Robert C. Greer

Robert C. Greer Interview*

SUMMERDALE 1874-1889

In the early part of 1871, escaping the great conflagration of October 9, 1871, by a few brief months, a young couple with one small daughter came to live in Ravenswood after five years residence on Chicago’s “north side,” where the parents had arrived from Philadelphia in 1866.

Even at that early period the urge to get away from the noise and confusion of the city life had started the trend northward and one real estate “boom” had created Ravenswood in 1869.

This young family occupied a house on the southeast corner of Sunnyside Avenue and Robey Street [now Damen], diagonally across the street from the residence of Martin Van Allen, most prominent of the early realtors in Ravenswood, which still remains on the original site, sound and well preserved.

In 1874 an echo of the earlier real estate boom brought them to the James A. Clybourn subdivision south of North 59th Street [now Foster Avenue] and immediately west of the Chicago and North Western Railroad, where a twenty-acre tract began to take form as a residential neighborhood.

Of the experiences in the fifteen years following, schools seem to have left the most lasting impressions, with Saturday shopping expeditions “down town” with mother running a close second.

There were no stores of any kind in Summerdale until sometime in the middle eighties when Peter Miller, son of Nicholas Miller, one of the earliest settlers, opened a small grocery at the northeast corner of Wolcott and North 59th Streets.

Telephones were unknown until an exchange was established by Mr. John N. Hills at Leland Avenue and Green Bay Road, Ravenswood, in 1883. In the directory issued that year the names of the seventeen subscribers appeared; in the following year, the first telephone installation was made in Summerdale; since there were no others in the near vicinity, it meant little to the younger generation, merely an interesting novelty like the zinc bath tub and running water coming from a “crib” far out in the lake, which had created a mild sensation only a few years before.

Electricity for lighting was introduced in Summerdale in the middle eighties with the advent of the Calumet Cotton Factory [owned by Robert C. Greer’s father, Robert Greer], not as we now know it, but in the form of sputtering arc lights, not acceptable for home use.

An unforgettable memory is that of endless flocks of wild geese headed north, up Lake Michigan in the spring, and southward, usually rather late in the fall; of wild ducks there were many, too, but the louder honking geese furnished the real thrill, particularly when, approaching the lake, their flight at a descending angle brought them within a few hundred feet of the ground. Year after year these flights seemed to follow the same undeviating course.

The railroad, then at ground level, was of never ending interest to the youth of the community.

Summerdale Station – Chicago & North Western Railway, 1875

The earliest steam railroad extending north along the lake shore was the Chicago & Milwaukee Railroad; it was organized in 1855 and its tracks extended from the Chicago depot, west of the Chicago River at Kinzie, to the Wisconsin State Line near Waukegan.

At about the same time the Milwaukee & Chicago Railroad was promoted; starting at Milwaukee, it extended south to the Illinois State Line at a point where passengers and freight were transformed to and from the Chicago & Milwaukee Railroad; by 1856 these two roads had been acquired by the Chicago & North Western Railway, when through service, on a very limited scale, however, was established.

On its suburban line, Ravenswood, established in 1869, was the first station out from Chicago; then Rosehill, where the Cemetery Company was organized in 1859, Calvary, South Evanston, North Evanston and Glencoe.

In 1875, January 26th, the Chicago and North Western Railway, Albert Keep, President, executed a contract with James A. Clybourn and Robert Greer to stop two trains a day, each way, at Summerdale Station which had been built by Mr. Clybourn on the west side of the railroad tracks; the contract provided that the parties of the first part (Clybourn and Greer) would guarantee the sale of not less than twenty 30-ride tickets each year and that there would be the equivalent of that many tickets in the hands of bona fide purchasers at all times. Whether or not the guarantors thereafter were called upon to make up in cash any shortage due to passenger revenues falling below the stipulated volume, is not a matter of record; one of the original copies of the contract is still in existence, however, since it provides, in part, that the depot in question shall be called “Summerdale,” the authentic date of naming of that small community may be fixed as January 26, 1875. [Click here to read this contract.]

In a volume entitled “A History of the Origin and Place Names Connected with the Chicago & North Western Railway in 1908,” it is stated that the founder and first resident of Summerdale selected the name because of “its pleasant sound and suggestions,” a selection which might well have been made under the inspiration of sunny days when the meadow larks were singing in the fields, with no thought of bleak wintry January days to come.

Andersonville School

Located at the southeast corner of Green Bay Road (Clark Street) and North 59th Street (now Foster Street) was a small one-room frame building, painted white with green trimmings, in existence as early as 1861, being shown on a map published that year by Edward Mendel, 162 Lake Street, corner LaSalle Street, Chicago, a perfect example of a real old-time country school house.

On a later map published by Charles Rascher in 1874, a subdivision marked “Andersonville” extended from Green Bay Road west to the Chicago and North Western Railway Company tracks, Foster Street and Clay Street [now Argyll Street] being the north and south boundaries; on this map P. Anderson is shown as owner of a 20.62 acre tract on the east side of Green Bay Road, across from this subdivision; this was the site of his residence in 1875. Presumably Andersonville took its name from that association. On his land there was at that date an orchard of cherry trees of a size indicating an age of fifteen or twenty years.

Immediately west of the school lot was a long low wooden building where hemp rope was made; we know of it as a “rope walk,” the name probably associated with the process of twisting the long stretch of hemp strands under the constant care of the rope maker who kept on the move, back and forth, as the rope took form. It was all done by hand and apparently on a modest scale, one of the very industrial plants in that locality.

The date of my first acquaintance with Andersonville School must have been at the opening of the term in September 1875, when an older sister, two years my senior, arrived at school age; tugging along to keep her company, I became enrolled as a pupil at the age of four. Miss MacFarland was the teacher and the total enrollment might have been in the neighborhood of twenty; the school room could not have held more than that number of desks.

Summerdale School

A few years later, about 1878 or 1879, the first Summerdale School was established at a location identifiable now as North Winchester Avenue, south of Winona Street; after that the little old Andersonville School and its associations faded into a dim and shadowy memory, though it comes back to me that later on Mrs. Jackson of Bowmanville, whose family subsequently became residents of Summerdale, taught there.

Mr. Jackson, a small, wiry, black whiskered veteran of the Civil War, stands out in my memory and their son Archie was among the boys of our small community. The Jacksons were agriculturally inclined and became producers of mushrooms on a considerable scale in the Bowmanville district where the Budlong pickle factory and that of Squire Dingee originated and grew to prominence in that important industry.

In a photograph of the Summerdale School, taken about 1880, the teacher, Miss Addie Cravens, a young lad of sweet disposition and a keen sense of humor, and her seventeen pupils appear. Later Miss Kittie Grover, a lovely lady whose home was in Evanston, a member of a family still residing there, was in charge. This school was discontinued in the early eighties when Lawrence Avenue School in Ravenswood was established. Sulzer Street School in Ravenswood absorbed the Summerdale children then ready for the higher grades and Summerdale School was a school center no longer.

Summerdale Post Office

Robert Greer was appointed postmaster October 26, 1887; his commission was extended November 14, 1887, by William F. Vilas, Postmaster General.

The post office was located in a brick building on the northeast corner of Foster Street and East Ravenswood Avenue, now the site of a filling station. Mary _____ (maiden name, later married Charlie Olson) officiated as clerk in charge and in 1889 became postmistress.

Sundays and School Days

There were no churches in Summerdale as late as February 1889. Sundays were long and often dull, though not from lack of exercise; two trips to Ravenswood on foot, attending morning and evening services at Mr. Lloyd’s Congregational Church constituted the usually routine for the day.

Week days, a round trip daily to Sulzer Street school and later to Lake View High School, at Ashland and Graceland Avenue [now Irving Park], helped to maintain the physical well-being of Summerdale youth. In extreme weather the morning trip was sometimes made by Chicago and North Western train to Cuyler Station but this was rather frowned upon as an indication of softness. When the first high school burned in 1885, a few of us walked each day to and from the chapel at School Street, near Evanston Avenue (now Broadway) occupied for school quarters during the period of rebuilding; others used the horse-car line operating on the earlier steam “dummy” tracks extending from Diversey Street along Evanston Avenue and Graceland Avenue to Clark Street.

Only a few of the old ties remain, yet there is constant and very pleasant reminder of the old days, old friends and old places in the daily morning and evening trip on the old “North Western” over the identical route one has travelled through the seventies on one century into the forties of the next.

No early resident of this locality will fail to remember the quality and character of the sturdy immigrant families, pioneer settlers on farm lands, immediately north of North 59th Street and extending from the railroad west toward Bowmanville, even then a comparatively well settled community at Milwaukee Road near the north branch of the river. Of the Millers, Reinbergs and Shaeffers, whose names appear on the maps as far back as 1862, the one most likely to stand out in Cook County history is that of Peter Reinberg, a son of the original settler Henry Reinberg.

Peter Reinberg, a rugged far boy in the late seventies, became the first president of the “Commissioners of the Forest preserve of Cook County” in 1915, authorized by a legislative act of June 1913 and adopted by a referendum vote November 3, 1914, unquestionably one of the most beneficial and far-sighted acts in the legislative history of Illinois; one which will affect the welfare of this community for all time.

A salute to the memory of Peter Reinberg, known in his time as “The Father of the Forest Preserve”! Future generations will pay their tribute in gratitude to him and all those who had the inspiration and practical wisdom to set aside more than thirty-five thousand acres of natural forest land in Cook County for the good of all the people.

* Robert Cyrus Greer was born in 1871 in Ravenswood and died in 1954 in Evanston, Illinois. His father was the son of a Northern Irish immigrant who founded a successful textile manufacturing company in Philadelphia. Robert Greer, Sr., arrived in Chicago 1865 to be the Chicago representative of Underwriter’s Insurance of New York. Greer, Sr., also had a range of other business interests, including the Calumet Cotton Factory (Foster and West Ravenswood), the Pure Milk Co. (Ravenswood), and a wholesale dry goods store (on Market Street in downtown Chicago). In addition, he joined with James J. Clybourn in building houses and marketing land in what in legal terms was described as “Clybourn’s Addition to Ravenswood,” a subdivision recorded in 1873 by James A. Clybourn that occupied land bounded by Foster and Argyle on the north and south and by West Ravenswood and Damen on the east and west. In 1875, the two men contracted with the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad to build a station, which they named Summerdale, on the west side of the tracks between Berwyn and Farragut. Although the station was in fact outside the northerly boundary of Clybourn’s Addition to Ravenswood, once the station was open they started marketing their lots in the original development under the Summerdale name rather than the legal name. In 1889 Greer, Sr., moved his family to Mammoth Springs, Arkansas, to build a cotton and woolen weaving factory on the same scale as his Summerdale facility, and then brought them back to Chicago in about 1891 to live first in the Hyde Park and then in the South Shore neighborhoods. Greer, Jr., spent most of his adult life living in Evanston and working as a railroad insurance specialist with the Marsh & McLennan insurance agency.

Format: Photocopy of a typescript with page numbers in the North Side Neighborhood History Collection, Sulzer Regional Library, Chicago Public Library (text titles and subtitles are original).

Publication date: April 13, 1942, dictated and submitted to the Ravenswood-Lake View Historical Association.

Interview transcript re-typed by Marsha Holland in 2014.