LADIES OF LEISURE: The Royal Princess Club of Harlem pose around the turn of the last century. (Courtesy Historical Society of Forest Park)

Just ahead of Mother’s Day, the Historical Society of Forest Park will present an opportunity to step back in time to drink tea and sample cakes in a Victorian parlor. The Society’s first Mother-Daughter Tea will take place Saturday, May 3 in two sessions at the stately Victorian Queen Anne mansion in Oak Park now known as the Under the Gingko Tree Bed and Breakfast.

The building dates from 1890, back when Forest Park was known as the Village of Harlem. 

Corsets, bustles and elaborate hats were ladies’ apparel of the day, and the local women who frequented parlors like these often devoted their lives to charitable and church related activities, said Executive Director Diane Hansen Grah.

One of these causes was the temperance movement. 

“A lot of the ladies felt alcohol led to crime and disorder in the home,” Grah said. Henry Austin Sr., a local Illinois legislator – for whom the West Side Chicago neighborhood was named – helped pass the Illinois Temperance Act in 1872 that made Oak Park and River Forest “dry towns.”

“The ladies got Henry Austin on their side,” Grah said. “He would buy up the saloons and close them down. He threw the alcohol in the street. Literally.”

But in more working-class Forest Park, the anti-alcohol temperance culture clashed with the German immigrant beer garden tradition. 

“There was an incentive to keep the beer gardens going,” Grah said. “They got sales tax revenue from the liquor sales, and didn’t have the affluence of their neighbors,” she said. Harlem, and later “Forest Park” became the watering hole for the town’s dry neighbors to the east and north, Grah said. 

Some notable women of turn of-the-last-century Harlem were not involved with the temperance movement, in fact they often worked in the saloon industry, Grah said. 

Pioneer Dorothy Metzger moved to Harlem in 1859 and worked in her father’s saloon. She outlived two husbands, and ran a saloon near Desplaines and Harrison Street where she captured lots of the “cemetery trade” for funeral lunches after Chicagoans came to Forest Park to bury their dead, said Grah.

Another widow businesswoman of the era was Rosa Hann Gaden, the widow of John Gaden and prorietress of Gaden Hall at the corner of Desplaines Avenue and Madison Street. The hall boasted a saloon, dining room, dance hall, billiard tables and an inn. Later a bowling alley was added. Again, funeral lunches were big business in Forest Park in the 1890s.

“Rosa would stand in the street to watch the funeral processions and count how many carriages, so she knew how much to prepare in the kitchen for a funeral luncheon,” Grah said. Rosa would also collect fares as ticket agent for the Northern Pacific railway. After a fire in 1912 the establishment morphed into the Forest Park Theater in the 1920s. McDonalds now occupies the site.

There was even a female newspaper editor in early Forest Park. Edith Heilemann was born in Harlem in 1887 and with her husband founded the Forest Park Review in 1917. It was the first English language newspaper to be printed in the community, which had deliveries of German language newspapers up until the 1970’s.

Forest Park women of the era were club-formers, gathering in the Forest Park Women’s Club, or the Junior Women’s Club. Other societies included the Ladies of the Modern Maccabees Benevolent Society and the Infant Welfare Society, Grah said. German immigrants formed singing societies such as the Harlem Maenner Chor, founded in 1890 and still around today. The ladies established their own Damen Chor [women’s choir] in 1910.

Sadly, most of the stately homes of Forest Park were torn down during the development boom of the mid-1960s. Only postcard images remain of the 30-room New Orleans style mansion of Forest Park’s founder Ferdinand Haase near Desplaines Avenue and Harvard Street. 

Also long gone is the Harlem Jockey Club near what is now Forest Park Mall, where Victorians watched horse races in 1890. 

At the May 3 event, mother, daughters ages 10 and up, along with grandmothers and BFFs will sip tea from Forest Park’s Todd and Holland Tea Co. Dessert will be served as well.

Under the Gingko Tree is named after the largest male Gingko in Oak Park, which towers over the back yard at 300 N. Kenilworth Ave., said owner Gloria Onischuk. The B-and-B is 25 years old this year and once hosted Elizabeth Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s daughter, also an architect, who visited while she was “in her 80’s,” Onischuk said.

Two seatings for tea will be held at 1 and 3 p.m. Seating is limited, so reservations are recommended. The cost is $10. Call the Historical Society at 708-232-3747 or email Grah at

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...