Ever the crusading reporter, I ventured north during a polar vortex to cover a breaking story: the birthday of author Ken Knack and his new book “Elmwood Park.” It was appropriate that Ken’s wife, Diane, was there to discuss the book’s gestation. She’s a labor and delivery nurse. Ken delivered his second book for Arcadia Publishing in time for the 100th birthday of his adopted town, observing that, “Every community has a story to tell.”
Ken already told the story of our community in his book on Forest Park that was released in 2011. It was easy for him to chronicle our history. He had devoured sources like a book from 1956, celebrating one of our centennials. The difficult part was finding images.
He had the opposite problem writing his new book. He found an Illinois digital archive containing over two hundred historic images of Elmwood Park but was completely unfamiliar with the suburb’s history. Ken spent a year researching the stories behind the pictures.
The story that emerged showed many parallels with the history of Forest Park. Both were home to bustling Native American settlements along the banks of the Des Plaines River. Ours was a village in present day Forest Home Cemetery, while they had a chipping station in what is now Evans Field.
Both towns were predated and defined by cemeteries. Elmwood Park takes its name from the sprawling Elmwood Cemetery, founded in 1894. It used to sprawl even further. Ken and Diane’s house is located on former (unused) cemetery property that became part of the giant Westwood subdivision. Both towns are bisected by railroads, though Elmwood Park can boast of having the widest grade crossing in the State of Illinois – 366 feet at Grand Avenue.
Sadly, both communities have lost much of their heritage. Ken counted only three surviving structures from the 19th Century. Much of his book is about what used to be: the Mercury Theater, Goldblatt’s and Nielsen’s Restaurant.
However, in a chapter titled “Mangia,” Ken chronicles the eateries that still exist: Johnnie’s Italian Beef stand, Russell’s Barbecue and Jim & Pete’s Italian restaurant. The predominately Italian-American town also had a tiny grocery store called Caputo’s which is no longer tiny.
To get a better feel for what was important to residents, Ken posed questions on the “Grew Up in Elmwood Park” Facebook page and received many responses. He also obtained valuable input from the village government, chamber of commerce and public library.
Ken may have moved to Elmwood Park in 2006 but he hasn’t turned his back on Forest Park. He’s still one of our auxiliary police officers and an active member of our historical society.
As much as Ken and I love local history, we found a present-day parallel between FP and EP – they both suffer from flooding. Elmwood Park is addressing the problem by building a reservoir on the grounds of the Oak Park Country Club. Wow, if the country club set is allowing a reservoir, I doubt the people resting in our cemeteries would object to something similar.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park.