By: Everett Stetson
When I was three years old, in April of 1919, my family consisting of mother, father, my older sister and myself, moved to 1754 W. Bryn Mawr from Pittsburgh, PA (I was born in Cincinnati, OH). My dad was a civil engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad and supervised track elevation in various cities. In 1919, he was loaned to the Union Station Company to work on the building of that Chicago station as number two engineer.
Housing was extremely tight after World War I. My dad came alone to Chicago and bought the Bryn Mawr house practically unseen for $4,800. The house was a five room, two bedroom frame bungalow. It was built about 1915, just before the City Building Code was changed to outlaw the building of all frame houses inside the city limits. There was a solid row of similar houses on the north side of Bryn Mawr from Ravenswood to Hermitage and also on both sides of Olive Street.
Across the street was a large empty lot, about a city block in length, lined with very old huge willows. There were practically no buildings between Paulina and Ravenswood and Bryn Mawr and Gregory.
On our first day in the house, my mother went up to the attic and looked over the railroad tracks and beyond and was delighted to see what she thought was a beautiful park. She was very disappointed to learn that it was actually Rosehill Cemetery.
Almost every house had a couple of youngsters, except for the Samuelson house. Mr. Samuelson was a jeweler who owned the shop at the “L” station on Bryn Mawr. The store in later years was taken over by Gunther Marx.
We kids had a great time playing in the big empty field across from our house. There, in the summer, giant ragweed grew six feet tall, which made a great hiding place for us and provided material for fashioning wonderful spears.
We also dug six-foot holes and covered them over with timber to use for hiding places and imaginative play. Sometimes the Olive Street gang or the gang on Bryn Mawr east of Hermitage would destroy our efforts. The word “gang” did not have the modem negative connotation in those days; it was more like referring to the “Spanky and Our Gang” type kids of television comedy.
One of the biggest days of the year for us was Decoration Day (Memorial Day). A steady stream of people (sans cars back then) headed for the cemetery to decorate the graves. Merchants would provide candy, Cracker Jack, gum and flags on consignment to the kids who set up the stands along Ravenswood. Some of us sold homemade lemonade to the thirsty crowd.
In those days, the Catholic churches were very ethnic. St. Gregory was German and St. Ita was Irish. Woe to the kids who attended school out of the parish (Clark Street was the dividing line)! Father Clausen of St. Greg’s and Father Crowe of St. Ita would give them holy heck if they encountered them on the street.
A great building boom began after World War I and many two-flats, three-flats and six-flats went up in the vacant field across from our house. It was great fun to play on the buildings under construction. They were built of brick (face brick in front and common Chicago brick on the sides and rear - which my mother thought was being very cheap). They used a good deal of stone for sills, arches and decoration.
On the southwest corner of Bryn Mawr and Lincoln Street (now Wolcott) was a large sheet steel structure which housed Scoglund Stone Cutting Company. They made deliveries up the street using horse-drawn, low-bed wagons. The builders did not have mechanical equipment, so they used large iron scoops drawn by two horses to plow out the foundations.
Often on Saturdays we would walk north to the beautiful stone railroad station at Rosehill that was built to match the cemetery entrance buildings. (It should never have been torn down, landmark that it was!) In the days before autos, many funeral processions came by rail (there is evidence to this day of the stone elevator on the west side of the tracks). I never saw it, but I understand the Chicago Surface Lines had a black street car for funerals. This is the same line that we boarded to go shopping downtown. From the Madison St. station we took a horse-drawn bus to State Street.
In those days, most wakes were held in the living room of the home of the deceased. A big bouquet of calla lilies would be displayed on the front door. The hearses were beautifully sculptured vehicles in three colors - white for children, grey for adults and black for the elderly.
The street car (Ravenswood-Rosehill) did not turn east as the bus now does, but ran straight north to Rosehill Drive, the terminus. The route turned west at Balmoral to Robey Street (now Damen), then south to Lincoln Avenue at Irving Park, then southeast to Center Street (now Armitage) and crossed under the river on LaSalle via a tunnel. The cars were the old faithful 1909 Pullmans, not quite as large as the Pullmans on Clark Street.
The street north of Rosehill Drive was not paved and very poor people lived there; as I recall, they kept pigs.
The freight traffic was very heavy on the railroad and every night at eight o’clock a full trainload of harvesters would come by. My mother called it “The Harvester” and used the train schedule as my schedule to come in from play.
There were two greenhouses with retail stores on Ravenswood - Schleifs and Quasthoff’s. There were also two theaters on Clark Street - the Calo and the Temple. Features were changed three times a week. Another fond remembrance is the horse-drawn waffle wagon which provided wonderful treats in the form of sugar-encrusted waffles.
When my mother heard that the Halsey Chemical Company was to build a large factory across the street, she said: “Let’s get out of here!”… And so we sold the house in April of 1928 for $8,000 and moved to 5544 N. Wayne. We bought the new house for $14,500.
And that’s what it was like growing up from 1919 to 1928 at Ravenswood and Bryn Mawr Avenues, when empty lots grew wonderful willows and giant ragweeds.