some are so old or obscure that proper attribution was not possible.
Knack said he wants his book to spark an interest in local history.
“I would love to see it happen,” he said. “I was surprised that some of the guys on the police force didn’t even know there was an amusement park.”
Knack worked as an auxiliary police officer in Forest Park for 14 years, a job he still holds, even though he and his wife now live in Elmwood Park.
Diane Knack is happy the project is over.
“I’m glad my dining room won’t smell of old pictures anymore,” she quipped.
Technical equipment also perished from continuous scanning and uploading.
“We had to buy a whole new computer and scanner,” Ken said.
Diane was an integral part of the project, though. “I could not have completed the book without her support, encouragement and advice,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Knack appeared at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 Madison, last Sunday, to discuss the book and his favorite topic: Forest Park.
A shy man, Knack was visibly nervous when he addressed the sizeable gathering; however, his timidity vanished when the kibitzing became all-things-Forest Park.
“This has been a passion of mine for a long time,” he told the audience.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Ferdinand Haase’s name, the date Kenneth Knack contacted Arcadia Publishing, and the date the Forest Park amusement park opened.