Irene S. Martin
What is now Villa Park was once open prairie, criss-crossed by Indian trails. By the mid-1800s there were fifteen white families in the present-day Villa Park area. These were mostly German settlers who had come looking for good farm land. A map of the farms in 1862 shows the names of Frederick Graue, Henry Backhaus, Diedrick Meyer, August Strueber, H. F. Goltermann, Frederick Ahrens, and H. Hograue. Some of the old farm houses still stand – the Goltermann home at 27 E. Jackson, the Potter-Finke home at 222 W. Madison, and the Meyer-Domianus home at 618 S. Ardmore. All were built before the Civil War.
In a small handmade book is the first recorded entry for School District 9, dated April 1857. J. Loy, F. Summers, and A. Hatfield were elected directors. The school house was built on two lots on the corner of St. Charles Road and Meyers Road (Westmore). The lots cost $10.00 each. N. N. Johnson was hired to teach and do janitorial work at $33.00 per month.
In 1895 there were twenty-nine families. The district was renumbered District 45, which it remains today. The school was so crowded that when the Walter Olmacht family came to Villa Park in 1911, their son Frank had to delay attending a year until Ardmore School opened in 1912. Most of these same families went to the German United Reformed Lutheran Church in Dunklee’s Grove (Bensenville today).
With increasing settlement came the need for better transportation. Farmers first went to Cottage Hill (Elmhurst today) to take the Frink and Walker Stagecoach. By 1849 they traveled on the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad (Chicago & Northwestern). At the close of the 19th century, the vicinity was still sparsely settled farmland. Then came the Aurora, Elgin and Chicago Railway, a double track electric system. Florence Canfield and Louis Meyer, two farmers, granted it a right-of-way through their land The farm abstract of the Canfield land showed that it had been granted on April 1 for a consideration of $1.00. It was not long before Chicago real estate developers, Ballard and Pottinger, spotted the open land and saw an opportunity for opening a town along the new railroad.
What had been rumored to become a new cemetery instead became Villa Park. Its development was unique in that it began as two separate subdivisions. Villa Park was recorded in the DuPage County Recorder’s office in 1908, and Ardmore to the west in 1910. To entice buyers of lots Ballard and Pottinger built Ardmore School, a train station, and planted hundreds of poplar trees along the newly laid-out streets. The firm ran free Sunday promotional excursions. Those who bought acre lots had their choice of 200 baby chicks or twenty apple trees.
The new communities attracted Chicago families who wanted country living. Among them were brokers, builders, bankers, and real estate men who built attractive homes. One of these was the Charles C. Heisen home on Villa Avenue, built about 1908. The twenty-one room mansion was constructed for Heisen’s second wife, a New York actress. She took one look at muddy little Villa Park and returned to New York. Heisen was the wealthiest man in Villa Park. His office in the Harris Trust Building in Chicago was headquarters for varied business interests. He built many homes in Villa Park and presented a building for the first church, the Community Congregational Church. He also owned the only water system in town.
Another interesting resident was William Calhoun, who preferred to be called “Colonel.” His home was also on Villa Avenue. Colonel Calhoun opened the first store in Villa Park. To inform people when the store was open for business, he flew a red flag from a tall pole on top of the store. The building was later moved around the corner to Central Boulevard, and is now an attorney’s office.
Near the Heisen home was that of John Montgomery, a Chicago banker. His son Jack became a cowboy stuntman who doubled for Tom Mix and other Hollywood stars in the 1930s. Jack’s daughter became a child star at Century Studio where she appeared in 150 two-reel comedies. She was billed as Baby Peggy.
There was much rivalry between Villa Park and Ardmore. However, in order to acquire tax money for community improvements the two subdivisions united in 1914. The Village of Ardmore was incorporated on August 8, 1914.
The name was contested by the Villa Park section, and a vote taken in 1917. Since there were more people living in the Villa Park section, the name was changed to Villa Park on October 15, 1917, leaving many disgruntled citizens on the west side of the village. At that time the population was 300.
Women in Villa Park were interested in politics. Five years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, Marie Lueck had run for police magistrate, but lost. In 1916 Jeanette Bates was appointed first village attorney. She left office during the next year because she had been appointed assistant attorney general for Illinois, the first woman in an attorney general’s office in the United States.
In 1917 Gottlieb Steiner was sent from Bern, Switzerland to set up the American factory for the Wander Company, the maker of Ovaltine. Villa Park had been chosen for the site because of the good water, the availability of farm products used in the manufacturing process, and the excellent transportation. Steiner’s temporary assignment lengthened into thirty-seven years. Steiner is remembered for his many civic interests. He was one of the founders of Elmhurst Memorial Hospital and a leader in establishing the Villa Park Trust and Savings Bank.
Since it opened, Ovaltine has been head quartered at Number 1 Ovaltine Court. During both World Wars its product was used in Allied hospitals to aid in the recuperation of soldiers suffering from combat fatigue. Ovaltine has been an official supplier to the Summer and Winter Olympics since 1932. In the 1930s the company sponsored Little Orphan Annie programs on radio; Captain Midnight on radio in the 1940s, and on TV. in the 1950s. Ovaltine grew to be Villa Park’s largest industry and its greatest benefactor, especially during the Depression.
Even though Villa Park was a very small village when World War I began, there were twenty-nine men who enlisted. In 1920 twenty-six of them became charter members of the Villa Park American Legion Post 652. In 1929 the post purchased the old Community Congregational Church for its headquarters.
In the wake of World War I, Villa Park boomed. The population doubled in 1920 and 1925. New homes were going up rapidly. The streets were cinder, and only Ardmore Avenue had street lights, which were paid for by the Ardmore Community Club. There were no sidewalks. A common sight was a row of boots lined up at the train station, awaiting their owners for their muddy walk home. During the 1920s electricity was obtained from Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway generators in Lombard.
York High School was opened for Elmhurst and Villa Park students in 1924. Four elementary schools were built and the first full-time school superintendent, H. E. Hinkle, was hired. There were four new churches. Community services included a volunteer fire department organized by the Lions Club. Other developments in that decade were the building of a new village hall in 1929, the paving of Ardmore, Highland and Villa avenues, the publication of a newspaper called the Villa Park Weekly News, and house-to-house mail delivery.
Villa Park was acknowledged to be the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin’s largest commuting customer; the railway was largely responsible for the community’s growth. Villa Parkers no longer had to go to Elmhurst or Lombard to shop, to attend the movies, or to attend a funeral.
Then came the Depression, which hit Villa Park very hard. Many families had bought lots to build homes; instead, they put up garages or only basements. Some lots became gardens, but many were just weed patches. In 1932 there were over 300 destitute families. Stores extended credit; doctors “forgot” to charge; and bartering became common. Kranz Hardware Store exchanged a keg of nails for a woman’s diamond ring. Ovaltine (Wander Company) helped the banks remain open, established a relief fund, and took Ovaltine to all the school children. Canning parties were held in the churches. There were many W. P. A. sponsored activities; tennis and basketball courts were installed. The Men’s Garden Club was formed, and is known today as the world’s largest men’s garden club. Free amateur shows were presented at the Community Congregational Church, and a private kindergarten was opened by Mrs. Raymond Sears in her home. In 1931, despite the hard times, Villa Park had the lowest crime rate in DuPage County.
Then came Pearl Harbor. Many young men and women joined the armed services. The Ardmore Community Club raised money for the service men and women. Victory gardens were planted along the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin’s right-of-way. Teen-agers collected scrap iron and paper. Red Cross work was done at the V.F.W. Post 2801, and service flags were in windows throughout the town. After World War II young families flocked to Villa Park. Unincorporated areas were annexed and developed along North Avenue on the north and Roosevelt Road on the south. The population increased from 8,000 in 1940 to 25,000 in 1965. In 1950 the Reedy Ranch Homes, with twenty-five-year mortgages at 5½% interest, were rapidly erected. The influx of people brought the need for more schools and churches of other denominations. Elementary schools were enlarged Jackson Junior High School and Willowbrook High School were built. Harold Reskin’s Midland Enterprise opened homes in the northwest section of Villa Park between 1955 and 1960. The library purchased the old Trinity Lutheran Church at 305 South Ardmore for its first permanent home, having been in six different locations previously.
After the opening of Congress Street Expressway (Eisenhower) in the mid-fifties, the Chicago Aurora & Elgin abandoned passenger service in 1957 — a sad event for Villa Park. In the 1960s the track was removed and the roadbed became the Illinois Prairie Path, which extends like a ribbon through the village from east to west.
In the late 1950s Villa Park identified itself as “The Garden Village,” incorporating it into the logo which it uses today. In 1954 the Woman’s Club was presented with an award by the DuPage County Board of Realtors for extraordinary accomplishment in the improvement and beautification of the community. Also in that year the Easter Seal Center purchased the old Salt Creek School and moved it to 706 E. Park Boulevard Two years later it became the DuPage Chapter of the Illinois Association for the Crippled.
Progress continued in the 1960s. Tax referenda were passed for enlarging schools and a new wing was added to Willowbrook High School. In 1965 the Park Development Program began with ten parks on forty-five acres. People no longer asked, “Where is the park in Villa Park?” A new library opened in 1969, a far cry from the store front at 317 S. Ardmore in 1928, with its 400 books collected in a little red wagon in a house-to-house drive. There was 90% home ownership. Professional people comprised 15% of the population, which had reached a peak of 25,000. In 1965 Villa Park celebrated its Golden Jubilee.
The last decades have seen many changes. Businesses have sprung up, especially on the north and south boundaries. For years Ovaltine was the only factory of any size. In the 1970s a large industrial tract on North Avenue developed Today there are seventy-nine manufacturers listed for Villa Park in the 1982 Illinois Manufacturer’s Directory, and 846 businesses noted in the Villa Park Chamber of Commerce.
In the early days the two separated business districts on Villa Avenue and Ardmore Avenue flourished. Now two large shopping centers, North Park Mall on North Avenue and Villa Oaks Shopping Center on Roosevelt Road, have again created separate districts in the four-mile long village. The old downtown is suffering. The shopping centers, however, generate revenues which provide capital to meet the need of the village.
The Odeum opened in 1983 and is a multipurpose facility for entertainment, the fourth largest free-span building in the United States. In that same year the first phase of a $12,000,000 project to reduce flooding was completed.
Villa Park is a maturing community, with no room to grow. This fact accounts for the decline of student population from a peak of 6,700 in 1967, to 3,600 in 1983. Eight of the fourteen schools closed are due to declining enrollment. One of the closed school buildings is now a popular senior citizen’s center.
There are other changes. In the beginning Villa Park citizens were mostly of German and Swedish origin, and of Lutheran religious practice. Today there are persons of English, Italian, Polish, Spanish, and French descent with 80% of newcomers being of the Roman Catholic faith. According to the 1980 census, there were 22,356 whites, 124 blacks, 22 American Indians, 73 Japanese, 33 Chinese, 107 Filipinos, 79 Koreans, 17 Vietnamese, and 151 Asian Indians.
Thirty years ago there were virtually no apartments in Villa Park. Today there are over 1,900 apartments, town houses, and condominium units interspersed with two-story homes, modest bungalows, ranches, and split levels. The population has decreased from 25,000 to 23,185. The village has received a $40,000 state grant for devising a master plan, which will go to the DuPage Regional Planning Commission for an analysis of the community.
This history would not be complete without recognizing the contribution made by a variety of civic minded men and women.
Mrs. Bessie Mabee and her husband bought the first home in Ardmore. She was the first president of the Woman’s Club. She is best known for writing in 1936 the first history of Villa Park
Pete McAleese worked with youths coaching baseball and track for three generations. He worked at R R Donnelly Company, and often rode his bicycle to work in the city.
Mrs. Hilda Schulze lived in Villa Park for more than sixty years. She was known for her work as Public Health Nurse for DuPage County.
Dr. L. R Cortesi started the first emergency medical service in the fire department. He was also the Ovaltine and the Willowbrook sports doctor.
Father Kennedy came to Villa Park in 1924. Under his leadership St. Alexander’s Church, fondly called the “Wooden Ark,” was built. It was to be only a temporary structure; but due to the Depression it was used until 1953. The St. Alexander’s school was built in 1925 because he felt it was needed more than the church building. Father Kennedy lived to see his dream come true. The new church was dedicated in 1954.
Since 1976 Villa Park has become history conscious. During the bicentennial the village purchased the two Chicago, Aurora and Elgin railroad stations. In 1977 the Villa Park Historical Society was incorporated, as was the Historical Commission, an arm of the village government. In 1978 the historical society leased the Villa Avenue station and rededicated it as a museum, exactly fifty years after its construction. In 1980 the Historical Commission was able to obtain listing of the Ardmore station on the National Register of Historical Places, as an example of Prairie School architecture. Restoration of the building is underway. It will be dedicated as a halfway stop on the Prairie Path for hikers and bicyclists.
The 125th year of School District 45 was marked in 1983, with a time capsule buried in Memorial Park. It will be opened in the year 2008.
As viewed in the perspective of this history, it is evident that community spirit, combined with hard work, brought Villa Park through many ups and downs. We trust that the same process will continue to do so in the future.
Irene S. Martin is Young Adult Librarian at the Villa Park Public Library. Previously while teaching in public schools, she developed the concept and served as co-editor of Illinois Junior Historian Magazine, presently titled Illinois History, now in its 36th year of publication.