Shortly after incorporating as the town of Harlem, a village ordinance was passed, granting the Chicago Fair Grounds Association “the full right and privilege to conduct a place of amusement, which shall consist of maintaining a Driving Track and Race Track, where running, trotting and other meetings may be held,” and 12th Street (now known as Roosevelt Road) from Hannah to Lathrop became a destination. “Blind John” Condon, whose motto was “Every man has his price, somewhere between a cigar and a million dollars,” took full ownership of the Harlem Race Track for $180,000 and ran the track from 1894 to 1917.
Condon, who lived in a stone mansion along the original Chicago “Gold Coast” at 2623 S. Michigan Ave., was reportedly “down-to-earth” and a “very kind boss” to lifelong Forest Park resident Loretta Woeltje’s father, Henry Licht, who worked for the golf course.
Some would go to the track, others resorted to handbooks at poolrooms, which were furnished with blackboard, telephone, telegraph and ticker tape and the day’s issue of the Chicago Racing Form. Names of horses scratched and the odds were communicated over the wires a half hour before each race and again 10-15 minutes before starting time when a final summary of odds was placed.
While some sources report the last race on the Harlem Race Track was with automobiles in 1905, there are several reports of races on the track after 1905. Sometime between 1912 and 1917, the track was closed, chairs were donated to the fledgling congregation at St. Bernardine Church, and the track was converted to a golf course, with creeping bent greens. It was the first private club to allow women to join. Despite being a golf course, there were still reports of racing in the 1920s Forest Park Review.
In 1927, just as discussions to widen Roosevelt Road were popping up in the news, rumors that the race track might reopen with backing from William Wrigley or the New York Syndicate showed up in the Review. Quickly, protest meetings were organized and Harry J. Bannow expressed sentiment for the race track, sharing that “Forest Park had never been so prosperous as in the race track days and there was less crime then than [today]” (i.e. 1927). The rumors died down and Forest Park kept humming along.
Then in 1935, just as the park board was preparing to purchase the 16 acre property at about 11 cents per square foot for the future Park District headquarters, the pages of the Forest Parker returned to the discussion of gambling. After John Sutherland, editor and publisher, spoke out in August against “the evils that threaten the citizens and good name of the village,” his car was subjected to vandals who slashed his upholstery, punctured the roof and poured linseed oil in his engine after he parked at Circle and Franklin for less than an hour.
Letters to the editor, averaging 100-200 words took up full pages of the then-12 page Forest Parker for weeks. Some quotes: “Forget the moral angle of it … see the facts, and consider things from the cold and logical standard of economics,” or “Another evil is the use of signboards where they are of little enough use as advertising but constitute a grave eyesore,” and “Do not think it is only the men and boys who are being hurt by gambling machines, for the girls are being hurt too … young girls going into taverns and spending money on drinks and gambling” and “Why is it that village officials feel it necessary to withhold their support from a newspaper … and avoid the vice which inevitably follows gambling?”
On Aug. 22, 1935 the Forest Parker published a “Secret Poll” to get the input from “residents on the condition now existing and promising to exist in Forest Park.” Unfortunately, the next issue of the Forest Parker is missing from the archives, and mysteriously the following issues from September 1935 and beyond (which are in the archives) make virtually no comment on gambling. There are no more letters, and the whole conversation goes silent.
We may never know the results of the Secret Poll, or why suddenly the discussion went silent. But these gambling discussions are a part of the DNA of Forest Park, flaring up one way or another every few decades.