Phil Gould sent me an email on Oct. 29, 2018, asking a very intriguing question. The Review reader wondered why River Forest is bounded on the east by Lathrop Avenue and the south by Madison Street. He was curious about why Forest Park doesn’t own the area north of Madison Street from Lathrop to the Des Plaines River. I vowed to answer his question but took some time to get around to it.
I figured Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, would have the answer. Frank did not disappoint. He spent two sessions explaining to me the roots of River Forest’s irregular boundaries. The story contains all sorts of scheming, which literally shaped our village.
When our town was born, townships were the political centers of rural communities. Each township was 36 square miles in size and Proviso was no exception. Within the township, there were unincorporated villages. The village of Harlem, for example, contained portions of Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park, but it wasn’t incorporated until 1884.
These villages each possessed a unique character, depending on who settled them. The River Forest area attracted white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Many came from patrician backgrounds and aspired to be professionals. They considered themselves to be cultured and well-educated. They were united in their opposition to the sale of demon rum.
The Forest Park area, by contrast, attracted immigrants from Germany. English was their second language, and alcohol was an important component of their social life. They sought manufacturing jobs and opened shops and saloons. They established a commercial district along Madison Street, from Harlem to Lathrop.
The area between Lathrop and the Des Plaines River was technically part of Harlem but it was undeveloped. River Forest rushed to incorporate and annex this land. In 1880, there were 44 votes to incorporate and only 7 against. Part of their purpose in incorporating was to exclude the German community south of the railroad. They had the usual fear of immigrants and some prejudice against them. They also desired a residential community, without commerce, industry or booze.
Harlem had its own agenda. The villagers needed the blue-collar jobs that industry brings. They also wanted to sell alcohol, without any interference from temperance leaders. Beer gardens were family places that served as the center of their social lives.
The showdown came when River Forest moved to annex the western section of Harlem (the village). A woman named “Miss Thatcher” put it eloquently: “The village of River Forest was incorporated as a matter of necessity to defeat the saloonkeepers’ project to organize and open a liquor sales district and destroy our village.” To avoid being “destroyed,” River Forest made a blatant land grab.
When they annexed the western section of Harlem, the village filed an injunction to block River Forest but lost in court. As a result, there are no taverns on the north side of Madison west of Desplaines Avenue. But there are larger ramifications.
River Forest continues to be an upscale residential community of white collar types. Forest Park is also home to professionals but still has working-class character. It’s relevant to explore the roots of these communities because they still reverberate today.
After Frank briefed me, I met with Phil Gould and his wife Liz at one of our watering holes. They love living in Forest Park and simply wondered why the village was missing a piece. Thanks to Frank Lipo, we found an answer.
At the end of our meeting, Frank told me I could now move on to answering my emails from 2019.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com