By John Rice
Ben Brooks is the family historian of an illustrious local clan. He is the great-great-grandson of Forest Park's founder, Ferdinand H. Haase. He feels a heavy responsibility to preserve his family's saga for future generations. He has preserved early accounts written by his ancestors and historic photographs they took of pioneer Forest Park. However, in all his research, Brooks had never set foot in Forest Park, nor seen the Haase family plot at Forest Home Cemetery (FHC).
That is why Brooks and his wife Clarissa came to the village on June 8. First stop was the cemetery, where they met members of the Forest Park Historical Society, including Jill Wagner, Alexis Ellers and Jean Lotus. Brooks gave them copies of accounts written by Ferdinand Haase and his son, Leo Haase, they had never seen before. He also gave them photographs of his family working the land and mining sand from the Des Plaines River.
At the Haase family plot, Brooks was impressed by the towering obelisk and thrilled to finally view the graves, including the final resting place of his great-grandfather, Leo G. Haase. Thanks to Leo's migration to the west coast, Brooks has always called California home.
After exploring the cemetery, Brooks went to Forest Park Village Hall to meet Jerry Lordan and Mayor Anthony Calderone.
"The mayor was very gracious," Brooks said. He presented Brooks and his wife with Forest Park baseball caps and buttons bearing the village's logo. Their final stop was the library, where Brooks examined the Native American artifacts that had been recovered from Forest Home. He later sent an e-mail to his cousins describing his visit. "They were very excited. They loved the photos."
Brooks has long studied the life of "the unforgettable Ferdinand Haase."
"It was his letter to his children that got me going," he said. The letter describes Haase's incredible journeys — from Germany to Chicago, from Chicago to New Orleans and his harrowing trip back to Germany to bring the rest of the family to America. "This guy was adventurous!"
Haase's adventure continued when he purchased land along the Des Plaines River. "On account of unhealthful conditions at the village of Chicago," Leo wrote, "Ferdinand Haase and Father Zimmerman decide to move out in the country, ten miles west. There was a gravel ridge, and clean water, forest, and a river full of fish."
After Haase started farming the land, "picnickers began to arrive on account of the beautiful forest." Haase was only 30 years old when he decided to purchase more property.
"He went into debt for $12,000, an immense sum in those days," Leo wrote. "From my twelfth year on, I had one great desire, that Pa pay off the mortgage, but he would not." Even after Haase sold a parcel for $46,000, for the creation of Concordia Cemetery, "the $12,000 debt still hung over our heads."
Haase needed a fresh start and felt he was too old to open a new picnic ground. He proposed starting Forest Home Cemetery but had no money to invest in the project. So the family started selling gravel and sand from their property. They built dams in the Des Plaines and drained sections to pump out the sand. Leo also patented a new wheeled scraper, drawn by horses, to gather the gravel. The gravel was shipped out via a railroad spur that had been built into the cemetery.
"We began to prosper through the sale of sand and gravel," Leo wrote.
The year was 1884 and people of Proviso Township wanted Ferdinand Haase to go into a different kind of business — politics.
"Well, Pa just positively refused to take part in politics, so the people suggested one of his sons." Leo was 21 when he was elected highway commissioner. "We levied taxes and built roads and bridges." To save expenses, Leo became a surveyor. Besides surveying for new roads, he surveyed the cemetery, where he now served as superintendent.
"About this time," he wrote, "the people of our neighborhood again became dissatisfied. They wanted sidewalks, water-works, a light plant but, most of all, they wanted to get their hands on the license money of twenty-eight saloons at $500.00 each."
Leo had his hands full, running the cemetery and manufacturing cement pipe at his plant. But he decided to run for village clerk and help incorporate the village. After becoming village clerk of Harlem (which included today's Forest Park), Leo requested a phone line to the cemetery. It was worth the $600 expense to know in advance, when a funeral was arriving.
"Business grew by leaps and bounds" and Haase acquired land on the west bank of the Des Plaines. Leo designed a lightweight suspension bridge that was written up in "Scientific American" and the family continued to purchase property west of the river. "It is worth a million dollars now in cemetery lots," Leo wrote.
Apart from selling lots, the Haase family became more deeply involved in the cement business. Leo patented a machine for making property markers, which they sold in vast quantities. He manufactured thousands of sidewalks slabs. When they began building brick vaults in the cemetery, Leo recommended they build cement vaults instead. This gave birth to the Wilbert Vault Co.
At age 53, Leo abruptly relocated to California. He didn't explain why, except that the climate agreed with him. However, it was difficult for him to leave his "beautiful little shop" and his childhood home. When he moved, he sold the business at a loss. "I only got a little over $4,000 for a business that brought me $2,500 per year."
In Pasadena, Leo went big into the cement business, manufacturing cemetery markers, sign posts and water meter boxes (After twisting his ankle on a wooden meter box, he devised cement ones and solicited cities to buy them). The business added fence posts, lamp posts and statuary like birdbaths and sundials, which were called "yard art." Throughout his business career, Leo attributed his success to "imagination." He used his inventive mind to patent machines and overcome the technical problems he faced.
The business he founded in Pasadena, in 1910, Art Concrete Products, continues to prosper as Brooks Products. It is named after Leo's son-in-law and Ben Brooks' grandfather, Frank Morgan Brooks Sr.
"I worked summers there, driving a forklift, sweeping and painting," Brooks said, "I was so uninterested in the whole thing. My father was disappointed but good about it."
Brooks' passion was music. "I started playing the flute in bands until I was in college. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull was my role model." At the University of Denver, a small private college, Brooks earned his degree in mass marketing, which encompassed journalism, photography, film and TV. After graduation, he said, "I tried to become a professional musician but decided to go into the music business instead." Brooks knocked on doors in Hollywood to get interviews with musicians and write reviews.
"I learned how to produce singles and promote them for radio play."
Brooks started out working for record labels but now has his own company, Ben Brooks Marketing. "I phone music directors, go on the road with bands and have them play at radio stations.
After his father, Frank Brooks Jr., passed away in 2014, Brooks became more interested in family history. As an elder of the family he felt a responsibility to the descendants of Ferdinand Haase to keep his story alive.
"Once a life is gone, it sinks into the past," he observed. "I wanted to share family history with my cousins." This included researching the family tree back to 1829.
In this way, he is following in the footsteps of Ferdinand and Leo Haase, whose written accounts preserve the early history of Forest Park. He shares another passion with them: He's a nature lover. Just as Ferdinand sought a secluded retreat close to a growing city, Brooks lives in a quiet canyon, only 20 minutes from downtown Los Angeles.
"It's called The Glen. It has a creek and it's like a nature preserve."
In digging into family history, Brooks discovered he shares other qualities with his ancestors. He has the adventurous spirit, imagination and the gumption of a pioneer family that prospers to this day.