Virginia A. Stehney
The first settler in Downers Grove was Pierce Downer, who arrived in 1832. This Vermont native, but long-time New York resident, camped alone in a grove of oak trees at the fork of two ancient Indian trails. He staked his claim to the surrounding 160 acres of prairie and timberland, for which he paid $1.25 an acre. En route, Downer had visited his son Stephen, who was a mason helping to build Chicago’s first lighthouse. He had written his father about the rich land to the west of Chicago.
In that same year the Black Hawk War ended and more settlers came. Three years later Israel Blodgett left a homestead near Naperville to establish a farm and blacksmith shop south of what was to become Maple Avenue. Some of his earliest customers were Indians who brought firearms to be repaired. Then Samuel Curtiss laid claim to land just north of the Blodgett homestead, which is now in the center of the village’s business district.
In order to facilitate travel into that area, Blodgett and Curtiss hitched six yoke of oxen to a heavy log to level and widen a trail between their land which intercepted the trail from Chicago to the Naper Settlement. They planted sugar maples along this road, some of which still stand.
By the early 1840s, two blacksmith shops were operating. Henry Carpenter had opened the first store and post office in 1842. Carpenter also subdivided his land, resulting in growth of the village near his store on Maple Avenue just west of the future Main Street.
By 1850 Europeans from England, Ireland, Germany and Alsace-Lorraine were arriving the area. Some worked on the Illinois-Michigan Canal, construction of which began in 1836.
Downers Grove was represented on the Brush Hill committee which petitioned the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad to build a line from Aurora to Chicago. It was emphasized that Downers Grove was a well-established farming center with produce to send to Chicago. The first train arrived in 1864. For a number of years one train a day traveled in each direction, with passengers often having to ride in freight cars. With the coming of the railroad the first plat of the village was made, and Main Street, then called Union Street, was opened north of the railroad.
In 1860 a political group called the “Plow Boys” campaigned for Abraham Lincoln. Led by DuPage County Sheriff Theodore S. Rogers of Downers Grove, they were spectacular in their red and white uniforms, as they rode on a wagon drawn by eight black horses. From the wagon’s tall flagpole was suspended a large American flag. They took part in rallies in neighboring communities. A blue silk banner presented to them by the village ladies now hangs in the American Room of the Smithsonian Institution.
A few years later Rogers was commissioned a captain to organize the first company in the county for service in the Civil War. Nearly 140 men enlisted Captain Walter Blanchard, 54 years old, commanded another company of Illinois men. Blanchard was killed in the war. His grave as well as a number of others of local Union dead, may be found in the Main Street Cemetery, in the center of the village.
The remains of the founder, Pierce Downer, and his wife Lucy, who died within a day of each other in 1863, are on Linscott Avenue. They had to be buried on their farm because spring rains had caused St. Joseph Creek to flood, making the downtown inaccessible from the north.
In 1873 approval was given for village incorporation, with 49 aye votes and 38 nays. T. S. Rogers was chosen first village president, serving sixteen years. Operating expenses that year were $600, half spent for streets and alleys. The first sidewalk of two inch planks was built along Maple Avenue.
Village population had grown to 500 by 1885. A promotional piece on the village by the CB&Q gave information about real estate and the numerous daily trains. The first sewers were built by village ordinance in 1888.
The Downers Grove Reporter celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1983. It is the oldest paper continuously published in DuPage County, and the oldest business in Downers Grove.
German-born Casper Dicke started the village’s first industry. He manufactured fine quality tools for electrical linemen and received a grand prize for his products in the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. The company, owned by one of Dicke’s grandsons, still manufactures special equipment for the telephone company.
In the 1890s E. H. Prince subdivided land in the northwest section of the village, improving a pond there and adding small parks. The World Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago and villagers’ horizons were considerably broadened. The Belmont Golf Course, the first nine-hole golf course west of the Appalachians, was opened just west of the village in 1893.
Businesses listed in the November 28, 1895 Reporter included a piano factory, ice/coal/wood business, blacksmith/livery/wagon maker, lumber company, general stores, drug store, laundry agency, bank, hotel, hardware store, tailor shop, and a furniture store.
A volunteer fire department was organized in 1898. A fire destroyed Dicke Tool buildings in 1906. The factory was rebuilt, and Casper Dicke’s seven sons became active in the department. One of these, Grant, served as Chief for thirty-seven years.
Toward the end of the century, the immigrants to the area reflected the ethnic change as more East Europeans came. An annual directory of 1899 listed 575 names in Gostyn or East Grove. This predominantly Polish settlement was located between Downers Grove and Westmont along Fairview Avenue.
During the World War I era, the life of the village was centered on the war effort with Red Cross work, vegetable gardens and Liberty Loan bonds. The village now had three hotels, two banks, and four major industries: the Dicke Tool Company, the Kelmscott Press, the Illinois Heater Company and the Austin Nurseries. The village adopted the commission form of government in 1917.
Downers Grove resident Lottie Homan O’Neill was in 1922 the first woman elected to the Illinois legislature. She served in the House and Senate until 1963, except for two years.
On Christmas Day, 1928, the Tivoli Theater opened. Four thousand people waited in line! It was the second theater in the U. S. designed and built for talking pictures. It still is in operation.
The village celebrated its centennial on July 4, 1932, with a parade and pageant helping to raise spirits a little during the Depression. Federal civil works projects for the schools, village, sanitary district, as well as for county forest preserves, gave employment to local people.
Again, there was an all-out civilian effort during World War II, with residents engaged in Civilian Defense, victory gardens, scrap drives, and Red Cross work. Downers Grove honored its servicemen by posting their names on a billboard at the railroad station downtown.
When World War II ended, Downers Grove was bordered on the southeast, south and west by productive farms. Its population numbered 11,300. Today the village is a sprawling municipality of over 42,500 people, spread over thirteen square miles.
What has caused this growth? Over the last three decades several factors stand out: the Burlington-Northern Railroad, expressways/toll roads, and Argonne National Laboratory.
From the time the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad was built through the village in 1864, it has been important. At first grain and other produce were the important commodities it carried to Chicago, but by 1869 the first commuter trains were operating; and by 1895 twenty-five trains ran daily between Chicago and Downers Grove. Until 1952, Downers Grove was the end-of-the-line for half of the commuter trains, served by a turntable, switching yards, water tower and coal yards.
In the 1980s the railroad, now called the Burlington-Northern as a result of a 1970 merger, is as important to the community as ever. Main Street station was the line’s most heavily-used commuter stop until recently, when Naperville moved into the lead. However, the three Downers Grove stations together provide more commuters than any other suburb.
Expressways and tollways have been a strong force for change, providing good vehicular access, and helping attract new residents as well as industry to the area.
By the mid 60s Ellsworth Industrial Park was being developed at the western edge of the village. Then through the seventies shopping centers appeared, and businesses along Ogden Avenue and eventually along Butterfield Road greatly increased In recent decades an increasing number of apartments, condominiums, and senior citizen housing units have been built.
Recently, changes in the ethnic background of newcomers have resulted in greater community diversity. East Indians, Southeast Asians, Filipinos and Blacks are among the groups represented.
Growth of the village was also affected by the Argonne National Laboratory on marginal farmland in the southern edge of the county. Established in 1947, Argonne attracted employees with high-level technical and scientific skill who were very supportive of good schools, tile arts, youth activities, and many community groups. Today Downers Grove has the largest concentration of Argonne employees, with Joliet second and Naperville third.
As the village changed, so did the government. The largely volunteer mayor-commission form continued until 1962. By that time the population had reached 22,000. Residents then voted in the council-manager form of government, with a mayor and four council members overseeing the administration of professional staff.
The village has been innovative in dealing with problems of growth. Downers Grove was the first community in northeastern Illinois to initiate a self-supporting commuter shuttle bus service. Downers Grove was the first community in the area to employ a specialist for Cable TV programming and for training community residents to do programming for their organizations. In addition, the village elected its first woman mayor, Betty Cheever, in April, 1983.
School developments also reflect the recent change. The local elementary district consisted of four crowded elementary schools in 1950. In that year the most inclusive referendum in the village history was held The ballot included no less than forty-three propositions, covering eight school building sites, three new elementary school buildings, one new junior high school, additions to four existing elementary schools, and improvements to the sites! All of these propositions won by a three to one vote.
The peak enrollment was reached in the elementary district in 1971-72, with 6,267 students, thirteen elementary schools, and two junior high schools. After the second high school was built in 1964, high school enrollment reached its high point of 6,064 students in 1974-75. By the late seventies the downward student population trend had resulted in the closing of three elementary schools.
Among the particular institutions responding to new needs was the Downers Grove Public Library. The standard two-story Carnegie Library, opened in 1915 at the corner of Forest and Curtiss, was enlarged in 1956 by a wrap-a-round addition designed by local resident George Steckmesser, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Eventually, a referendum was passed for a new, larger two-story building which was opened on the corner site in 1977.
Downers Grove became a college town in 1966 when George Williams College moved from the Hyde Park section of Chicago to its location on 31st Street. The college’s new campus was built on 200 acres which had been previously annexed to the village. The Downers Grove Committee for International Students at the college was organized to meet the special needs of the foreign students and offer them opportunities to get acquainted with American families.
Established in September 1959, the newly formed Downers Grove Area YMCA began to offer activities for adults and children in schools and parks. Indian Boundary YMCA moved into a new building in 1969.
The community gained a hospital in 1976 when Good Samaritan Hospital opened on Highland Avenue. This 287-bed facility, owned and operated by the Evangelical Hospital Association, brought a wholistic approach to medical care to the surrounding area.
Not surprisingly, considerable change has occurred in the local park district since it was formed in the early fifties. In the early eighties the district’s holdings include 350 acres in twenty-five sites, and its services include a year-round recreational program for people of all ages and interests. The ten-acre Belmont Prairie has been preserved largely through the efforts of Margot and Alfred Dupree and The Nature Conservatory/Illinois Chapter. The historic Lincoln Center houses an active senior citizens program. In 1983 the district won the national Gold Medal Award given by the National Recreation and Parks Association for excellence in its services.
A number of cultural organizations were formed over the years: Downers Grove Artists Guild in 1941, Grove Players in 1946, Downers Grove Concert Association in 1946, Village Forum in 1948, and Oratorio Society in 1958.
Most of the churches were still located near the center of town in the 1950s. The following decade, with their congregations increasing in size, some churches moved to outlying areas to have more land. New congregations were also organized. By 1983 there were thirty one houses of worship. These served as social as well as religious centers. Many churches offered programs for children and youth. These services included nursery schools and daycare centers as more mothers entered the labor market.
In 1947 the village enjoyed its first Fall Festival, organized by the newly-formed Kiwanis Club and held at the high school, to benefit the youth of the community and feature their talent. Often celebrities, such as Mahalia Jackson and Harry Belafonte, appeared on the program. Some informal activities have proved particularly enduring. Rose Guthrie, a longtime resident of the village, reported that “Our neighborhood is very friendly, really like a small town. We have had block picnics for over thirty-five years!”
Special to the village is a beautiful bicentennial quilt depicting local history, made by local women, now hanging in the historical museum. “An Evening with Mr. Lincoln” slide presentation by local resident Thomas Dyba shows Dyba’s historically perfect replica of Lincoln’s Springfield Home. This replica has been on display at the National Park Service’s Visitors Center for Lincoln’s home since 1977. It is viewed annually by a half million visitors.
One of the best attended local events ever held was the Downers Grove 150th birthday celebration in 1982, called Heritage Fest. The village council presented plaques containing pieces of the Old Plank Road, uncovered in 1981 during reconstruction of Ogden Avenue. Participating in the Fest were members of the Downers Grove Historical Society. Begun in 1966, the society grew so much that its museum moved into the historic Blodgett home at 831 Maple Avenue a decade later.
A concluding note comes from the special edition of the Suburban Life Graphic saluting the village’s 150 years of progress. “The celebration has been planned to involve as many participants as possible, continuing the tradition of citizen involvement that has made Downers Grove one of the most livable of communities in America.”
Virginia A. Stehney is historian of the Downers Grove Historical Society, and served as chairman of the Downers Grove Bicentennial Commission.