Remembrances of Ravenswood... and More

Vol. VIII No. 1 - SUMMER 1997

By: Carl Helbig

As a boy in the 1930s, what fascinated me most of all in my corner of Edgewater was not the impressive homes built by some famous architect, but rather the working businesses, where there was activity - people and machines doing things. There was plenty of activity to explore in the Ravenswood corridor, north of Rosehill Drive, on both sides of the railroad tracks.

Heh! If you’re not too busy, why don’t you let me take you there? (The numbers refer to points on the attached map.)

  1. Starting on the south end at Ravenswood and Thorndale was a factory that I was told made greeting cards. It has recently been turned into loft apartments.
  2. North of that was the Palmquist Millwork Shop. They made windows and all kinds of fancy woodwork. I still have a receipt from them for woodwork my father purchased.
    Next on Ravenswood was a little alley that lead to a horse stable. I never ventured back there.
  3. Then there was the blacksmith shop. The blacksmith was a friendly man with an easy smile and laugh. I was amazed at how he could pick up a horse’s leg, put it between his legs, work on the horse’s hoof, and the horse didn’t mind. He pried off an old shoe, filed the hoof and then drove square nails into the horse’s hoof, doing all four legs with no complaints from the horse.
    One summer day, the blacksmith was welding. He wore a strange, dark hood over his head. His big door was open for fresh air and I wanted to watch. He chased me away. I watched anyway. Every time he raised the visor on his hood. I’d hide so he wouldn’t see me. That night, my eyes felt funny; everything looked green to me.
  4. Consumer Ice Company was next. My sister, Anna, and I had to go there with our wooden wagon to get ice for our icebox at home. It had a big loading dock with stairs going up to it. We’d go up, tell the man how much ice we wanted, pay him, and he would go through the big insulated door to get it. Sometimes we could sneak in with him. It was a large, cavernous room filled with big, oblong pieces of ice. It was cold in there and had a different smell.
    The man had a thing called an ice tong, which he used to grab one of those big chunks of ice and separate it from the rest. That big chunk had creases in it. He’d take this ice pick, like a sharp screwdriver, and stab the ice on one of those creases, going down the whole crease, both sides, and a piece would break loose. He would do that until he had the right size you wanted. Then he’d send it through a little door, just big enough for one of those big chunks. It was like a little slide and the door opened and closed, all by itself.
    After the ice was outside, we still had to wait for the man to carry it down to our wagon. Then we covered the ice with burlap bags, newspapers and a blanket, just as if it were a baby, and took it home fast as we could. My father would be waiting to carry it into the icebox with his ice tongs. After we uncovered it, he looked to see how much it had melted. If it looked too melted, he hollered at us for not coming home fast enough.
  5. Ace Laundry had a big chimney and big washing machines. It also had an alley with a real nice slope to go down in the wagon, if you didn’t have ice in the wagon. They had the door open there too, on hot days. We could see the black women putting the dirty clothes into mesh bags, closing each with a big safety pin, then shoving them into the washing machines. I didn’t like watching them; it was hot, steamy and smelled bad.
    The alley disappeared when they tore the laundry down. They leveled the ground and put up government subsidized Section 8 housing instead.
  6. Across Peterson Avenue was a stable with horses and then the Ridge Avenue viaduct.
  7. I was there once when Harry Bairstow, the excavator, came back with one of his steam shovels. Its chimney was on a hinge that folded down. Using its own steam power, a man drove the shovel off its trailer and then went under the railroad through the viaduct.
  8. Bairstow’s had a big hole where they dug out a lot of sand that they sold to people who needed it to make concrete or mortar. It was about three stories deep. Their garage is still there; the Bairstow name is engraved in stone on it.
  9. To the south on Peterson Avenue was a real big hill with a stable that gave pony rides. The hill was made mostly of sand. When they sold all the sand, the hill disappeared.
  10. Back on the east side of the tracks on Ravenswood was a family named Winandy that was in the business of making wooden ladders.
  11. Another family built greenhouses.
  12. But the factory I liked best was Fred Bush’s Sausage Factory. When we had enough money, I would go with my father to buy a big salami sausage. We could watch them shovel the meat into the grinder, visit the smokehouse and pick out the perfect sausage - not too soft, not too hard, not too small, not too big, but just right - like picking out a Christmas tree.
  13. Back home, after getting some fresh rye bread from Wolf’s Bakery on Clark near Granville, we’d cut the sausage in pieces about a 1/4" thick, take off the skin and eat like kings!
  14. Further north on Hermitage was a vacant, "haunted" house. When my mother found out I had gone there, she made me promise never to go there again. My sister, Anna, had to promise, too.
  15. At Thome and Ravenswood was a Northwestern Railroad station. It had a wooden waiting room with a potbelly stove. But, best of all, it had steam engines that ran down railroad tracks. If you put a penny on the tracks, it would be all flattened out after the train had passed.
    You had to be careful and not be too close when the train went by. The wind would blow up and over and possibly suck you in. My mother didn’t like me playing there either and claimed all the dust in our house was from those steam engines.
  16. To the east was a construction yard with a tall wooden fence.
  17. Across Devon Avenue, west of the tracks, was the Peterson Coal Company. That’s where we would have to walk to order our coal. The office was on a hill with a lot of steps going up to it. My father and I would order Pacahanas Mine Run coal.
    East of the office was a railroad side-track and a great big thing called a bumper to keep the coal cars from going too far and falling onto Devon Avenue. There was a grate between the tracks and hopper doors on the coal cars allowed the cars to unload by dropping the coal down through this grate. This took place outside the coal yard, but they never left any extra coal out there for us to get.
    I was really impressed by their big, red Mack coal trucks. They had solid rubber tires with wooden spoke wheels, open cabs and a big chain, like a bicycle has, making them go. Their hoods were like pyramids with the tops cut off and they each had a bulldog for a hood ornament. Many times they had a steel wheelbarrow chained to the back.
    Often we would see the men who shoveled the coal riding on the back platform of the streetcar. Their big shovels were very, very clean. The men were always full of coal dust.
    We had to shovel our own coal at home since we were in hard times. My father wheeled the coal in from the street. My sisters and I would have to shovel it away from the basement opening that he dumped it into, so that there would be room for the next load. By the time all the coal was in. we had it piled up to the ceiling.
  18. Along that railroad siding was the Thomas Moulding Brick Company. I would go there to get bricks when my father, who was a bricklayer, needed bricks for a job. The bricks were in covered wooden sheds. They were packed with straw between them to keep them from getting chipped while being handled. Homeless men would gather all the extra straw and make beds for themselves to sleep on.
  19. North Shore Stone Company was also by the railroad siding. It was a big, steel and glass building. There was a traveling crane that was way up inside the building. It had a man inside who drove the crane back and forth on tracks near the ceiling, lifting stone for the men on the ground. Some of the men had little hammers, connected to air hoses, that they would use to carve the stone. In the office was a big table where other men drew full-scale drawings for stones to be cut. They would walk and crawl on this big table. One of my father’s bricklaying friends once said. "I could build a house out of the stone in their scrap heap."
  20. Next to them was a contractor named Erick A. Borg. Later in life, I worked for him laying brick with my father.
  21. At the far north end of the corridor was Bowman Dairy. It’s the only building left that S & C Electric Company did not demolish when they built their large factory in a nicely landscaped area, from Devon Avenue to almost Pratt.
  22. S & C even tore down the old Packard Showroom on the south side of Devon Avenue.
  23. Across the street from our house was a greenhouse, originally owned by a vegetable grower named Dilger. It stretched from Paulina to Clark Street. There were about six or seven rows of glass roofs facing north and south to get the most sun. The roofs had large glass vents that could be opened up from inside by turning a crank. Sometimes a man would go up on the roof gutters between each roof and spray whitewash on the glass to keep the sun from being so strong inside. Besides the greenhouse, there was a big outside garden where they grew carrots, celery, asparagus, lettuce and other things in summer.
    A driveway entered off of Paulina Street; it went along the north end of the greenhouse up to a big frame house that sat on a hill. Along the garden side of the driveway was a row of big, beautiful lilac bushes. The sidewalk that ran from Clark Street to Paulina was straight. You could see that the hill the house was on was five feet higher than the sidewalk but, by Paulina Street, it was only two feet higher. In the winter, water would freeze on the lower Paulina Street end, making an ice skating rink for my sisters and the rest of the neighborhood. In the spring, we would watch a man plow the area with a horse so things could be planted.
    The greenhouse had a big brick garage and boiler room. The boiler room was down several steps and had a tall, six-sided chimney that must have been six stories high. One fall, the people moved away. My boyfriend and I pulled out some long carrots and played sword-fencing with them. In the spring, we harvested the asparagus. The garden was soon taken over by weeds.
    Then the greenhouse got new owners. They started growing flowers. There were many women working there, who planted and transplanted flowers in pots. Although it was very warm in the greenhouse, they never got sunburned or tan under the glass. My father and I often watched them work, but we never could get any flowers to bring home to my mother - wholesale only.
    We became friendly with the custodian. In the winter he had to keep a big fire going in the boiler so the flowers in the greenhouse wouldn’t freeze. The custodian kept a pet cat to catch rats and mice. Soon the cat had kittens. They became cats. The custodian didn’t need all those cats, nor could he afford to feed them. He felt the solution to his problem was to dispose of the tomcat.
    One night, he was able to catch the tomcat. He had a good, hot fire burning. He opened the boiler door, threw the cat in and slammed the door shut. The cat began to howl - a terrible howl he had never heard the likes of before. Soon all the cats from all over the greenhouse came running into the sunken boiler room. The howling continued - would it ever stop?
    The cats were running around crazily, running up the walls and jumping into the air. The custodian began to fear being attacked by the cats. Finally the howling stopped and the cats calmed down. He tried to get up the nerve to open the boiler door. It couldn’t still be alive! He opened the door and there the cat stood, on its tiptoes with its back arched up. The custodian got his iron poker and hit it. It fell apart - nothing but ashes. He vowed he’d never do anything like that again.
    With the war over and housing in short supply, that area became too valuable to waste on growing flowers. They wanted it for housing. The greenhouse was easy to tear down, but what about that tall chimney? If it fell like a tree, it would crash across Glenlake. They tied a rope to it near the top and chopped a hole in it just like they do on a tree to make it fall a certain way. When they pulled on the rope, almost all the chimney fell straight down. The bricks must not have been stuck together anymore.
    I wonder if anyone still has a photo of that greenhouse. I have a picture of myself in my Army uniform, on leave just before going overseas, with two of my sisters. In it you can see just a corner of the greenhouse.
  24. Further north on Paulina Street, in the 6100 block, were two beer distributors. One was August Miller. He was on the northeast corner. He had a truck. Sometimes my father would go with him to help with the heavy beer barrels.
    One day I went with them to Niles Center, now called Skokie Blvd, to deliver beer. The truck had an open cab. I had to sit on my fathers lap. It was windy. Going west on Lincoln Avenue along the railroad tracks were some big gasoline tanks, so we couldn’t see the train until it was upon us. If it blew its whistle, we didn’t hear it for all the noise the truck made. To keep from hitting the train, or vice versa, Mr. Miller turned down a gravel road alongside the track. My father said he was just about to throw me off his lap to save me. "I thought I was going to break my wooden wheel spokes," Mr. Miller said.
    Of course, I can’t forget to mention Lund Hardware at 5200 N. Clark Street, now the Swedish Museum, where every carpenter in the neighborhood got windows, hinges, door locks and anything else needed to finish a home. What intrigued me most was the way your money was sent up a wire-like trolley to a lady on the second level, who made change and sent it back down.

Nothing remains the same, nor should it. How boring it would be if it did. Isn’t it nice to remember how things have changed? We hope for the better. Everything has its time and place.