Kenneth Ritzert

Bensenville is located in the extreme northeast corner of DuPage County in Addison Township. The village is seventeen miles from downtown Chicago. It is touched by 0’Hare Airport, is flanked by major expressways and is on the Milwaukee Railroad.

Bensenville’s story can be divided chronologically into five periods: the Indian period, from the earliest times to 1833; the early settler period, to 1873; the railroad village, to 1916; the transition, to 1945; and the O’Hare challenge, to the present.

Bensenville, located on the low-level watershed divide, between Salt Creek and the Des Plaines River, was the hunting and trapping preserve for Indian settlements located along both rivers. In the early 1800s Chief Black Partridge of the Potawatomis moved close to the trading post of John Kinzie and to Fort Dearborn at Chicago. The chief’s village on the Des Plaines River was a short distance from his hunting preserve in the Bensenville region. . This was the legendary Tioga, a word reported to mean “The Gate.” Perhaps this hunting ground was a gateway to enjoyment for the Indian hunter.

The first assault against Fort Dearborn in 1812 came from Winnebago Indians from the upper Rock River, who stopped to camp along Salt Creek at the present site of the Elmhurst Country Club. Here they had a ritual meal and put on their warpaint. Then the eleven braves followed an animal trail, today called Grand Avenue, to Chicago, and massacred the Lee family in their home on the Chicago River.

Later in 1812 Black Partridge attempted without success to restrain the bloodshed in the Fort Dearborn Massacre. He was only successful in protecting the family of his friend, John Kinzie. As the War of 1812 ended, most Indians in the region realized they would now have to relate to the United States rather than to the agents of Great Britain.

From the 1874 Atlas & History of DuPage County, Illinois.

During the Black Hawk War more Indians than ever flocked to camps in the Des Plaines Valley, anxious to disassociate themselves from the violence of Black Hawk. After Black Hawk was defeated at the Battle of Bad Axe and Illinois was finally secure against Indian attack, the loyalty and help of the Potawatomi to the white settler was forgotten. White resentment against Black Hawk was transferred to all Indians. They would pay for the actions of Black Hawk by being forcibly removed from Illinois.

A few Indians remained behind for a while. They befriended the early settlers in the Bensenville area, teaching them how to stalk game, fish through the ice, and grow crops. Their instructions in wilderness life included the process of “jerking” meat. In jerking, deer meat was cut into thin strips and stretched over a scaffold. A small fire burned beneath, slowly smoking and drying the meat.

By 1836 all Indians had vanished from the area. Bensenville’s Indian legacy survives today in the names of its schools called Tioga, Mohawk, Blackhawk, and Chippewa, and in a number of its present roads and streets which were once Indian trails.

The first permanent white settlers in the Bensenville area came in 1833 from New England. Hezekiah Dunklee and Mason Smith decided to build their log cabin homestead on the east side of Salt Creek at the edge of a wooded area they named Dunklee’s Grove. This forest was bordered by what is today Church Road on the east, Third Avenue on the south, Wood Dale Avenue on the west and Lawrence Avenue on the north.

By 1834 Hezekiah Dunklee was joined by the rest of his family. His brother Ebenezer, noticing the lack of fresh fruit in Dunklee’s Grove, brought in three barrels of apples and planted them in 1836.

The Yankees from New England were followed by German settlers. By 1835 numbers of Hanoverians, Prussians and Pomeranians began arriving. Conrad Fischer was one of the earliest German settlers near Dunklee’s Grove. Mr. Fischer had been a saddle maker in Napoleon’s army in the 1812 invasion of Russia. With the help of his sons Augustus, Frederick, and Henry, he built a cabin where West Avenue runs north of Grand.

A feeling of cohesion existed among the families, forming a solid basis for community life. They spoke “Plattdeutsch,” or low German; and later they erected the Plattdeutsch Guild Hall in Bensenville. These early German families intermarried, so that everyone eventually seemed to be a relative of everyone else.

Church meetings were first held in settlers’ homes. In 1847 Rev. E. A. Brauer was called as pastor of the German United Reformed Lutheran Church. The group included Lutherans from Hanover and Reformed members from Prussia. Forty-eight acres were purchased from Louis Schmidt on Church Road on a plot, which came to be known as Churchville. By 1848 the group split, with Reformed members leaving to begin St. John’s Church, on a site north of Irving Park Road. In 1858 another split occurred, when the Franzen family built Immanuel Church across the street from Zion.

The Chicago and Galena Stage Line selected Grand Avenue, once called Whiskey Road, as the best route to Chicago since that old Indian path was the highest and dryest trail at all times of the year. Lead from mines in Galena was hauled along this road The stage line had stopping points every ten miles.

One of these was the Buckhorn Tavern, built by Charles Holt and located at the corner of York and Grand. The tavern provided food and lodging for drivers and passengers, feed and water for the horses. Here the stagecoach would sometimes change teams.

Travelers on early roads sank their wheels in bottomless mud. Following the lead of Russia and Canada, private interests west of Chicago began constructing plank roads in the 1840s. Irving Park Road was once known as Plank Road. These private thoroughfares filled a transportation need until maintenance problems and the coming of the railroad bankrupted the companies.

Saw mills in the area soon made frame housing possible. All foundations were made of fieldstone. The Schmidt house on Church Road was built in 1854 from stone hauled by oxen from Aurora. In 1862 the present landmark Zion Church was built with brick, but most dwellings were constructed with framing lumber. The Churchville frame schoolhouse was built between 1843 and 1849.

In 1847 John H. Franzen constructed his flax mill and brick factory at the present location of St. Alexis Church on Wood Street. The two millstones, currently displayed in front of the Bensenville Library, were used to grind flaxseed to produce linseed oil. Flax became an important cash crop for farmers in this area. These farmers often came from a long distance to grind their flaxseed, and were welcomed to stay overnight at the Franzen farm. Women used the flax fiber to make linen cloth. The Franzens continued to make flax tow after they had shut down their mill. Their mill is said to be the first of its kind in Illinois.

Franzen Linseed Mill grinding stones.

The Fischer windmill on Grand Avenue was also begun in 1847. This landmark is located in front of Mount Emblem Cemetery. Henry Korthauer, a cabinet maker and builder of spinning wheels, helped construct the mechanism. Men from Holland also aided in the three-year construction. The family of Edward Ehlers lived in the mill, which was in operation for seventy years.

A steam engine powered the grist mill of Frederick Wolkenhauer on Center Street. This mill was in continued operation until 1922.

Auguste Asche’s Cheese Factory — about 1900. Courtesy Bensenville Historical Society.

The Civil War tended to stimulate grain production in the area. Some settlers joined the army, fought and died on Civil War battlefields. Louis Schmidt held a reunion for fellow Civil War veterans after the war. People felt strongly about the Union cause. A mob of angry farmers came to Zion Church with pitchforks and a rope after Pastor Franke had said that President Lincoln deserved to be shot because he was attending the theatre on Good Friday at the time of his assassination, when he should have been in church.

Between 1860 and 1880 agriculture in the Bensenville area was changing from diversified subsistence farming to specialized cash crops, then to commercial dairy farming. Settlement patterns were also changing from dispersed to clustered dwellings near railroad lines, which had come to the area by 1873.

By 1874 the Chicago and Pacific, later the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company, was already hauling 300,000 gallons of milk a year from Bensenville to Chicago. Over three times that volume was kept in the vicinity with much of that milk being made into cheese.

The coming of the railroad brought about a need for a nodal center to serve as a shipping point and to provide services for the agricultural hinterland. In 1872 a group, including Dedrich Struckmann, Henry Korthauer, and Frederick Heuer, purchased the present site of Bensenville. The plat was recorded and subdivided into lots in 1873. The name “Tioga” appeared on some old maps, but the name “Bensenville” was selected after Henry Schuette said the small community was similar to his former home in Bensen, Germany.

On April 5, 1884 a public meeting was called at the Korthauer Hardware Store where a committee was appointed to investigate the advantages of incorporation. A petition was sent to Judge Elbert Gary in Wheaton, the county seat of DuPage. On May 10, 1884, the proposal for incorporation carried by a vote of 42 for and 7 against.

The turn of the century found new developments in the village. The bank of the Franzen Brothers, later called the First State Bank of Bensenville, was started in 1911. A telephone switchboard was installed in Korthauer’s hardware store in 1902. In 1903 concrete walks were built to replace the town’s wooden sidewalks. By 1910 electricity came to Bensenville. Gustave Gutsche, the village shoemaker, no longer had to be hired as lamplighter of the kerosene lamps on the town streets.

Changes were taking place in the Bensenville school system. Science replaced German in the school curriculum in 1906. Those who still wished to study German could do so in summer school. The new brick Green Street School was completed in 1916. On the second floor of this landmark structure, the first Bensenville High School was started in 1916.

The Milwaukee Railroad expanded its facilities in the early 1900s. In 1912 a huge water tank was erected. The roundhouse at the Milwaukee yards was built in 1916. This became the railroad’s main shop. The roundhouse employed three hundred people. This brought a new population to town, and the German monopoly in Bensenville was broken. There was resentment against the newcomers, and social tension felt. By 1919 Mexican railroad workers were living in six boxcars on railroad property. Mexican culture would become an important part of Bensenville’s history.

The Milwaukee Road Yards — looking toward Chicago Skyline. Courtesy Bensenville Historical Society.

By World War I the community’s culture was strongly German. Bensenville’s young men, however, demonstrated their American patriotism by willingly going to war to defeat Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm.

Following the war, Prohibition became an issue. Prior to the passage of the 18th Amendment, there had been five saloons in Bensenville, including one run by Max Fensky, who also dished up the biggest ice cream cone in town. During the bootleg era, the town was in the national news with reports that two men from Minnesota were being held for ransom by the Ma Barker gang. Dances at Shane’s ballroom on Higgins Road sometimes resulted in fisticuffs.

During the early 1920s, Fred C. Fenton became school superintendent, while continuing to teach high school classes at Green Street School. Community High School District 100 was established by the Illinois Supreme Court, after its boundaries had been contested by some residents. A referendum for a new high school was successfully passed, and in 1927 grades seven through twelve moved into the new Community High School at York and Memorial. The orphans from The Bensenville Home, across the street, by state law now had to attend public school. Mr Fenton was superintendent of District 2 and 100 until his death in 1943. At that time Wesley A. Johnson assumed the position.

The Depression years made their impact on Bensenville. Large dairies in Chicago making pasteurized milk displaced the independent dairy farms around Bensenville. Grist mills closed down. “Drag days,” with a shorter work week, were designed to keep men employed on the railroad. Still there were layoffs. Families lost homes, and children went to school without anything to eat. In 1931 there were no funds for teachers’ salaries, so payments were delayed.

Residents would often pick flowers and berries in the dense woods east of Route 83. This became part of the Grove Farm, which in turn became known as Plentywood Farm. In 1932 the Plentywood Farm restaurant opened in log buildings constructed from trees cut on the property. Later, part of the property of the Grove Farm was purchased by Fenton High School by right of eminent domain.

Two unincorporated residential communities were eventually annexed to Bensenville. One was Georgetown, which included property north of Irving Park Road and east of York Road. St. John’s Church, which served the spiritual needs of farmers north of Bensenville, was the main landmark of Georgetown. The other area was Edgewood, located south of First Avenue and west of York Road.

Stresen-Reuter brought industry to Bensenville in 1937, manufacturing paint, varnishes, and chemical sand. It also engendered controversy over the issue of air pollution. The Campbell Soup Company contracted with farmers living north of Irving Park Road to raise tomatoes, which were harvested by Mexican-American migrant labor and hauled to Chicago. Potatoes became another large cash crop. Farmers from a wide geographic area, including those living on Washington Island, Wisconsin, shipped their potatoes to Edward J. Anderson’s Potato Factory, located at Green Street and County Line Road.

1940 Bensenville had a population of 1,200 people. German was still spoken in the butcher shops. Changes would soon come to the community, however, because of World War II. The U. S. Government was looking for a site to build Douglas C-54 Skymaster cargo planes. An interior location was needed since the West Coast was considered vulnerable to Japanese attack. The two-million-square-foot building constructed nearby for this manufacture was the largest all-timber plant in the world, until fire gutted it on July 18, 1944.

The VFW became one of the most active organizations in town. It was here that ethnic barriers between people of the community were broken down. Later Ray Soden, one of its leading members, was elected national commander of the VFW.

Beginning in 1946, the Douglas-Old Orchard location was converted into an airport, soon to be called O’Hare Field. The Village of Bensenville petitioned that Chicago, located in Cook County, had no right to acquire property in DuPage County, where Bensenville was located. This effort came to naught. The jet age continued to have an increased impact on Bensenville. Due to new flight patterns and a third landing system, the level of noise from O’Hare continued to increase. In the spring of 1969 Bensenville, with sixteen other suburbs, formed the O’Hare Area Noise Abatement Council. This group called for more industrial and less residential areas in the path of flights, and demanded that planes eliminate “fanning out” on takeoffs. Bensenville Village President John Varble became the leader of N. O. I. S. E. This organization lobbied at all levels of government for laws on air and noise pollution. The group was successful in having high density rule restrictions imposed to limit the number of evening flights at O’Hare.

The population of Bensenville doubled between 1940 and 1950. Between 1950 and 1960 it nearly tripled. An industrial district began to develop as a buffer between O’Hare Airport and the village’s residential area. Industrial development also took place on east Green Street. In 1959 the Mohawk Country Club became a part of a 700-acre industrial park purchased by the Chicago, Milwaukee and Pacific Railroad. By 1981 land zoned for industrial use occupied 25% of the developed area of the village.

The Illinois Manufacturers Directory lists more than 230 manufacturing plants in Bensenville. As of 1981 the largest employer was the Bally Electronic Pinball Division, maker of pinball and video games. Jovan, Inc. produces perfumes, soaps and cosmetics. Griffin Wheel makes railroad wheels. Precision Extrusions converts aluminum extrusions into fabricated and finished parts. Bee Line Fashions deals in direct clothing sales and has its national center at its Bensenville location. Bensenville is also the national headquarters of the Flick Reedy Corporation. The Miller Fluid Power Corporation, a division of Flick Reedy, is the nation’s leading manufacturer of hydraulic and pneumatic components. Warehousing is a major growth industry of the industrial district.

Bensenville has had direct contact with individuals prominently involved in politics. John Kennedy’s campaign stop in the village in 1960 was a memorable occurrence. Representative William Redmond of Bensenville became Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives in 1975, serving until his retirement in 1982. Gene Hoffman, Chairman of the Social Studies Department at Fenton High School, was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1968 and continues to serve in the Illinois House. Congressman Henry Hyde, U. S. Representative from the 6th District, has made Bensenville his home.

From Indian hunting grounds to pioneer farm settlement, from railroad village to a residential/industrial component of the Chicago metropolitan area, Bensenville’s history has been rich and varied.

The Author

Kenneth Ritzert is chairman of the Social Studies Department at Blackhawk Junior High School in Bensenville. He is recipient of the Valley Forge Teacher’s Medal and the Freedom Foundation Award He has also written the play, Bensenville Story.

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