Nothing else in my boyhood was so memorable as the connections with Chicago. While Crown Point was only forty miles from the Chicago "Loop", it was a small Corn Belt county seat town—population about 3,000. The two local weekly papers reported actions of the city council and county board on local taxes and expenditures, building projects, happenings in the churches and lodges and veterans and other social organizations, school sports and projects, weddings, births, funerals, illness, card parties, visits to and from out-of-town relatives, and comments on the weather and crops. Brief reports from the state capitol and editorials emphasized skepticism about all wider views of the state, national, and world communities. Most conversations in back yards, social gatherings, and around the courthouse square were from that same menu, with a very large additional sprinkling of comment on the weather, big league baseball, Big Ten and Notre Dame sports, and automobiles.
To be sure, the courthouse served the burgeoning 200,000-popopulation industrial complex and melting pot only 10-20 miles to the north, along Lake Michigan—Hammond, East Chicago, and the planned new steel-mill city of Gary, only eight years older than I was! The "North End" financed the over-sized court house, jail, and population of lawyers. But beyond that, it did not penetrate very far into the culture of Crown Point.
On the other hand, a trip to Chicago went into another world. It began in Crown Point’s small, stuffy Pennsylvania depot. There was normally little sound except the clacking of the telegraph, with its staccato report on where the approaching train was at last check - the "coal docks", Hebron, Leroy, Prairie View Tower. Then we’d go out on the platform and watch for the train to come around Sauermans’ curve (past cousin Margaret Sauerman’s farm) and head down the last mile to the station. We usually went into the city on the 6:30 am train. It consisted of two combined sections which had come overnight from Louisville and Columbus, Ohio. Seats were strewn with generally weary and disheveled but strange and varied people. There were mysterious, surely even more interesting people back in the Pullman sleepers. You only saw the latter while they watched the porters carry their baggage at Chicago.
In less than half an hour the train passed from the pastures and fields outside Crown Point into the fourth largest and fastest -growing city in the world. The gradient was very sharp then, because highway-oriented sprawl was barely an idea. Chicago was a dense metropolis on the street-car grid with strings of discreet but closely-spaced, tightly settled suburbs, reaching out 15 or 20 miles along the rail lines that radiated in all directions except southeast. We had no suburbs on the northern Indiana side. That direcion was the heavy-industrial spoke and "wrong side of the tracks" from the white-collar employment center in the Loop. So we moved quickly from a rural landscape into industrial South Chicago. We passed the Ford plant at Hegwisch, mile-long grain terminal elevators and a million kilowatt generating station and rail car plants and oil refineries and chemical plants and steel mills and Great Lakes ore, coal, and limestone ships in the Calumet harbor. Then we weaved for miles between dozens of tracks with switch engines shuttling lines of freight cars with the names of all the railroads of the North American continent—there were still scores of national and regional systems at that time. And always in the background were the miles of flats and commercial arteries and trackside factories.
At 63rd street we stopped at the Englewood Union Station, where dozens of passenger trains—on the main lines of the Pennsylvania, New York Central, Nickel Plate, and Rock Island—converged from the East Coast, the West Coast, and the Gulf Coast. For the last quarter hour we moved more slowly through the miles of coach yards of the Pennsylvania, Burlington, Santa Fe, Wabash, Alton, and Baltimore & Ohio. After the train eased beside its platform in the Union Station, you’d go with the crowd through the chaos of mail and express and baggage wagons and steam, into the terminal building. For me the impressions—marble, steel, and brass, the long rows of ticket windows, the gift shops, news-stands, and restaurants, the lofty vaulted ceilings, the posters for exotic places and famous "name" trains—were indelible. The sense of excitement did not really weaken as I passed from childhood through adolescence.
But the impressions of places and people outside the Union Station were far more varied and dramatic. Until I entered school, and during the summers of grade school and early high school years, my mother made fairly frequent day trips to Chicago when my dad was on the road. (He would normally be working roughly every other week on the mail trains between Chicago and Cincinnati.) She would visit either with Aunt Mamie and Uncle Jim Curry or with one of "the girls".
Aunt Mayme was Grandma Gorndt’s sister. The "girls" were a group with whom she had worked from age 14, when she left eighth grade, to age 28, when she was married. They were all about the same age and had worked as clerks and typists at the Western Electric plant, on the west side of the city. Maker of most of the telephones and switching equpment used in the United States, it was reputed to be the largest factory in the world at time. The "girls" had kept in touch through the years, although their marriages had taken them in widely different directions.
Aunt Mamie lived in a comfortable, well-furnished second floor apartment on Foster Avenue just east of Clark Street. The building was a three-story walk-up—one of many that formed a samish but stylish facade on both sides of the street for, it seemed to me, the whole string of blocks eastward to Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan. Like all the others, her building was separated from its neighbors by a 3-foot space occupied by a cement walk joining the street and the alley. It was a brick building, with a front bay window on each floor. There was both a front and rear stair well. Entrance to the front stairs was secured. We had to press the button beside Aunt Mayme’s mailbox, and her voice would come back over the scratchy speaker; we’d identify ourselves; the door latch would buzz loudly; and we’d quickly enter. It was one of many strange disciplines that to me distinctly characterized the big city. The back stairwell opened at every level on an open wooden porch used to store cleaning utensils and hang out laundry. The porches overlooked a tiny patch of grass inside a high board fence which separated the yard from neighboring back yards and the alley. A narrow strip of grass separated the sidewalk from the curb, and a narrow, low hedgerow separated the buildings from the sidewalk. Altogether, there was not nearly enough grass to allow room for a game of catch.
We walked a block west to the commercial frontage along Clark Street to catch the trolley car for the 40-block trip downtown. Forty blocks of 20-foot neighborhood shop fronts, upstairs offices for neighborhood dentists, doctors, lawyer—all interrupted ony by the brick and girder facade of Wrigley Field (Cubs Park) at Addison Street. The street car, with its crowd, rumble, and sounds of the electric motor and air brakes, was another distinct identifier of big city life. I never became completely free of a feeling of nausea from the endless stopping, starting, and jerking. Coming back from downtown at night there was a drunk on the car on more than one occasion, and one of them vomiting in the aisle didn’t make matters any better. Although my boyhood until age 14 was in the years of "prohibition", public drunkeness was noticeable on the streets in Chicago. I think, however, the incidence increased in the first years after "repeal", until automobiles came to encase and obscure public intoxication.
We walked a few blocks east from Aunt Mayme’s to climb the stairs to the wooden platform of the "El". I can still visualize the advertisements on the risers of the stairs—Pepsodent toothpaste, Life Savers, Prince Albert pipe tobacco. There were the double tracks and third rail of the electrified elevated railway of the Chicago Rapid Transit Lines. That was a still more distinctive feature of the big city. The trains rumbled on their trestle to the heart of downtown, past miles of stacked back porches just like Aunt Mayme’s.
Of all the trips downtown by far the most memorable were the Christmas tours of the big department stores. My mother did all of her Christmas shopping at the "Fair", but we also toured Marshall Fields, Wieboldts, and Carson Pirie Scott. Of course, I got to visit Santa and the toy departments in all of them. One thing I did not outgrow (though I pretended to) was an interest in the displays of model trains, trucks, steam engines, erector sets, and "Bild-E-Z" sets. The latter were collections of modular metal panels which could be assembled into model buildings whose size and complexity depended only on the number and size of sets you owned. These were iron age versions of modern plastic Lego sets. After the toy departments and the sheer volume and chaos of the State Street rush-hour crowds, the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shed Aquarium were sometimes, though not always, next in interest.
On one trip downtown, I recall meeting one of my mother’s cousins, Frank Westphal. He was a few years younger than she, and surely had a strikingly different career. He was evidently naturally a good musician. He began at an early age to play the piano in restaurants and night clubs and at some point organized his own orchestra. At some time he was the piano player for the famous toch singer, Sohpie Tucker, the renowned "last of the red hot Mamas". He was married to her. I never met Shophie Tucker; they divorced after a relatively short time. But Frank Westphal later become music director and director of the studio orchestra for the NBC radio network in Chicago. During the early 1930s the Chicago studios were new and something of a showplace in Joseph Kennedy’s then-new Merchandise Mart building (the world’s largest structure at that time).
Frank Westphal made special arrangements for my mother and me to tour the plush network studios and watch several aspects of the broadcasting operations. It was all exciting, but nothing could begin to match the thrill of a giant wall map of the United States in the control room. The map showed the location and identified the city of every NBC affiliate station coast-to-coast and in Canada, and lights indicated which ones were connected to the network at any given moment. Different colored lights marked the stations carrying the broadcast originating in Chicago and others carrying programs originating simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles. This was really big-city. And it added a new dimension to the sense of national nodality that you got from the rail yards and terminals.
We sometimes took the trolley to Fullerton Avenue and walked east to Lincoln Park. That was a wondereful place—green, quiet, yet with an order and urbanity like no quiet green place I had ever known anywhere else. The zoo and the beach were great places, but the most vivid memories are sailing model boats on the lagoons. The Lincoln Park Golf Club was one of the most prestigious in the city until the advent of the new auto-oriented clubs in the suburbs in the late 20s. Uncle Jim Curry was secretary and a good friend of many of its members. Among the members were several Chicago Cubs baseball players. One of Uncle Jim’s best friends was "Gabby" Hartnet, who was one of the all-time great catchers in major league annals. He was one of only eleven catchers elected to the baseball hall of fame. He entered in in 1955, precede by only Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, and two others.
On one visit to Aunt Mayme’s, when I must have been about 11 years old, she and Uncle Jim had Gabby Hartnet and his wife as dinner guests, with my mother, brother Bill--then 4 years old--and me. It was unbelieveable. Hartnet gave me a baseball autographed by all of the members of the Cubs team at that time—contemporary greats including home-run king Hack Wilson, star pitcher Charlie Root, golden glover (if there had been one then) Rogers Hornsby, and so on. I was at the peak of my sandlot baseball career at that time, had dreams of being a pro some day. That dinner was the ultimate experience. Alas! The ball disappeared some time while I was in college. What a collector’s item it would be now.
Visits to the "girls" took us to a variety of places—mostly suburban. Only Della Erickson lived for a time in the city. Her husband, Ivar, was a Swedish immigrant laborer for the Carnation Milk Company, which at that time had a large drying and canning plant on the near north side. It processed milk which came in literally by the trainload from Wisconsin. They lived in a very modest flat in a wooden building near the north branch of the Chicago river—in what would eventually deteriorate to Afro-Amerian slums and the notorious Cabrini Homes public housing project in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the late 1990s emerge as the location of grand-daughter Kim’s condo in brand new 1870s-style row houses. The Ericksons’ son was my age, and I recall spending most of the day sitting beside the river watching the tugs and barges moving freight. At that time there were many industries and warehouses, including Montgomery Ward, which used north river and rail, as well as horse-drawn wagons and the rapidly growing truck fleet to move freight in and out of the district. It was yet another intriguing aspect of the nodality of Chicago in a vast, exciting, mysterious circulation system that reached far beyond the horizon.
Another of the "girls", Ann Jernberg, was married to a bank officer in suburban Park Ridge. I recall Carl Jernberg as a taciturn, educated gentleman, son of educated Swedish immigrants. Though he left a failed bank in the dismal early 1930s, he quickly became an executive in one that survived. And he never had to give up his Packard. He seemed to enjoy taking us on exploratory rides in the growinbg northwest suburban fringe on summer evenings. Jernbergs lived at #7 Wisner Street, the same street on which Hillary Rodham (Clinton) would spend her girlhood 30 years later.
Still another of the girls, Agnes Meyer, was the wife of an officer of Hibbard Spencer Bartlett and Company, the largest wholesaler of general merchandise in Chicago—I suppose one of the largest in the world. He was Jewish, and they lived in Glencoe, which had already become identified as the north shore suburb where Jews were tolerated. There was a Jernberg son and daughter and two Meyer daughters. All were near my age. All knew as youngsters that they were college bound. Days spent in their company were an introduction to new sports (notably golf and tennis) and ways of dressing, speaking, thinking, and behaving which were quite different from what I was accustomed to.
The suburban household I knew best was Uncle Bob Gorndt’s. As he grew older and more prosperous, he moved westward from Lombard to Glen Ellyn, both located along the Chicago and Northwestern and Chicago Aurora and Elgin rail lines which he used to commute to downtown Chicago. He and Aunt Mary had three daughters—Jean, Betty, and Judy—all somewhat younger than I. We visited them two or three times each year. At first it was a train journey. The train trips there as well as to Park Ridge and Glencoe were of special interest because we had to go from the Union to the Northwestern Station. The latter still had a "caller", who stood on a high balcony in the waiting room and droned out the long list of scheduled stops for each departing train—places all across the West to San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, and across the Northland to Minneapolis, Duluth, the Wisconsin and Michigan iron ranges and copper range. Still another dimension of the mysterious world beyond the horizon.
Uncle Bob was interesting to know. He was witty and energetic. He had none of my dad’s interest in gardening. His back yard in Lombard was mostly taken up by an enormous sand box and a fair-sized wading pool for which he had mixed and reinforced and poured the concrete. The house was very small but contained a a typewriter—which eclipsed all other aspects of the trip for me, a considerable cache of library books which Aunt Mary borrowed, and trade journals that he subscribed to. It also contained not one but usually two or three radios. They reflected his main hobby, and more.
Uncle Bob was a wholesale paper salesman. But beyond that, he had developed a specialty. He supplied paper for speakers for the embryonic radio industry. There were a lot of people in the western suburbs and Fox river valley who were tinkering with this new technology which had advanced during World War I and swept into the civilian economy in the 1920s and 1930s. That area was the seedbed of Motorola, Admiral, Zenith, and numerous smaller and more specialized companies. Radio building was his hobby. He made crystal sets, then one- and two-tube sets. At first they had only headphones to convey the weakly amplified sound to your ears. (Thanks to Uncle Bob, we were perhaps the first house on our street to have a radio. I listened until my ears were sore, tuning in pioneer stations like KDKA Pittsburgh, WBZ Springfield, WJZ New York, WSB Atlanta, KFI Los Angeles, WLW Cincinnati, WCCO Minneapolis, KMOX St.Louis, and so on.) In any case, he soon built his own speakers. They all required paper which was shaped to cover the amplifier and form the horn which dispersed the sound through the room He apparently saw the relationship between speaker qualities and paper qualities. He cultivated customers among the radio makers, worked with them, and built at least a part of his business on their growth.
Besides visiting friends and relatives there were other occasions to go into Chicago. Both dad and mother liked to go to the baseball games. Being a native of the north side, she was a Cubs fan. So most of my memories are of Wrigley Field, though Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox, was closer to Crown Point. You got off the trolley car and came out of the litter and din and news-hawkers at Clark and Addison Streets into the big grandstand overlooking a green oasis and the ivy-covered brick outfield walls. People were gathering not only in the stands but also on the roofs of the flat buildings across Sheffield Avenue. Beyond those flat buildings the El trains were rolling by and stopping every couple of minutes to discharge a new wave of fans to walk to the ball park. Sox Park was an oasis in the dirtier south side. Trips there were more often later, in junior high and high school years, when I would travel by car with friends and their dads. I recall one occasion around 1930, before repeal of prohibition, when my dad and I drove in to Sox Park with several of his cronies. On the way home they left me in the car for a short time in a nondescript residential neighborhood while they went into a speakeasy to have a drink. It didn’t even occur to me what was going on!
Dad also took me on at least one occasion to the International Livestock Exposition at the Union Stock Yards. He had a strong residual affection for horses and farm livestock from his youth. The International Amphitheater and its stockyards setting were fascinating—the big-time feeders, merchants, cowboys, feed salesmen, brokers; the booths, the smells and sounds; the whole new world of the Daily Drover’s Journal newspaper and radio station, the Drover’s bank, and the Drover’s hotel. It was a city within the city. We also went to a few of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey games at the spectacular new Chicago Stadium on West Madison Street—even then approached through a skid-row district with its human debris all around. But the best trip to the stadium was the time I took him. I must have been about six. I had submitted a winning poem to the kids page of the Chicago Evening American (the Hearst scandal sheet to which we subscribed). The prize was two tickets to the Miller Brothers-101 Ranch Circus which was to play at the stadium. What an experience to sit under the roof a mile above the crowd of 18,000 kids and parents and watch the amazing feats of the rough riders, gunmen, and clowns.
Eventually the time would come to go to Chicago without adult escort. The first occasion was at age 15, during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. John Krieter and I persuaded our parents that we could go to the city on our own. We were scared but challenged and eager. Although John was older, he had been to the city very few times, so I was the navigator. My mental map of the city was virtually nil. Like most people, I had only a jumbled sequence of weakly memorized landmarks to guide me. But we made it, and spent our day’s allocation of our savings on hamburgers and milk shakes and the sky ride and were bedazzled by the modernistic architecture, the crowds, and the spectacular exhibits of technologies and nations. Transferring between streetcar routes on the south edge of downtown we also had to walk through the "skid row" district; so we encountered drunks and—being a couple of unaccompanied curly-haired youngsters—were hustled by a homosexual—a truly mystifying experience. By the end of the long day, we were exhausted; and our white shirts and summer slacks were sweaty and filthy from the coal soot that loaded Chicago’s air even in summer. (Winter was doubly as bad, when a couple of million coal stoves and space-heating furnaces were fired up.)
There were more visits to the World’s Fair in both 1933 and 1934, and to baseball games, with John and other friends. We would sometimes end the city visit with a stop at my Dad’s Cincinnati-bound mail car at the head end of the 9:20 pm train to Cincinnati (via Crown Point). He always proudly introduced me to the other five men in his crew and explained the workings to my friends. There were lots of interruptions as men kept transferring more mountains of mail sacks, through the noise and steam, from the platform carts to the car. Then the whole train would jolt as the train crew backed in and coupled the last storage cars loaded with mail from the adjacent central post office, warning us to get back to the coach for the impending departure.
Later, in my college years, I drove the family Studebaker a few times on my own into the city. The first of those occasions was traumatic, too. I still had no mental map of the place. There were no highways even remotely resembling freeways. The numbered highways were simply poorly marked, zig-zagging concatenations of city streets. I navigated by fuzzily memorized land marks through the maze of Hammond, East Chicago, Whiting, the south side, and downtown. The occasions were trips to the Trianon Ballroom at 62nd and Cottage Grove, on the south side (where Jan Garber played), or the Aragon (Lawrence Welk), at Lawrence Avenue and Broadway on the north side. I was accompanied by a college friend who had come home with me at Thanksgiving or Easter break, and former high-school-classmate dates who were still un-pinned and home for the same holidays. So the trips were after dark, and the dim light of street lamps made navigation all the tougher. Indeed, navigation through all of life was rapidly getting tougher in every respect at that time.