For more information on Jefferson Park, click here to read the entry on the
Chicago History Museum's "ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHICAGO".
View an excerpt from Volume 1 of George Valko's book- The Volga Germans, Krasnojar, Chicago, Everywhere
It is an oral history of Jefferson Park, by Bernie Molay, who was known by locals as "Mr. Jefferson Park". Full of anecdotes and neighborhood folklore, it was prepared as part of celebrations around the American Bicentennial in 1976.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Park is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places - July 2006.
Before any Europeans settled in the Chicago region, it was a vast swampland on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was inhabited primarily by Potawatomi, who took the place of the Miami, Sauk, and Fox who had previously controlled the area. The name Chicago originates from "Checagou" (Chick-Ah-Goo-Ah), which in the Potawatomi language means 'wild onions' or 'skunk'. The area was so named because of the smell of marshland wild leeks or wild garlic that used to cover it.
The first non-native settler in Chicago was Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable, a Haitian of African descent, who settled on the Chicago River in the 1770s and married a local Potawatomi woman. In 1795, following the Northwest Indian War, the area of Chicago was ceded by the Native Americans in the Treaty of Greenville to the United States for a military post. In 1803, Fort Dearborn was built. The Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi ceded the land to the United States in the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis. A group of merchants, trappers, and traders incorporated the city of Chicago in 1833 and chartered it in 1837. At that time, Chicago was a much smaller parcel in the area directly around the Loop.
In these early years, John Kinzie Clark landed about 10 miles northwest of the Loop area and became Jefferson Township’s earliest resident. He arrived with only a few personal items and a team of horses. Shortly thereafter, Elijah Wentworth joined him and took up a claim near what is today the neighborhood transit station. He built a hotel of logs and opened a tavern on the site. Traders, hunters, and farmers soon joined the tiny settlement, and most of them built one-or-two room log cabins in the area. Abram Gale (for whom Gale Street is named) came to “Jefferson” soon after this and built the first frame house in the area. It was 18 x 34 feet and reportedly cost the sum of $75.00.
During the 1860's, the population of Jefferson grew to about 800 persons and nearly all the trades and professions were represented. The area had two taverns, two dry goods stores, a drug store, markets and other businesses. The first high school was established in 1870 in the Town Hall at Irving Park and Milwaukee. Eventually, a more permanent 3-story structure was erected in 1883 and called, “Jefferson High School.” (The Irish Heritage Center on Wilson and Knox stands at this site today).
Around this time, Jefferson Park started to become known as the “Gateway to Chicago” or the “Garden Gateway” because of the truck farms throughout the area. Farmers would truck their produce to Jefferson Park to sell to the residents. They would also truck products to Chicago by way of Milwaukee Ave. The trucks would come in on Higgins or Northwest Highway, both dead-ending in Jefferson Park. This ideal location made for a successful business district with a large community to support this commerce.
Early settlers named the area’s first post office for President James Monroe. However, they soon learned that another community in Illinois was known as Monroe, so they decided to honor President Thomas Jefferson instead. The State formed Jefferson Township in 1850 and by 1855, the village had 50 buildings. The Town of Jefferson was officially incorporated in 1872.
The site where the park (Jefferson) and Long Avenue is today was initially a farm owned by the Esdohr family. During those early years, the residents of Higgins, Milwaukee, and Lawrence Avenues obtained water at the pump on the Esdohr Farm or at other pumps located along Milwaukee Avenue. This gave tremendous impetus to population growth in the area and helped to attract immigrants from Poland, Germany and other European countries through the next several decades. In addition to the Esdohr family’s importance to the neighborhood through providing fresh water, they played prominent roles in the community in numerous other ways. Henry served as the Knight Templar for the Masons (and his brother Herman was the Master of the Lodge.) Henry was appointed as the community’s first postmaster and the treasurer of the school board (for one of the state’s earliest public high schools). In 1881, he was elected as City Clerk of the Town of Jefferson.
During the late 19th century, Chicago was growing rapidly. Not only was the population growing, but the geography was growing through the annexation of suburban communities at its boundaries. Some residents of Jefferson Township petitioned for annexation in 1886. Three years later, Jefferson Park was annexed to Chicago along with Lake View, Lake and Hyde Park Townships. Interestingly, only 24 votes in total were cast for annexation. They were write-in votes and not on the printed ballot. The 24 votes were unanimous. This 1889 initiative proved to be the city’s largest single annexation with the addition of 125 square miles of property and 225,000 additional people. This made Chicago the nation’s largest city by area and second in population at the time.
By the year of annexation, Jefferson had become active and prosperous. The Jefferson settlement was linked to the city of Chicago by the Milwaukee and Elston Plank Roads, both of which had been in operation since the 1850’s. These roads had initially been Native American Trails, and they were later called the “Upper” (Milwaukee) and “Lower” (Elston) roads. Elston got its name from Dan Elston, a former alderman and bricklayer who graded, maintained, and principally used the road. Both Milwaukee and Elston became toll roads owned by Amos Snell, and they operated until the annexation. At that time, citizens destroyed the tollgates by fire in protest of having to pay the tolls and indignation over the extreme increase in traffic. Not long after that, Amos Snell was murdered in a mystery that has never been solved.
At the time of annexation, the Northwest railroad was the only reliable way to get in and out of the neighborhood. The plank roads were often rutted and muddy and difficult to navigate. As Jefferson Park was now part of Chicago, new methods of transportation and ease of travel were soon to arrive. Street car tracks were laid on Lawrence Avenue in 1909, and in 1911 the tracks on Elston were extended all the way to Lawrence Avenue. In 1927, the railroad tracks were all elevated eliminating dangerous grade crossings and opening up important thoroughfares such as Montrose.
The transportation opportunities and new city services helped attract new residents to the area. During this period, many first and second generation immigrants from Poland, Germany, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Sweden settled here. As neighborhoods of frame cottages and brick bungalows emerged in the 1910s and 1920s, many of the new residents desired a park. Residents of the Jefferson Park neighborhood filed a petition in the County Court on May 24, 1920 requesting the creation of a park district to serve their area. The community election was held on June 22, 1920, and the majority voted for a park district for Jefferson Park. The park (Jefferson Park) first opened to the public in 1921, and took its moniker from the surrounding community. When it opened, there was an earlier Jefferson Park located on the West side of Chicago. Because of this, the site was long known as Jefferson Park #2. (The original Jefferson Park is now Skinner Park.)
Development of Jefferson Park slowed in the mid-1950's when residents of Chicago began to migrate to the suburbs. This was due to evolving tastes and new ease of commuting from the suburbs to the city due to construction of major interstate highways directly to the Loop. The Kennedy expressway was one of these new highways. When it was built, it literally cut the neighborhood in half. At that time, it was a devastating blow to the area as hundreds of people lost their homes and businesses. Today, most residents have become accustomed to the Kennedy and it offers quick transportation to downtown and the Northwest suburbs.
In 1970, the Chicago Transit Authority opened the Jefferson Park Transit Station, which now serves approximately 10,000 commuter rail passengers per day and operates at the starting or ending point for over 800 buses per day. The CTA station, along with the Kennedy Expressway and the METRA Railroad, now provide the community with a varied transportation network.
Jefferson Park has grown to a population of almost 44,000 residents within a one-mile radius of the Milwaukee/Lawrence intersection. Today, this community is the home of one of the largest first-and second-generation Polish community in Chicago. More than 25% of the neighborhood has first or second generation ties to Poland. In 1979, the Copernicus Foundation established Chicago’s very own Polish Cultural Center in the heart of Jefferson Park. The Foundation broke ground on what was once the Gateway Theater on Lawrence Avenue, which had originally been designed to show the first “talkies” in Chicago. The building and all of its programs are referred to as “The Copernicus Center,” and the theater seats 2000. In 1985, "Solidarity Tower," with its matching facade, was erected atop the building. The exterior of the building was modified to resemble the historic Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland. The tower is an exact replica of the clock tower adorning the castle - it can be seen from the Kennedy Expressway.Recently, Jefferson Park (the park itself) was named to the National Register of Historic Places as it has a definitive place in the neighborhood and in Chicago. The property is locally significant as part of an early 20th century movement to create breathing spaces with recreational facilities on Chicago’s northwest side. The farmhouse where the Esdohrs lived still stands today in the park (where it was moved) as a remnant and reminder of what life was like here over 100 years ago.