Descendants of the first settlers in Glen Ellyn remember stories told of Deacon and Mercy Churchill, who journeyed from New York State in 1834. Their wagons traveled slowly through the tall prairie grass, following tracks of the future St. Charles Road They chose a homesite along the side of the East Branch of the DuPage River. Oak trees were felled to build a log cabin, and the large Churchill family settled down to the challenges of frontier life.
News from the east was eagerly awaited, and weeks-old copies of the New York Tribune were passed from hand to hand. New neighbors homesteaded around the crossing of Indian trails called “The Corners,” and shared in the work of putting up community buildings, including a school and blacksmith shop. Until the church could be built, the smith swept out the ashes and welcomed everyone for Sunday Sabbath School.
The Churchills, Ackermans, and Christians were among those who gathered to dedicate the first church, a plain white building reminiscent of their New England heritage. When the weather permitted, Sunday worship was led by circuit rider preachers who traveled for hours to serve scattered congregations many miles apart. After two or three hours of sitting on hard pews, the people enjoyed relaxing in the grass beside the wagons, and digging into basket lunches of simmered prairie chicken, cucumber pickles and bread specialties.
Taking produce to the Chicago market was a trip of at least two days, and a much longer one for those who lived farther west. When Moses Stacy built his inn-farmhouse in 1846 at Stacy’s Corners he served farmers from as far away as the Rock River. These were charged 50 cents for supper, lodging, breakfast. and hay for two horses. As the first stage coach service of the 1830s was succeeded by evermore brisk traffic, weary, dusty travelers gratefully quenched their thirst and exchanged news of the road in the warm comfort of Stacy’s Tavern. Ladies were segregated in their own private parlor and were given separate second floor bedrooms, while men and boys crowded together in a large area above the dining room.
The fate of an inn and a town sometimes rests upon short distances; the hubbub of Stacy’s Corners diminished considerably with the building of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, now the Chicago and Northwestern, only a mile and a half to the south. The right-of-way, purchased for $111, ran through land owned by Dr. Lewey Q. Newton. He foresaw that with regular passenger service a town would follow and so put his own money into a station and water tank, piping water from a reservoir-swimming hole south of the tracks. Everyone who could get there was on hand October 24, 1849, applauding old Deacon Landy as he ran down the tracks ringing a welcoming cowbell. Dr. Newton waved the American flag, and an assortment of drummers and fifers escorted the first train into the station. Probably Miss Almeda J. Powers, who later married Judge Seymour Dodge, took her school pupils to see the awesome ten-ton locomotive as it slowly pulled coaches filled with waving passengers.
The name of Newton Station lasted only until the first station master arrived in 1851. David Kelley declared, “Since there is already a Newton, Illinois, the name should be changed to Danby — after my hometown in Vermont.” He, too, saw the local economic possibilities of the railroad and built the Mansion House Hotel on the northeast corner of Crescent and Main. The town pump was also situated on this corner; thus the rocking chair crowd on the veranda had front row seats for the daily village happenings.
During the Civil War years more homes were built in the new center of town, and businesses like Joseph R McChesney’s grocery store supplied their needs. Children attended the white frame school on Duane Street, and the small church from Stacy’s Corners was moved to Main Street between Crescent and Pennsylvania. The wagon and team maneuver took three weeks to accomplish this feat, with the horses inching carefully down the hill, since it was much steeper then than it is today. A few judicious bets were placed on whether or not the church would slide off into the mud.
When the bloody Civil War battles finally ended in 1865, red, white and blue bunting was strung on front porches to greet the Men in Blue happily returning to a normal life. As W. H. Churchill reminisced, “The swords that we carried so honorably have been deftly manipulated into corkscrews.” Everyday life brightened. Young and old enjoyed hotel dances and skating parties on the pond east of Taylor Avenue. The veterans organized a baseball team, although the sport was so new that few had ever attended a game. After enthusiastically clearing a field on ground east of town, they challenged the Chicago Excelsiors to a contest. The wildly lopsided score of 102-2 was disappointing to the Danby boys, but they had the distinction of having lost to the team which later became the Chicago Cubs.
Everyone was concerned about fires during the severe drought of the early 1870s and watched with horror as the eastern sky was lit up for several nights by the spectacular blaze of Chicago’s burning. For years after, what-not shelves displayed treasured souvenirs of fused china and embroidered napkins blackened with soot.
In 1874 the townspeople observed their first forty years by changing the name of Danby to Prospect Park. No one seems to remember the reason for the new name exactly, but it was generally believed that a few rowdy young men had given Danby a bad image. This may have been what led village fathers to decide that a name change would be in order.
One of the first groups formed in Prospect Park was the Oak Grove Cemetery Association, now called the Forest Hill Cemetery Association, with property at Riford and St. Charles Road. School teachers today sometimes impress pupils with their heritage by helping them to make rubbings on the pioneer headstones there.
In the 1880s Chicagoans were attracted to the lovely setting of Prospect Park, as all day excursion trains had become popular. Favorite amusements of local adults included buggy rides to neighboring towns and attending lectures on spiritualism or war recollections; young girls cried over Little Women, while their brothers thrilled to novels by Jules Verne.
A few public spirited citizens were interested in forming a lake in the swampy valley east of Park; so Thomas E. Hill and Seth Baker spearheaded a drive to collect funds. The lake was created by damming the brook which ran through town north of the tracks, and Mr. Hill suggested calling it Lake Glen Ellyn — “Glen” for the natural terrain, and “Ellyn,” for the Welsh spelling of his wife’s name, Ellen. The Wheaton Illinoian described the area as “one of the most picturesque and charming locations in the whole west.” Lake Glen Ellyn became so popular that in 1891 residents petitioned to change the name of their town to Glen Ellyn.
The Five Springs, just to the east of the lake, were believed to be of therapeutic help to those suffering from rheumatism, gout, and other such ailments. This belief led to the building of a large resort hotel high on Honeysuckle Hill between Crescent Boulevard and Lake Ellyn. National advertising put Lake Ellyn Hotel on the map, as vacationeers “took the waters” and enjoyed leisurely carriage drives around the lake and springs. The St. Lukes Society enticed clients with the”miracle cure” available in the medicated mud and springs for the healing of disorders dependent upon a vitiated condition of the blood.”
The hotel helped local business and the sale of real estate boomed. More churches were built, classroom sizes doubled, and a long legal battle was fought over whether or not the village needed to extend its boundaries. The pros won, and 1,000 acres were added over the protests of pioneer families who said it was plain silly to think that village homes would ever replace the good farmlands. This argument must have enlivened conversation at the birthday party for Luriana Church Ackerman and Christiana Church Christian in 1893. At the age of 91, they were the oldest living twins in the United States. Mrs. Christian proudly quoted the Bible verses to prove that her mind was still young.
After the turn of the century, a few horseless carriages coughed and snorted along the narrow roads, but commuters were given an alternate choice of transportation with the opening of yet another railroad, the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric line. Residents discussed the new village water system and expressed gratitude for the twenty-two men who had volunteered to serve in the first fire department. The amount of $315 was considered expensive to pay for a fire truck. Citizens, nevertheless, wished it had been available in time to fight the flames when Lake Ellyn Hotel was destroyed by fire after being hit by lightning in 1906. In contrast to the constant anxiety over fire, crime was not a big problem, and only two policemen were needed to keep the peace.
By 1911 traffic was heavy enough to be considered hazardous to horses and dogs drinking from the fountain in the intersection of Main and Crescent, thus it was moved to the side of the road. Across the street the DuPage County Bank opened. Two blocks away from that intersection, the red brick Carnegie Library was built at Crescent and Park. A special article in The Glen Ellyan featured news of Dr. Frank Johnson and his generous gift of saplings, which he planted in parkways throughout the town. There was much interest among the ladies when Mrs. Charles McChesney was seen driving an automobile, but their husbands were more interested in the marvel of concrete pavements on sections of Pennsylvania, Main, and Crescent.
Civil War veteran Philo Stacy, son of Moses the inn-keeper, died in 1917, one month before the United States entered World War I. Village families prayed for the 166 men who volunteered to be Doughboys. Citizens sold Liberty Bonds, worked for the Red Cross, collected tinfoil, and tried not to grumble over the need for Daylight Savings Time. On November 11, 1918, when news of peace rang out with the fire whistle blowing at 3:00 am., a joyous crowd gathered to laugh and sing around a bonfire at the railroad station.
During the postwar years, the numbering of houses aided the postman on his twice-daily rounds, the first auto licenses were issued, and the town rang with the sounds of new construction spreading out like fingers from the older business district. A village hall was built on Pennsylvania. Commercial buildings rose south of the tracks. Eleven acres of Lake Ellyn were filled in for a football field, and Glen Ellyn teenagers excitedly moved from classrooms above the DuPage Bank to the new Glenbard High School. The standard of excellence for this “Castle on the Hill” was initiated by Principal Fred L. Beister. People read all about it in the new Glen Ellyn News, with its editorial comments by Lillian Shattuc, whose red hat was said to look like a beacon in the print shop window.
Mortgage foreclosures were common during the Depression of the 1930s. Neighbors were kind to each other, and civic pride was high.
During this time bird watchers wandered through the Benjamin Gault Sanctuary north of Hawthorne between Forest and Main. The famous ornithologist had brought in over one hundred species of birds indigenous to this climate, and the wooded area became a symphony of sound and color.
Telephone lines hummed with plans for the 1934 Glen Ellyn Centennial. Miss Ada Harmon presented to the village her native wild flower paintings, later loaned to the Morton Arboretum. A bronze marker was placed near the site of the Churchill cabin as part of the week-long celebration which drew to a close with a Grand Parade.
Soon after young parade watchers grew up to carry guns in the Second World War. Windows of their homes displayed blue service stars; neighbors gathered sadly when gold stars mutely told of a good friend’s death. The food shortage was eased with the planting of Victory Gardens, and with village officials’ allowing backyard chicken coops. Leisurely Sunday afternoon drives were frowned upon as more and more fuel was needed for the war effort. On V-J Day Main Street once again exploded with shouts and tears. Fred Beister led an impromptu parade with Glenbard Band Director, Orth Baer, beating a brass drum while everyone held up both hands in the “V-for victory” sign.
The men who did not return home were honored by such groups as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. As the sad notes of Taps faded from mind, villagers turned to the needs of an increasing number of children, organizing Little League baseball teams, chaperoning camping weekends for scouts, and hosting skating meets at Lake Ellyn. Traffic seemed to double overnight as prewar cars were replaced; simple stops signs gave way to four-way traffic lights at Main and Roosevelt; and automatic gates were installed at railroad crossing. Old timers shook their heads over the newfangled parking meters and muttered dolefully about the socalled benefits of progress.
When Mrs. Florence Robey Kroeger retired as principal of Ben Franklin School, a large crowd gathered to show their appreciation of this favorite educator. Mrs. Kroeger’s career spanned three generations of students, and her special skill had touched hundreds of young minds.
After many years of sitting at the curbside, the old cast iron horse trough once again was moved back to the middle of the intersection of Crescent and Main. Water was replaced with flowers and the ornamental landmark was much admired.
The village love affair with trees continued. In spite of the ravages of Dutch Elm disease, many other varieties were planted. Along Riford Road friends of Judge Sam Perry were amazed when workers, enlarging his small lake, discovered a 10,000 year old mastodon skeleton. Experts painstakingly relocated the near-perfect specimen to Wheaton College where it was mounted and displayed on a revolving platform.
The 1960s saw further transition from farmlands to suburbia. Sport enthusiasts applauded when village officials created the Village Links golf course and the recreation area. Glenbard South High School was built to meet the needs of this expanding area.
Partly because of its central geographic location in the county, open land between Park Boulevard and Lambert Road was recommended for the site of the College of DuPage. Built to serve 2,000 students, with a ten-year projection of 7,000, the use of the college surpassed all expectations. The 1983 fall enrollment exceeded 27,000 pupils.
At the nearby site on Park Boulevard and Butterfield Road, the Village Theater Guild contributed resources to lease the old Bonaparte School. Their first production, The Haunting of Hill House, was well received. Productions have continued over an eighteen year period.
Children with singing interests were given a rare opportunity for exceptional training when the park board invited participation in the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus. Under the direction of Doreen Rao, the chorus has grown to 125 west suburban girls and boys. In addition to local appearances, they have performed in Carnegie Hall and at the Annual International Music Festival in West Germany. Concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have become frequent, and the chorus shared with it the honor of receiving a Grammy Award for the best classical recording of 1983.
In 1968 the celebration of the Illinois Sesquicentennial underscored the need for preserving original architecture of the Midwest.
The village board authorized purchase of Stacy’s Tavern and appointed a historic sites commission to encourage protection of historically valuable buildings. Restoration of the inn was begun by members of the newly formed Glen Ellyn Historical Society, who sought to remain faithful to the architectural details and furnishings of the original structure. This workmanship resulted in Stacy’s Tavern receiving status as an Illinois Historic Site and a place on the National Historical Register.
The south side business district was given a boost in 1970 when the village government and police department outgrew the old Village Hall on Pennsylvania and moved to new quarters in the former Duane Street Junior High School. The building became known as the Civic Center, after extensive remodeling provided meeting rooms for organizations and senior citizens’ activities.
Local residents will long remember the Chicago & Northwestern freight train accident in the spring of 1976. It was particularly shocking to those living in the St. Moritz Apartments who suddenly awakened to see a locomotive in the middle of their front yard. Hundreds of people in the area were alerted by police and firemen moving through the streets broadcasting the need for home evacuation. Quick response prevented human injury from toxic ammonia spillage. Acid fumes, however, seeped through the storm sewer system and killed all the fish in Lake Ellyn.
As vandalism became a growing problem locally, village officials worked within the school system to exert peer pressure. Glen Ellyn’s Van Guard program won the Illinois Home Town Award for having achieved a 40% decrease in vandalism. Also, nationwide attention was given to the passage of a teenage drinking ordinance. However, as evidence of the community spirit among youths, in 1983 Glenbard West student organizations raised funds for a plaque listing the names of village men who had died in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Today 23,852 persons live in Glen Ellyn, which extends over 3.788 acres. The $350,000 price tag for a fire truck today would have been mind boggling to 19th century residents of the village. The community continues, however, to remember old traditions, while meeting new challenges.
As Glen Ellyn geared up for the 1984 Sesquicentennial Celebration, descendants of the first families joined with newer residents to plan a gala birthday party. Special memories were relived and conversations began with, “Do you remember when …?”
Janice Keel Perkins has been a Glen Ellyn resident since 1951, and is a member of the Glen Ellyn Historical Society.