Margaret Franson Pruter
In the early 19th century, prior to white settlement, the region that includes today’s Elmhurst was part of the lands of the Potawatomi Indians. Although there is no archaeological evidence to indicate there was ever a permanent Indian settlement in Elmhurst proper, a Potawatomi village was located on Salt Creek between Elmhurst and Hinsdale. White migration to the region began in the 1830s following the end of the Black Hawk War.
Settlers came from the East, mainly from the state of New York, and from abroad, and were predominantly of English and German extraction. Two diverse cultures planted roots, giving Elmhurst a dual character. For decades it would be a bilingual village, with both English and German being spoken, written, and taught.
The first settlements were made along Salt Creek in what became York and Addison townships. The Germans settled mainly in the north, the settlers of English ancestry in the south. Elisha Fish was the first known settler in York Township, building a cabin along the west bank of Salt Creek near Butterfield Road in 1834. Frederick Graue settled along the Creek near the present Elmhurst-Addison boundary, also in 1834. They would be joined during the remainder of the decade by many others who would play important roles in the development of the community. Among those pioneers were Jesse Atwater (1834), Nicholas Torode (1835), Edward Eldridge (1835), David and John Talmadge (1836), and Conrad Fischer (1836). In 1837 John Glos, Sr. came with his family to settle on land acquired earlier for him by his son John Glos, Jr., in what is now Crescent Park, south of St. Charles Road. His descendants became influential in the economic, social, and political life of the community during much of its history.
In 1842 Gerry Bates arrived from Ohio and staked claim to a treeless tract of land in what was to become the center of Elmhurst, the land along Salt Creek already having been occupied. Bates is often referred to as Elmhurst’s founder because it was he who gave the settlement its first sense of community consciousness. Although Bates soon returned to Ohio to dispose of his interests there, he engaged his brother-in-law, John L. Hovey, to construct a building for him at the present intersection of St. Charles Road and Cottage Hill Avenue. Hill Cottage Tavern, as Bates named his structure, opened in 1843 and served as a stage stop, an inn for travelers, and a gathering place for local residents. In 1845 the community was officially named Cottage Hill, after the tavern.
In 1845, when the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad (today’s Chicago and Northwestern), established a station in Cottage Hill, on land given by Gerry Bates just west of York Street and along Park Avenue, growth of the fledgling settlement was spurred. The Cottage Hill station gradually became the most important stop along the route, providing easy access to and from Chicago for farmers, their produce, commuters, and new residents.
In 1850 York Township was created, so named because of the large number of settlers in the area originally from New York. Also that year, School District 1 was formed, and a small, one-room schoolhouse was opened on St. Charles Road west of Cottage Hill. In 1857 a new school, a two-story structure, was built on Church Street just west of York. Instruction was provided both in German and in English.
Land was made available for additional settlement in 1854. That year Gerry Bates platted lots in what was referred to as the “Original Cottage Hill,” between York Street and Addison Avenue, from the railroad to North Avenue, which at the time was the northern boundary of the township. The first lot sold went to Ludwig Graue, who built a general store on First Avenue along the railroad. Merchants and tradesmen purchased lots near the railroad and York Street for commercial purposes, with York Street eventually becoming the village’s main thoroughfare.
Bates later subdivided the southeastern section of his land. It was sold in large tracts and became the site of several imposing estates, built mainly by wealthy and socially prominent businessmen from Chicago. The village attracted such settlement because of its proximity to Chicago; as DuPage County’s easternmost community, it was only sixteen miles west of the city. It also was easily accessible by train and other transportation routes – St. Charles Road, North Avenue, and Lake Street. Another factor was its favorable topography being located on a ridge seventy feet higher than the Des Plaines River. This elevation allowed for better drainage and a healthier climate.
The first to purchase land was Thomas Barbour Bryan, a Virginia-born lawyer and entrepreneur, who is often referred to as The Father of Elmhurst” because of the pivotal role he played in its formative years. Bryan bought 1,000 acres from Bates and built a country home in Cottage Hill. “Byrd’s Nest,” as he named it, was located at what is now the southwest corner of St. Charles Road and York Street. He then induced some of his wealthy friends to move to the village, which can date its suburban beginnings to this time. In 1857 Bryan sold land to Elisha Hagans, a real estate developer, who moved into a home on the southwest corner of York and Arthur. Also that year, Bryan’s friend, artist G. P. A. Healy, called “The Painter of the Presidents,” occupied the original “Hill Cottage,” renaming it “Clover Lawn.” At the end of the 1850s the community numbered about 200 people, out of a total of about 1,500 in York Township.
During the next decade, other estates were established. In 1860 John R Case, Sr., who in 1851 had bought the west half of a 160-acre plot of land south of St. Charles along York, moved to Cottage Hill. He founded “Cherry Farm,” so named because of his planting of some 1,000 cherry trees on the property. Jedediah H. Lathrop, Bryan’s brother-in-law, built “Huntington” on the south side of St. Charles west of Cottage Hill in 1864. In 1867 Henry W. King, a clothing manufacturer, moved into “Clover Lawn.” The following year Seth Wadhams, an ice manufacturer, came to Cottage Hill and built “White Birch” on land that is now Wilder Park. In 1868 Lathrop, with the aid of Wadhams and others, had a large number of elms planted along Cottage Hill. It was from these plantings that Elmhurst took its present name, at Bryan’s suggestion in 1869.
Meanwhile, development of the community as a whole was slow. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Cottage Hill was a “one-street” country village, with the railroad running down the center, east to west. The one street” was York Street. The war, with its general depletion of economic and human resources, further retarded growth.
Nonetheless, several events occurred in the 1860s that had significance for the community. Mammoth Spring, which was to supply Elmhurst with water for decades, erupted on the Talmadge farm in 1861. In 1862 the first Protestant congregation was formed by Thomas Bryan, who was an Episcopalian lay reader. Also that year, St. Mary’s Catholic Church (later Immaculate Conception Church) was built. In 1 864 the first brick building, the second Graue store, was constructed. After the Civil War, Dr. George F. Heidemann, a surgeon, settled in the community, becoming its first physician. Population totaled 329 in 1870, an increase of about 100 persons during the preceding decade.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Elmhurst became a permanent refuge for a number of Chicago families. Some new homes were built in the northwest section, on a tract of land called the Emerson subdivision. In 1871 the German Evangelical Synod of the Northwest bought land from Thomas Bryan and established the Proseminary that later became Elmhurst College. Several new businesses opened along York Street, including Louis Balgemann’s blacksmith shop (1870), the hardware store of Adam S. Glos (1872), and Henry L. Glos’ general store (1874). In 1876, St. Peter’s Evangelical and Reformed Church was built. Immanuel Lutheran School, Elmhurst’s first parochial school, was constructed in 1879, at Larch and Third streets. The first Roman Catholic school, Immaculate Conception, was opened in 1899.
The 1870s also saw the beginning of what has been called Elmhurst’s Gilded Age, an era of elegant socializing by the owners of the great estates that lasted into the 20th century. Prominent Elmhurst and Chicago families were entertained at garden parties, musicales, amateur dramatic productions, and elaborate balls. Among the estates of the period, in addition to those previously named, were Lucian Hagans’ “Hawthorne,” Fred Rockwood’s “Hollywood,” George Runsey’s “Sweet Briar” (later owned by Frank Sturges), Lee Sturges’ “Shadeland,” and John R. Case, Jr.’s “Orchard House.”
Until the early 1880s, Elmhurst was governed only by county and township. In 1882, at the urging of Henry L. Glos, an election was held to vote on incorporation of the village. Sixty votes were cast in favor; 28 in opposition. Elmhurst was incorporated, with its legal boundaries being St. Charles Road to North Avenue, and one-half mile west of York Street to one-quarter mile east of York.
At the time of incorporation Elmhurst was, ethnically, predominantly German and English; politically, overwhelmingly Republican; religiously, mainly Lutheran and Roman Catholic. There were about a dozen large estates, some forty businesses, and a number of farms. In 1883 a major industrial development was begun near the village’s western limits by Adolph Hammerschmidt and Henry Assman, who founded the Elmhurst Chicago Stone Company to quarry the dolomite limestone that underlay the region.
Soon after incorporation, Henry Glos was elected president of the village. He served for all but one term during the next twenty years. During this period numerous municipal improvements were made. Streets were named and platted. Plank sidewalks were laid on the principal streets. A police marshal was chosen, and a jail built in 1882. A village hall was constructed in 1884. The Cottage Hill School (later renamed Hawthorne School), a two-story brick structure located at Cottage Hill and Arthur, was completed in 1888, providing both elementary and secondary classes. In 1893 the first sewers were laid, and a volunteer fire department established. A health department was organized in 1896.
During the latter part of the 19th century, private companies brought a variety of services to the community. The Elmhurst Spring Water Company provided running water in 1889; the Elmhurst Electric Light Company furnished electric power in 1892; and the Chicago Telephone Company supplied telephone service in 1897. The coming of the Chicago Great Western Railroad in 1887 and the Illinois Central in 1888 stimulated commercial and residential development in south Elmhurst. In 1894 the Elmhurst News, the village’s first weekly newspaper, started publication. On its front page, it proclaimed, “Elmhurst — A Village of Beautiful Homes and Progressive People.”
Elmhurst’s population had reached 1,050 in 1890. To aid expansion, additional land was annexed in 1892 — a parcel east of York between North Avenue and Lake Street and an area west of York between the Chicago and Northwestern tracks and St. Charles Road. The latter was the Elm Park subdivision developed by Wilbur Hagans, son of Lucian Hagans. Hagans had a large residence, called “Villa Virginia,” built for himself (1886-90) at the corner of what is now Hagans Avenue and St. Charles Road. Hagans, an avid equestrian, also built a racetrack, which he named Hawthorne, southwest of his home on what is now the athletic field of York High School. (After it closed in 1896, two grooms took the name and the horses to Cicero, where today’s track was established). Others with an interest in horses helped to organize the Elmhurst Saddle Club in 1890.
Around the turn of the century, there was more time for social activities in the community. Many Elmhurst residents enjoyed the annual Elmhurst picnic in Graue’s Woods, dancing at Mahler Hall, church socials, presentations by amateur dramatic and choral groups, buggy and sleigh rides, and a variety of sports, including ice skating, croquet, golf, and baseball. The Elmhurst Golf Club, designed by local resident and internationally prominent architect Walter Burley Griffin, was built on the site of what is now York High School in 1900.
In Elmhurst’s last decade as a village, a street numbering plan was adopted (1900), and several major streets were renamed. The Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad, an interurban line, was routed through the village in 1902. In 1903 a gas franchise was granted to H. W. Darling. In 1907 the Cherry Farm subdivision, laid out by John R Case, Jr., was opened south of St. Charles and east of York.
By 1910 the population had climbed to 2,360. Village government, with its reliance on voluntary services, was no longer adequate. Incorporation as a city was proposed. A special election was held (1909), and incorporation narrowly was approved. In 1910 a city council form of government was adopted. Henry C. Schumacher was elected mayor, and other city officials were chosen. Elmhurst’s boundaries in 1910 were North Avenue on the north, St. Charles Road to the south, Poplar and Avon on the east, and Myrtle and Villa to the west. The business district had continued to expand along York and adjacent streets. Business establishments included the Baethke General Store, Weber’s Bakery, Heinemann’s Butcher Shop, Poulos’ Ice Cream Parlor, the Wilcox Drug Store, Frieda Mahler’s Park Avenue Variety Store, Mrs. Blau’s Candy Store, the “Dew Drop Inn,” the Schwass Saloon, the Wendland and Keimel Greenhouses, the Robillard Funeral Home, and Wandschneider’s Hotel Edelweiss.
In 1911 F. W. M. Hammerschmidt, co-owner of Hammerschmidt & Franzen’s Grain, Fuel, Coal, Ice and Lumber Company, was elected mayor. He held office until 1919. Many changes occurred during this period. The school system was expanded, with the building of Field School in 1911 and Lincoln School in 1916, and the establishment of York Community High School in 1918, which opened in 1920. A municipal sewage plant was constructed at Rex and Crescent, and additional land parcels, including the East End and Oaklawn subdivisions, were annexed during 1911-15. Several social and service organizations were founded, among them the first woman’s group, the Elmhurst Woman’s Club (1913). Other organizations included the Boy Scouts (1914), the Camp Fire Girls (1917), the Elmhurst Booster’s Club (1918), and the Girl Scouts (1919). In 1916 a public library opened in one room of the Glos Building (the present site of the Elmhurst National Bank), with a collection of some 800 volumes. A few years later, in 1922, the Wilder mansion became its permanent home.
World War I (1914-18) was a difficult time for Elmhurst, with its population largely German and English in ancestry. As in the rest of the nation, the conflict provoked anti-German sentiment, and misunderstanding lingered in the community at war’s end. Nonetheless, after the United States entered the fighting, many young men from Elmhurst, including those of German-American descent, served their country in the armed forces. Following the war, American Legion T.H.B. Post 187 was chartered (1919) to serve as a fraternal organization for the returned servicemen.
The 1920s in Elmhurst, as elsewhere, were a boom period. It was the time when the city lost its rural character, when it ceased to be a farmer’s shopping center, and became a suburban community. Between 1920 and 1930 population more than tripled, rising from 4,594 to 14,055. The city had become the county’s largest during this decade. The driving force behind much of the development of this era was Elmhurst’s third mayor, Otto Balgemann, who held office from 1919 to 1931. Balgemann, a real estate broker, was the candidate of the newly formed People’s Party (1919) and campaigned on the slogan “Get Elmhurst out of the mud,” the community having no paved streets at the time of the election. York Street became the first street to be paved, in 1921. Other civil improvements included establishment of the City Water Department, which eventually took over the privately owned water works. To oversee development, a zoning board was established in 1924, and a city planning commission in 1930. In 1925 a police department, consisting of a chief and a motorcycle officer, was organized. Elmhurst Community Hospital (later Elmhurst Memorial Hospital) opened in 1926 to serve the city and surrounding communities, its creation due largely to the efforts of Dr. E. W. Marquardt.
To provide recreational area for Elmhurst’s growing population, the Elmhurst Park District was founded in 1920. It soon began to acquire land for parks and playgrounds. Its first acquisition was Wilder Park, secured in 1921. The city’s boundaries were expanded during the 1920s with the annexation of the Pick Subdivision along St. Charles near Salt Creek, and the platting of Tuxedo Park in the southeast. Closely associated with the city’s growth during this period was the Elmhurst Booster’s Club, which became the Chamber of Commerce in 1926. It sought to make Elmhurst the business, social, and cultural center of the county. Perhaps the city’s most famous resident at this time was author Carl Sandburg, who had moved to Elmhurst in 1919 to find a peaceful place to write. By 1930 the bustling community had grown so that York Street, where his home was located, became too noisy for his creative efforts.
The boom began to bust following the financial crash of 1929, and the Great Depression enveloped the nation. Housing construction in Elmhurst ceased. Vacant lots dotted the city. Unemployment was severe. However, most of Elmhurst’s 200 businesses weathered the lean years, and the city continued as the county’s leading retail shopping center. While bank closings were occurring throughout the area, no banks failed in Elmhurst. For the jobless and other citizens in need, the city and a variety of private groups provided assistance. The Elmhurst Community Chest, organized in 1930, coordinated private welfare efforts. To distribute aid to the needy, the Elmhurst Welfare Relief Committee was established by the city in 1932. The city, with tax revenues reduced, cut the municipal payroll. It also applied for federal funds for public works projects, such as sewer construction.
When Elmhurst celebrated its centennial in 1936, the worst of the Depression had passed. The mayor for much of this time was Claude L. Van Auken, a civil engineer, who served from 1933 through World War II. During the decade 1930 to 1940, population increased by only 1,403 and totaled 15,458. Growth was virtually at a standstill, but recovery gradually began in the late 1930s.
During World War II, Elmhurst’s experience was similar to that of most communities. Hundreds of its young men went into the armed forces. On the home front, a civil defense system was organized; Victory Gardens were planted; and rationing of such staples as meat, canned goods, and gasoline was endured.
The decades immediately following the war were another period of significant growth and development for Elmhurst. Population increased from 21,273 in 1950 to 50,547 in 1970. To provide a long-range development plan for the city, the Elmhurst Plan Commission was created in 1946. The city-manager form of government was adopted in 1953. That year Robert Palmer was named the first city manager.
Demands for new housing led to the construction of the St. Charles West Apartments in 1947 and the development of the Emery Manor and Brynhaven subdivisions in the 1950s. In addition to housing, new schools were needed. During the 1950s and 1960s, several elementary schools were built, including Jackson, Jefferson, Emerson, Edison, Madison, and Eldridge public schools, Visitation and Mary Queen of Heaven parochial schools. Sandburg Junior High School (originally Elmhurst Junior High) and Bryan Junior High School were constructed in this period. During 1963-73 the Timothy Christian schools were moved from Cicero to Elmhurst. In 1974 all Elmhurst schools were consolidated into the newly created School District 205.
To provide organized recreational programs for the community, a YMCA was founded in 1953. In 1960 a large, million-dollar facility was constructed on First Street. A variety of cultural organizations and institutions were established, enriching community life. The Elmhurst Artists Guild was organized in 1946; the Elmhurst Children’s Theater in 1947; and the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra in 1961. Two museums were founded — the Elmhurst Historical Museum in 1957, and the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art in 1961.
To attract industry to the city, the Elmhurst Industrial Park was created by the annexation of 600 acres stretching north to Grand Avenue in 1962. Within a few years some 120 companies had located in the area. The retail shopping areas of the city expanded, including the downtown district and the areas along Spring Road, South York and Butterfield, St. Charles and Route 83, Lake Street, North Avenue, North York and Grand. Much of the latter area became an “auto dealers row.”
For the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, the long deserted Great Western passenger station in Wild Meadows Trace was restored. On nearby York Street the Bicentennial Fountain was dedicated. In 1977 the underpass under the tracks of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad was opened. Greatly facilitating traffic flow in the center of the city, it proved to be a major municipal improvement.
The census of 1980 revealed that the population had dropped to 44,276, a decline of 12%. It was the first decrease in the city’s history, but not an uncommon occurrence for the time among older communities. Several factors were responsible for the lack of growth in the 1970s, including a declining birthrate, high interest rates that effectively barred younger families from purchasing homes in Elmhurst, and a lack of additional land for development. As a result of the decrease in the number of school-age children, seven elementary schools were closed from 1977-83. A faltering economy nationwide led to several business closings in Elmhurst, including the failure of one of the city’s largest retailers, Long Chevrolet.
In the 1980s, citizens and city officials alike strove to maintain and enhance the quality of life in Elmhurst, despite limited growth potential. That quality was exemplified by the selection of York High School in 1983 as one of two high schools in Illinois to receive an award from the U. S. Office of Education as “representative of excellence in education.” In 1983 the city and business community, aided by the DuPage County Planning Department, initiated a revitalization study of the downtown area. A branch campus of MacCormac Junior College was opened on West Avenue, in the former Cornille Elementary School. By the mid-1980s, an improved national economy had significantly aided home purchases and retail sales in the city.
At mid-decade, nearly 150 years had passed since Elmhurst’s founding. A few small homesteads and a handful of settlers had been replaced by a residential community of nearly 45,000 persons. The city’s 9.8 square miles stretched from Roosevelt Road on the south to Grand Avenue on the north, and from County Line Road on the east to Villa Avenue on the west. Within its boundaries were nineteen elementary and secondary schools, serving some 9,500 children; two colleges, enrolling approximately 3,400 students; thirty churches, representing most major denominations; two libraries, one public and one academic (Buehler Library at Elmhurst College), with a combined total of about 300,000 volumes; two museums; a hospital, with a 455-bed capacity; some 1,900 commercial, professional, and industrial business concerns; and twenty park sites, covering 328 acres of recreational land and facilities. Upon the sturdy foundation laid by its early settlers, succeeding generations of Elmhurst residents had built well for themselves and for the future.
Margaret Franson Pruter is Senior Editor in the Social Science Department of New Standard Encyclopedia in Chicago and serves as a commissioner on the Elmhurst Historical Commission.