Sharon Heiden

Westmont is 740 feet above sea level, 23 feet above Downers Grove and 59 feet higher than Hinsdale. From Chicago to the Mississippi, Westmont is the highest point on the Burlington Railroad line. As excavators know, this “west mound” consists largely of clay; and as geologists explain, it was heaped up as a terminal moraine by the last of the ice sheets.

Westmont was mainly prairie, rather than woodland. The first farm owner mentioned in local histories was Henry Faul, from Bavaria, who staked out a 160-acre homestead a mile and a half east of Downers Grove, on virgin prairie.

Nothing was more important in paving the way for the future Westmont than the building of the Chicago-Aurora branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, completed in 1864. Shortly afterward, a large share of the future Westmont was bought up by the Phipps Industrial Land Trust. Some of this land, after the Chicago Fire of 1871, was sold to a number of brick manufacturers who were eager to supply bricks for the rebuilding of Chicago.

The most notable of the brick manufacturers was William L. Gregg, who chose the highest point of land along the CB&Q for his company so that shipping by steam locomotive, with a full load of brick, would be downhill. In the spring of 1872 Gregg began manufacturing bricks under the name of the Excelsior Brick Company. His company started with a capital investment of $250,000, employed 120 people, and produced 70,000 bricks per day. While in the area Mr. Gregg invented and patented a triple pressure brick machine which revolutionized the brick industry. His bricks could withstand one hundred thousand pounds of pressure without cracking or other disturbance.

Early in the 1890s, the various brick companies laid out streets and planted trees along them, expecting that the Columbian Exposition of 1893 would bring a surge of settlement. Nothing came of these hopes. A truer sign of growth was the establishment of a flag-stop on the “Q” known as “Gregg’s Milk Station,” later shorted to Gregg. By 1900 brick-making ceased.

From the 1874 Atlas & History of DuPage County, Illinois.

It was during World War I that settlers began to come in great numbers. In 1917 Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Haller and family came from Chicago and made initial purchases of land from the Branigar Brothers, who owned much of the land now in Westmont. Haller, in turn, sold to Arthur T. McIntosh in 1919. Immediately following the war, McIntosh began an aggressive campaign to sell houses and lots. In the spring of 1920 he started laying out streets and sidewalks. Cottages sold from $2,500 to $3,500. Lots of an acre or more could be bought for as little as $5.00 down and the balance in monthly payments.

Families whose breadwinners worked for Western Electric, Harvester, the “Q” and other Chicago industries were attracted by the opportunity to move to the country. They sought the space to raise livestock and garden. Many of these settlers were either directly from Bohemia, Austria, Poland or Germany, or else not more than one generation removed from their roots in the soil of their mother countries. Their fingers belonged in the loam. As late as 1939 the population of Westmont was 35% foreign-born; this set it apart from neighboring towns.

These people lived like pioneers. Their bungalows and shacks were dotted over a terrain that had no paved streets, sidewalks, electricity, gas, sewers, or water mains. A few families sunk wells. Children of other families, carrying a pair of empty buckets, met their fathers at the evening train. They would then take their place in line at the public pump, with the tired breadwinner pumping the buckets full and carrying them home. It was not until 1925 that the village water system was completed.

Local transportation, other than “hoofing it,” was at a premium. It was long before a “flivver” or “tin lizzie” appeared in town in any numbers; and if such autos had been affordable, they would have made little progress, with muddy, rutted Burlington the only “improved” street. Traveling to Downers Grove to see Lillian Gish or Tom Mix in a flicker involved the same hardships. Courting couples might splurge and take the train. Sometimes the projectionist would hold up the show a bit on a Friday or Saturday evening, if the train from Westmont was a little overdue. But often the Westmont crowd had to leave before the last reel had clicked through in order to catch the last train home.

Theatre Building. Courtesy Westmont Historical Society.

The year 1921, when dance bands were playing Barney Google and Stumbling All Around, witnessed the incorporation of Gregg’s Milk Station as Westmont, “The Progressive Village.” From that time its growth rate increased.

Father Eneas B. Goodwin, first resident pastor of Saint Joseph’s Church in Downers Grove, wanted permission to say Mass at the public school building in Westmont. There had been no previous Roman Catholic Church in that village. On December 1, 1923, he wrote his superior, Archbishop George W. Munde­lein of Chicago: “Nearly all of my flock are about one month’s wages ahead of poverty … About a year and a half ago I began working among them and can assure you they have kept me busy, especially in sick calls and straightening out difficulties resulting from ‘moonshine’.”

The liquor traffic, illegal under the 18th Amendment, continued to be a problem of the community. This is not to imply that the majority of patrons were drawn mainly from Westmont. Thirsty residents of neighboring dry communities would converge on the newer, less-organized Westmont, where entrepreneurs in spirituous beverages had set up the contraband trade. Westmont was sometimes taunted with the appellation “Wet Mont” or “Whiskey Hill.”

Szalkowski Home, 1924. Courtesy Westmont Historical Society.

This stereotype, plus the larger number of first generation Americans, created a noticeable “looking down” on Westmont among longer-established towns. This attitude was especially hard on boys and girls of high school age because Westmont did not have its own secondary schools. Until the 1970s Westmont youth attended either Downers Grove or Hinsdale high schools.

South School, third grade 1933. Courtesy Westmont Historical Society.

The expansion of Westmont came to a virtual halt with the Great Depression. The 1930 census showed a population of 2,733; the 1940 census registered a gain of only 311 individuals. Westmont men were out of work through layoffs at Western Electric and other plants. Many families were on relief. The WPA eventually helped those who could not get private employment, and a number of the younger men went to CCC Camps.

World War II, however, brought new residents to Westmont. Western Electric and Electro-Motive hired extra workers for completion of defense contracts. Homes to rent were difficult to find. Labor and construction materials were also hard to come by; but somehow there were families who managed to erect houses in the area at that time.

Following World War II, the building boom resumed. One of the largest developments was Blackhawk Heights, immediately to the east of the village. There scores of brick houses for middle and upper-income families were built on a large tract, formerly the site of Bassett and Washburn’s Greenhouse and Nursery. By 1959 the town of Westmont had so filled up that there were very few vacant spaces left for building.

Many tradesmen and blue collar workers remain; but inhabitants are generally more skilled and better paid than those of the early years of settlement. The community now includes many businesses and professional residents. Gone are the days of setting up housekeeping in a tent or garage, working all day in the city, then working half the night by automobile light or lantern on one’s house.

Today Westmont provides the full range of public facilities and services. A large community center, with many activities for senior citizens, was built in 1975. One of the most important additions to the town in recent years has been the Westmont High School, built in 1976. One of many local activities each year is Westmont’s Pow Wow Days – held in late summer. This is a week-long affair of picnics, a carnival, a parade and many other family oriented activities.

At a 1976 picnic life-long resident Marge Smejkal spoke with 84-year-old Mary Peters about what to do with the memorabilia, pictures, and school histories that the teacher had collected since 1925. In looking for a place to display the materials properly, Ms. Smejkal remembered the oldest building in town, the 104-year-old former residence of brickyard owner William L. Gregg. This structure was scheduled for demolition by its owner at that time, Holy Trinity Church.

A meeting was held of local residents, who decided to form the Westmont Historical Society for the purpose of procuring and maintaining the history and artifacts of the village. On December 14, 1976, Holy Trinity Parish was approached about “Gregg House.” The church donated the building, providing the society would move it. A site was then acquired from the park district. Memberships were sold; rummage and bake sales held. With money from these projects, along with the help of the village, businesses and area residents, it was possible to make the move.

The above ground foundation walls are constructed with the original brick salvaged from the old location. Many of the bricks are clearly marked “EXCELSIOR” (with the backward “S”), the name of the Gregg’s brick company.

The restored eight-room building currently serves as Westmont’s Historical Society Museum. Many programs are conducted during the year, aimed primarily at children, with a particular emphasis on Westmont’s rich ethnic heritage. Puppet shows are presented at Christmas. Food and customs from Bohemia, Austria, Poland and Germany are featured President Smejkal sums up the museum’s purpose when she says, “We want our children to know their history — the story of Westmont ­so they can be proud!”

The Author

Sharon Heiden is publicity director of the Westmont Historical Society.

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