Etta Susan Chapek
The 5,302 acres which now constitute the Village of Oak Brook were in prehistoric times part of the hunting domain of Indians. Artifacts associated with their campsites are identified as dating as long as 8,000 years ago.
Among the pioneer families to come to the Oak Brook area after Elisha Fish, who is thought to have been the first settler, were the Atwaters, Fullers, Knapps, Litchfields, Phillips, Plummers, Talmadges, Torodes and Townsends.
The Fullers’ story is unusual in that Benjamin Fuller, the oldest of the twelve children of Jacob and Candace Fuller, was the instigator of his father’s move from a Broome County, New York farm to what is now known as Ginger Creek and Spring Road. According to George E. Ruchty, Jr., a great-great-grandson of Jacob Fuller, the Fuller family set out for their new home in the spring of 1835. After an arduous journey on horseback and in covered wagon, lasting several weeks, they immediately set about clearing land and cutting logs to build their 25′ X 15′ cabin, with a fireplace and flagstone floor. The cabin ceiling was of rough logs and the sleeping quarters of the children were above it, reached by a ladder through an opening in the ceiling. The roof was of bark and leaked in a heavy rain or snow.
In 1840 Ben Fuller built a Greek Revival house on York Road for his family. This structure has lately been moved onto Fullersburg Forest Preserve land, and is currently being restored by the Ben Fuller Museum Association. The old Fullersburg Settlement that had been platted and recorded in 1851, but never incorporated, has been absorbed and its history shared by the villages of Hinsdale and Oak Brook.
The John Talmadges also were well-known early settlers, arriving in 1836. Their cabin, on the present site of the Hyatt Oak Brook, was used for school and church services; and Mr. Talmadge was instrumental in the establishment, about 1847, of the Rabbit Hill Schoolhouse on the northeast corner of what is now Midwest and Oak Brook Road. It was the Talmadge Family that is said to have been rudely awakened one night by the sudden eruption of a mammoth spring on their farm. The great volume of water was later harnessed and provided many homes in the Oak Brook/Elmhurst area with running water for almost a generation before its depletion. It also contributed to the success of the Mammoth Spring Ice Company, established on the south bank of Salt Creek at Washington Street by the Ruchty family.
Recruits for the Civil War undoubtedly included young men from the Oak Brook area farms. The first official call, however, took place in 1861 in Fullersburg. The youngest of the twelve Fuller children, Ben’s brother Morrell, served in the Illinois Volunteer Infantry, 105th Regiment for three years.
Settlers continued to arrive in great numbers after the Civil War, including many immigrants from Europe, mostly German. These added their industry and skills, their culture and various religious and spiritual values to the development of the area. Their work habits resulted in comfortable homes, good farms, and good times for the Ahrens, Beckers, Boegers, Boergerhofs, Brinkmans, Clapps, Henkes, Rediehs, Reineckes, Reinholds, Retzels, Timkes, and Wendels. Related to the period, when its services were conducted in German, is old St. John’s Church on Washington Street near Spring Road, an Oak Brook landmark currently in the process of restoration by a new congregation, the Church on the County Line.
In 1898 Frank Osgood Butler of Hinsdale, the father of Paul and Julius, purchased a tract of land alongside Salt Creek south of 31st Street as a summer home. Stuyvesant Peabody also established an estate in the area, which was subsequently purchased by the Franciscan Order and used for retreats and for the St. Joseph Seminary (1924).
In 1906 the 160-acre Natoma Dairy Farm was purchased by Butler from George B. Robbins, substantially expanded, and for some thirty years was the only commercial enterprise in the rural area. Many of the dairy employees were not themselves local farmers, but came to the area to live near their jobs, thus increasing the population.
The Community Club, formed in Chicago’s westward spread after World War I, inspired real estate activity. At least two subdivisions were platted in the Oak Brook area, but collapsed as a result of the 1929 Depression.
During the thirties and forties, however, many small parcels of one, two, five or even ten acres were sold in the Oak Brook area to individuals who proceeded to build the first new homes, with a few exceptions, since the 1880s. These new homeowners, along with the remaining farmers, formed the Community Club in the mid-thirties. This organization established Oak Brook as an entity apart from Hinsdale and Elmhurst more than a quarter of a century before its incorporation. The club combined school, parent-teacher, and recreational functions, which made for a friendly neighborhood (along with the four-to-eight telephone party lines).
By the time of the U. S. entry into World War II, the Oak Brook area had from two to three hundred families, the breadwinners in most cases employed in Chicago. Each home had its own well and septic system.
The Oak Brook Civic Association was formed in early 1942. Initially, it was organized for civil defense and the rationing necessary during the war, but gradually the association came to serve the community as assembly, news center, chamber of commerce (although there was no commercial enterprise in the area after the Natoma Dairy ceased operations in the mid-thirties), and social center. It was duly incorporated in 1945, and was likened to a town meeting, functioning through committees, including those on zoning and taxes, on fire protection, and one on “Equestrian Law and Order.” Many residents owned horses, and several stables in the area rented out or boarded horses.
Incorporation of the village occurred in 1958. The Association continues to monitor and influence developments in the village as a forum for the various homeowners associations. Proceedings of each governmental body are reported in a monthly newsletter issued by The Oak Brook Civic Association to 2,500 members.
The nationally recognized planned village within 8.3 square miles, bounded by the DuPage/Cook County Line on the east, Meyers Road on the west, Butterfield and Roosevelt roads on the north, 39th Street and Glendale Road on the south, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1983.
It is sometimes referred to as Paul Butler’s realized dream. As the largest landholder, he had consulted with such experts as Robert Kingery of the Regional Planning Commission, Carl Gardner Associates, and Garson Rohrback of General Planning & Research. Mr. Rohrbach’s studies resulted in the Oak Brook Comprehensive Plan. An ordinance divided residential areas into four zones, ranging in lot size requirements from two acres to 18,000 square feet. The Village of Oak Brook’s total residential development plan calls for a maximum of 10,000 people. Commercial and industrial areas are divided into zones having different height and open-land-to-building ratios. Pedestrian/bicycle paths connect and enhance the various sections of the village, which also benefits from the presence of the Fullersburg Nature Center of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Current population is about 6,600 with an estimated daytime working population of 25,000.
The first major residential development, York Woods, followed incorporation in 1958, and preceded Mr. Butler’s association with Del Webb. Brook Forest, Steeplechase, and Ginger Creek were subsequently developed with annexations in 1962 of Yorkshire Woods and Woodside Estates. The Fullersburg Woods Area included Robin Hood Ranch and the old 1924 Westchester Park. Among later annexations were West Oak Brook, Breckenridge Farm, and Timber Trails, with new developments in Briarwood Lakes, Hunter Trails, Forest Glen, Chateau Woods, The Midwest Club, and Saddlebrook. Still under construction are Trinity Lakes and Whitehall, with the St. Joseph Seminary property being adapted to apartment dwellings.
A unique feature is the village-owned 270-acre Oak Brook Sports Core, purchased from Paul Butler in 1977 pursuant to a vote by the residents. The Sports Core now boasts an eighteen-hole golf course, bath and tennis club, polo fields, other recreational areas, all supported by user-fees and available primarily to Oak Brook residents. The Sports Core was originally developed by Paul Butler, who was instrumental in bringing polo, the so-called sport of kings,” to the midwest. Mr. Butler, whose accidental death, the day after his 89th birthday in 1982, proved a great loss to the village, had always been an enthusiastic supporter of excellence in all fields of athletics. The Sports Core has over the years been the location of numerous fashionable benefit horse shows, international polo matches, golf tournaments and other events for which Oak Brook was noted long before it developed residentially and commercially.
The Oakbrook Center, dedicated in 1960 and opened to shoppers in 1962, was initially occupied by Marshall Field & Company, Sears, and C. D. Peacock. It now includes Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor, I. Magnin, Neiman-Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and numerous smaller specialty stores and chain shops. Shoppers enjoy its park like atmosphere, summer concerts, and special mall events.
School District 53 lies within the village limits and serves some 450 elementary school pupils at two schools, Butler and Brook Forest. All public high school students attend Hinsdale, Downers Grove or Elmhurst schools.
In the earlier days of the twentieth century, the Torode School on York Road and the Rabbit Hill School on 31st at Midwest Road still accommodated the children of the area. Eighth grade graduating classes often numbered from one to seven students. To replace the one-room, one-teacher schools, Frank Osgood Butler donated ten acres, and the first Butler Schoolhouse at Spring and 31st streets was built. He stipulated that if it should ever cease to meet the state standards for a “superior school,” ownership would revert to him.
Reversion occurred to Paul Butler when the new and much larger Butler School on York Road replaced it, opening in September 1961. Paul Butler donated ten acres of land for the new school, while making a gift of the old one to serve as village hall and library.
At that time the library represented a volunteer citizens’ effort. In 1975 the village offices vacated the building to move into the adjacent, newly built Village Commons. The library, with its 30,000 volumes, now occupies the entire old Butler School building. The librarian is employed by the Village of Oak Brook.
Scores of Oak Brook residents have served as unpaid members of the board of trustees, on the zoning board of appeals, plan commission, and the school and park district boards. The park district was created in 1962, primarily to prevent any other park district from annexing the area for taxing purposes. The park district provides residents and some of the daytime working population with facilities for indoor and outdoor tennis, racquetball, and fields for baseball, softball, soccer, other outdoor sports, even fishing. A park shelter accommodates year round craft’ cultural and physical exercise groups. All of these facilities exist on 141 acres, mostly in Central Park.
Evidence of continuing community involvement is the Oak Brook Volunteer Firemen’s Association, survivor of the 1942 Civil Defense organization. After years of discussion and study involving the establishment of a fire district, which would have had taxing power, a volunteer commission and firemen undertook fire protection for the community, with residents making voluntary annual contributions and running benefit horse shows to acquire the necessary funds for equipment and expenses. The whole community participated in the fundraising effort, and the Oak Brook Volunteer Firemen’s Association still functions right along with the paid professional and well equipped fire department now serving the village. This cooperation represents the continuing spirit of civic pride which has characterized Oak Brook from its beginning.
Etta Susan Chapek has served in the Oak Brook Civic Association and Fullersburg Woods Area Association for forty years. Currently president of the Oak Brook Historical Society, she described herself as “definitely not living in the past … yet!”