Forest Park's rich history

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Two Sundays ago, a group of Forest Park history lovers gathered in the cozy Centuries and Sleuths bookstore to listen to Kenneth Knack speak about his new book in Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series: "Forest Park."

After seeing Arcadia books on other suburbs, I wondered when Forest Park would get its due. Fortunately for those intrigued by Forest Park's past, Knack took his interest in it, which was spawned by his mother's 1956 centennial copy of The Chronicles of Forest Park and his own collection of forty-four vintage Forest Park postcards, and created a beautiful visual history of our town.

Knack, along with many who attended his Centuries and Sleuths event, has a long relationship with Forest Park. His mother's family arrived in the forties, he was raised here, and though he lives in Elmwood Park now, he remains on the auxiliary police force where there has been a Knack since 1956.

On the other hand, I moved here in 2004, but Forest Park is the home I chose and that Sunday afternoon at Centuries and Sleuths reminded me why. As a restless Oak Park teenager, I came to explore the cemeteries, searching for both solace and a spooky thrill. Like Knack, I've had a ghostly encounter at Waldheim, but Forest Home Cemetery was the one that really called to me-perhaps because anyone can be buried there, no matter your religious affiliation or what you did during your life, and as a girl who felt like an outcast, a place that excluded no one innately appealed to me even before I knew that about it.

At the time, I also didn't know that Forest Home Cemetery is essentially the birthplace of Forest Park. It was there that Ferdinand Haase tried out farming and cattle-ranching, but gave it up to open a picnic grove. Eventually when that got too rowdy, he sold off land for cemeteries. There it is, Forest Park in a nutshell: a place known for its excellent festivities and having more dead residents than living ones. A place that provides both thrills and solace like I'd been seeking as a teen.

Though I developed a soft spot for Forest Park in my youth, it was my experience working at the Beacon Pub in my early twenties that sold me on living here. As I learned from Knack's talk, the Beacon is located in the oldest part of Forest Park. Though he didn't know which of the taverns still standing in our village is the oldest, I'd guess the Beacon is among them. Built around 1905, it has always been a bar, and as soon as I started working there, I began to meet people with stories about it and Forest Park in general.

I quickly realized that, of course, a place so dense with taverns and tombstones would be a community of storytellers. The best stories are usually told over a beer or in memoriam.

Since Forest Park's Historical Society is in transition, Knack gathered most of his information by visiting local churches, bars, cemeteries, and talking to residents. One person's story would lead him to another person to interview.

This is what makes his book unique among the Arcadia series and what makes it uniquely Forest Park. His talk at Centuries and Sleuths became a group discussion at the end, lively as I imagine the gatherings at Haase's picnic grove. Swing by the store and pick up a copy-it's a conversation piece, and if you love living here as much as I do, it's a conversation you should be eager to join in on.

Stephanie is the author of "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" and "Ballads of Suburbia." She's a proud Forest Parker who holds a master's in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site www.stephaniekuehnert.com.

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