Roundabout Christmas

Vol. VIII No. 2 - FALL 1997

By: Carl Helbig

The Chefases are the proud owners of Gethsemane Garden Center at 5801 N. Clark Street.

Lucille Chefas knew something wasn’t right when they came home from Brookfield Zoo. They had left early in the morning with their son John, daughter-in-law Cathy and their grandchildren, for the Shedd Aquarium and then went to Brookfield Zoo to see the dolphins. They had been gone all day. It had gotten dark and the Christmas lights were on.

The lights must have been on all day! They had turned them on early in the morning to admire all the work Cathy had done decorating the house and yard where they sold other Christmas trees. John’s family had come from Florida to see Chicago and enjoy the Christmas season with his parents.

“No use turning the lights off now since they’ve been on all day,” Mrs. Chefas said. “Even the lights to the train village are on.”

After the busy day, everyone but Spiros and Lucille went upstairs to bed. They were in the habit of watching the 10 o’clock news, so they stayed up.

Spiros asked his wife, “Do you want to watch Johnny Carson? He’s going to have on that actress you like.” Before she could answer, there was a “pop” like a bulb bursting; the Christmas tree went up in flames.

“Fire! Get out of the house!” Spiros yelled up the open stairway.

Luckily, his granddaughter was brushing her teeth in the upstairs bathroom, heard him and woke her parents.

Grandpa Chefas, Spiros’ father that is, came to America from Greece in 1911. He got a job as a cook in a Chicago restaurant. The Moody Bible Church was nearby. He fell in love with a nice Swedish girl named Ester Benson and married her in the church. With her help, Regas Chefas opened his own restaurant. He also bought a little farm just over the border in Wisconsin.

Grandpa Chefas’s real passion was growing things on his farm. He’d often put someone in charge at the restaurant and take the family to help on the farm. What he didn’t grow himself, he’d buy from his neighbors to use in his restaurant. His son, Spiros, received an early indoctrination to gardening.

Too small to work in the restaurant, but having an enterprising spirit, young Spiros would go to Randolph Street and buy roses at 12 cents a dozen, bring them back to Devon Avenue and sell them in front of the new Granada Theater for a dollar apiece.

Spiros lived in a number of homes, but always on Devon Avenue. He attended Hayt, Sullivan Junior High and Senn High School in Edgewater. One of his best friends while growing up was Clayton Moore. Some time after high school, Clayton, who was interested in acting, decided to go to California and tried to persuade Spiros to go with him. Clayton went west alone and eventually got the part of “The Lone Ranger.” He became famous but visited his friend Spiros whenever he came to Chicago.

After graduating from Senn, Spiros went to Northwestern University’s Chicago campus for five semesters, studying accounting and business administration. There’s an old saying that goes something like, “a son’s skill is 50% learned, even before he picks up his father’s tools.” So it seemed only natural that Spiros would open up his own restaurant. He did, keeping the books for other restaurant owners as well.

Like his father, he had a number of different business locations. One was the Runway by O’Hare Airport. His wife dreaded hearing the telephone ring. Many times it would be Spiros calling for her help. They were real busy or the cook, waitress or dishwasher hadn’t come to work. “I’m swimming out here; hurry!” Spiros would say over the phone.

Not knowing how to drive, Lucille would have to take a couple of buses to get there with her daughters. After they got off the last bus, the only way to get to the restaurant was walking down the railroad tracks; trains never came. She’d keep the three girls inside the rails, so they wouldn’t wander off. The girls didn’t like working there, except for making milk shakes.

The Chefases has just bought a new home on Devon Avenue. Spiros, wanting to treat his daughters with a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween, went to Vince’s market at Paulina, Peterson and Ridge. Charlie, Vince’s partner, wanted 75 cents for a pumpkin. Spiros couldn’t believe there was such a mark-up on pumpkins. His father used to buy them for a nickel on the farm. He went out to the country, had a truckload dumped on his front lawn and sold them all.

If pumpkins sold so well, Spiros thought, how about Christmas trees? The first year he got them from Randolph Street, but then turned to the tree farms - Novas Scotia, Newfoundland, Wisconsin and Michigan. He had the trees shipped by rail to the Peterson Coal Company yard at Devon and Ravenswood.

That was the start, 50-some years ago, of having pumpkins and Christmas trees for sale in the Chefas’ front yard. I got personally involved with the Chefases at First Swedish Highland Avenue Methodist Church. I, too, had followed my father in his trade and become a bricklayer.

It was a very cold winter that Christmas and all the trees were frozen together. In order to separate them, Spiros took them down into his basement to thaw them out. He made the mistake of taking the local Fire Chief down there to pick out a tree for the fire station.

“You must be crazy having all these trees down here now!” the very upset Fire Chief said. Spiros needed a place to thaw out his trees. “Can you build me a two-stall garage, Carl?” Spiros asked.

I worked for a contractor at that time and was only free on Saturdays. So, the next Saturday, my carpenter friend John Gidzinski, my son Arthur and I poured a concrete foundation and floor. The next Saturday, with three other bricklayer friends, we built the garage out of 8-inch cement blocks. John added the roof and doors during the week.

The next Saturday, I came to get paid. Lucille Chefas had her ironing board in the living room by the front window so she could watch for potential Christmas tree customers. I noticed the brick fireplace front, that went all the way to the top of the 12-foot ceiling, had never been properly anchored to the wall behind it. Every time a bus or truck would go by, it would balance precariously. If it fell on Lucille, she wouldn’t be ironing clothes for awhile. I warned Spiros of the danger.

“I’ll take it down, clean the bricks and you can put them up right next time,” he said. I wasn’t sure he would take the bricks down like he promised and was surprised when one day I got a phone call. “You can come and put the bricks back on the fireplace now,” said Spiros.

My bricklayer friends, John Possler and I layered the fireplace the next Saturday, anchoring it properly. Only one thing we did wrong. We didn’t put as much mortar between the bricks as the first bricklayer had, so we were one course (row) short. “I knew those kids would lose some when they were cleaning them. They were carrying them all over the place,” Spiros muttered. I didn’t correct him.

On my different outings with Spiros, he was always looking for a Garden Center site. “You know restaurants; what do you want with a Garden Center?” I asked. “This neighborhood needs one,” was his reply. He bought the lot where Car X now stands at 6039 N. Clark, but always felt it was too small, had no parking and no room for expansion.

When Spiros’s son Regas, after a stint in the Army, his college training, marriage and other endeavors, came back to Chicago, Gethsemane Garden Center became a reality at 5801 N. Clark Street in 1978.

Business blossomed in more ways than one over the years; more space was needed. The Garden Center purchased the block of property directly to its south, razed one of the buildings to make way for a new greenhouse, remodeled the former Amvets Post at 5739 N. Clark and opened its expansions in the fall of 1995.

To think it all began over 70 years ago with Grandpa Regas’ garden on a Wisconsin farm!

“Fire! Get out of the house!” Spiros had yelled to them up the open stairway. He yelled again for them to go out the back way, as he and Lucille then did. They didn’t hear, or still sleepy, not thinking, they came down the front way into the fire.

The children and Cathy got minor burns on their hands and faces. John, thinking his parents were still in the fire, kept going back into the house to look for them. His face, hands, left side and chest were badly burned. He spent eight weeks in the Burn Unit of Cook County Hospital before returning to live in Florida with his family.

Structural damage to the house was extensive. Spiros and Lucille had to live in a rented apartment for a while. When the insurance company repaired the fire damage, they didn’t replace the massive brick front on the fireplace. There’s just a small marble front with wood trim now. But everything looks terrific with wall-to-wall carpeting, new railings to the second floor, new tile on the bath and fixtures, walls and ceilings repainted, new furniture and a big, prominent grandfather clock.

Life often seems to go roundabout in circles. The memory of their family’s worst tragedy is bound up with the Chefases’ success selling Christmas trees and the creation of the Gethsemane Garden Center - a biblical reference to a garden outside Jerusalem that, centuries ago, involved another story of suffering and rebirth.