Cranky Forest Park tavern keepers, teenage jobs in the cemeteries and a constant quest to improve “the Street” were memories of Forest Park history passed around like a bottle of fine wine at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore the evening of May 24. The event gathered three senior business leaders for the second official Forest Park Historical Society Oral History recording.
Realtors Jerry Jacknow Sr. and Carl Schwebl and Famous Liquors owner Bud Schwarzbach laughed uproariously when bookstore owner and moderator Augie Aleksy called them the Three Wise Men of Forest Park, so Aleksy quickly changed his sobriquet to the “Three Wise Guys.” A fourth family friend, Tony Bale, son of the owners of the former “Homer’s” restaurant was also in the audience.
The three senior businessmen may be said to know “where all the bodies are buried,” and this turned out to be literally true, as Jacknow and Schwarzbach quickly bonded when they found out they had both worked in cemeteries as young men. Schwarzbach said his family owned several Jewish cemeteries, which provided summer jobs when he was young.
Jacknow, also a former village commissioner, worked in Forest Home cemetery when the Eisenhower Expressway was being built in 1955.
“[Cutting the highway through the cemetery] took a very long time. Graves had to be moved. [Highway engineers] had a problem with the military graves because they had been buried in pine boxes and the remains were not there. They cordoned everything off so no one could see, and moved them all with backhoes. We’d sneak over and watch them.”
Being real estate experts, Jacknow and Schwebl also remembered the property disruptions that happened when the expressway was being built. They told how several homes, and even two flats were transported “right down Madison Street” and replanted elsewhere in the village.
The men also talked about the town’s party reputation. The street once had “a maximum” of 56 liquor licenses on Madison Street. Now there are around half that number. The influence of the temperance movement in the 1910s and ’20s on neighboring towns of Oak Park and River Forest, inspired brisk Forest Park alcohol sales.
The repeal of Prohibition in 1934 was the event that caused Schwarzbach’s father to jump into the alcohol business, Bud Schwarzbach said. West Town liquors opened at 7339 Madison across the street from Homer’s restaurant (which is now the parking lot for Forest Park National Bank). Eventually West Town became Foremost Liquors, which then morphed into Famous.
Schwarzbach came home in 1958, discharged from the Navy, and helped at the store while a student at U of I. From there he got into the family business. “Then I became interested in wine and it took off from there,” he said.
The party atmosphere also expanded into illegal gambling, said Schwebl. In the early 1950s the chief of police, Joseph Cortino was said to look the other way at several “book joints” in the village. His personal vehicle was reported in the Chicago Tribune to be spotted at a party thrown by mobster and Oak Parker Sam Giancana.
The men spoke of the colorful tavern owners of Forest Park.
The men reminisced about a long-gone tavern called Toby’s near what is now the Green Line el stop, where the colorful owner, Clarence, refused to install bar stools because “If they’re too drunk to stand up they can get out!” Roast beef sandwiches were remembered fondly, along with “the soups, they made the best cup of soup. There was no refrigerator, everything was on ice and they sold no pop or coffee there. They had the most uncomfortable booths, because I guess they wanted you to eat quickly and get out.” Other establishments remembered fondly included the Triangle Caf, Otto’s, the Armory Lounge Ð reputed to have a secret underground mob meeting room Ð and the 101 Club Ðnow the Beacon Tap.
The men reminisced about the importance of the Kiwanis Club to their business contacts. “There weren’t any women in it then. There was a lot of drinking.” Among those also present in the audience were current Kiwanis President and former St. Bernardine’s principal, Jerry Lordan. Jacknow’s children and Irene O’Shea, the widow of Ed O’Shea, the long-time village attorney were also there.
Homer’s was fondly remembered, too. The restaurant began as a sandwich shop in 1940 and grew to a steak-and-lobster restaurant with a lounge in the 1950s, said Tony Bale. Schwarzbach said he learned much about managing a business from watching Homer “sitting in the back of the restaurant watching everything.” A party was fondly recalled when after-hours the men from the Chamber of Commerce rolled a jukebox from Homer’s down the street to the real estate office to keep the party going until daybreak.
The bookstore sits on the former site of the Reich and Becker Real Estate office where Jacknow and Schwebl started their careers in the mid and late 60s. Schwebl wound up owning Reich and Becker while Jacknow set out on his own with Jerry Jacknow Real Estate.
The men reminisced about the economic ups and downs of The Street, as they called Madison Street. “In the 1970s, the Street was finished,” said Schwebl. “I was ready to get out of here, move someplace else.” Jacknow and Schwebl agreed that bank liquidity made the biggest difference in whether businesses could start and survive along Madison. And that often depended on the personality of the successive owners of Forest Park National Bank. “The key to an area is the banker,” said Jacknow. “There was a period where the owners [of Forest Park National Bank] were very conservative. The bank was not loaning any money. The Street would never have happened (its resurgence) if the bank had stayed that way.”
The men credited Art Jones, a former District 91 school superintendent, and later vice-president at the bank, with discovering a grant program called Illinois Main Street that brought redevelopment money to the Street. The men also talked about buying buildings, including Homer’s, to raze for parking lots along Madison. “Parking is a problem for World War II era towns,” they said.
They also credited the Schwarzbachs for buying an old Jewel location and moving the expanded Famous Liquors to its current location. “That was a real commitment to the area,” said the Schwebl and Jacknow. Famous expanded its cheese section and became a vendor of upscale wines.
The men agreed that The Street has never looked better than today and commended Mayor Tony Calderone for the vibrancy of Madison. “A lot of the new business owners are women. Women from Oak Park.”
“I’m so glad I stayed, seeing how the street looks now,” said Schwebl. “I was ready to bail for awhile. Now people in Oak Park say, ‘What Would Forest Park Do?’ Today it’s as good as it’s ever been for business. There’s no place better.”