By Bob Uphues
All eyes turned to Chicago in 1893. Just 22 years after a fire that destroyed more than three square miles of the city, including the entire downtown and large swaths of the near North Side, the city opened the World's Columbian Exhibition.
The world's fair drew more than 20 million visitors and, during that decade, the city's population would explode; the 1890s saw Chicago's population grow by more than 500,000 people.
Meanwhile, about 15 miles southwest of the city along the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, a few hundred people living in a new real estate subdivision called Grossdale – named after its real estate speculator founder Samuel Eberly Gross – voted in 1893 to incorporate as a village.
That village, whose name would be changed by popular vote to Brookfield in 1905, celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2018. Plans for that celebration are just getting started, led at this point by village officials.
Certainly, the celebrations aren't likely to rival the village's centennial in 1993 or its 75thanniversary in 1968, both of which included elaborate pageants. In 1993, a committee of volunteers compiled and published a history book.
Surely, some part of the celebration will revolve around the Grossdale Station, the village's lone national landmark structure, erected in 1889, four years before Grossdale became an official village.
The train station was one of the first two buildings constructed for S.E. Gross' new real estate venture – the other, the Grossdale Pavilion at the corner of Brookfield and Prairie avenues burned to the ground in 1897.
Two other Victorian-era train stations were also built at the Hollywood and Congress Park stops on the rail line. Both were demolished. The Grossdale Station survived through the efforts of the Brookfield Historical Society, formed for the express purpose of saving the building.
In April 1981, the station was moved to its present location at the corner of Brookfield and Forest avenues. The Brookfield Historical Society had accomplished the mission it was created to accomplish.
During its glory years, the society boasted a couple hundred members and it hosted an annual catered dinner fundraiser. The society held regular meetings at the village hall.
Then came the work of running the museum and curating a collection of items. That was a job no one was really prepared to do. Society members aged, died and moved away. And there were factions within the society, those interested primarily in the building and others in the museum end of things.
In 1993, local landscaping contractor Kit Ketchmark joined the society and within a year was given the keys to the Grossdale Station. He's been the society's director since that time, almost 25 years.
Ketchmark, who later was elected village trustee and serves now as the village's president, says there are just a handful of active members, three or four at most, of the historical society.
"The society had the rally to save the station, without thinking we have to keep the history of Brookfield going for the next 100 years," Ketchmark said. "Now it's the museum and archives. You need people interested in that. The biggest thing people have to realize is that this doesn't happen on its own."
The centennial celebration in 1993 was the last big rallying point for the society, said Ketchmark. Within five years of that event, he said, "It all started disappearing."
Little by little, membership began to wane. And Ketchmark became involved in local politics beginning in 2001. He's served on the village board almost continually since then.
"I'm pulled in a lot of directions," he said.
Though it sits on public land, the museum isn't funded by the local government. It costs about $4,000 a year to pay for utilities, an amount the society typically collected through an annual fundraising mailer.
The society hasn't done that mailer this year. The person who was in charge of it moved away. The museum, typically open on Sunday afternoons during the summer, didn't open at all this year. Part of the reason was that the station waiting room is piled with boxes.
Within the past couple of years, the society has received the personal collections of three significant past members – Bob Wegner, who was a member of the Brookfield Centennial Commission; Stella Abrams, a principal author of the 1993 history book; and Chris Stach, the village's unofficial historian.
Going through those collections – particularly Stach's, most of which was contained haphazardly in many cardboard boxes – has been a time-consuming task. Abrams was organized. Historic photos – essentially the resource the society used to illustrate the history book – are containing in a number of three-ring binders.
Stach's collection was not organized. Ketchmark says he and the other members have sorted through about half of Stach's boxes, which contain hundreds of photographs, newspaper clippings, notes and other paper documents.
Then there are the random artifacts that caught Stach's fancy: a ceremonial gold-tipped spade used for the groundbreaking of the Brookfield Village Hall in 1972; railroad ties from the trolley tracks that ran along Broadway Avenue, unearthed in the early 2000s when the Memorial Circle was rebuilt; a glazed terra cotta column cap bearing the words "Portia Manor," the subdivision bounded by Washington, Kemman, Southview and Maple, which opened in 1915; and a souvenir cap from the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934.
"This is the history of the town," Ketchmark said. "You have one chance, so you don't get rid of it."
But it's a monumental task for a small group of people. The items have to be catalogued and stored. Photos (Abrams' collection contains about 1,000 pictures) need caption information.
And then there's the train station itself. If you own an old home, you know that it's a continual maintenance headache. The 129-year-old station is no different. From afar it looks fabulous in its multi-hued, painted lady splendor.
It looks that way largely due to a grant of about $100,000 from the Illinois Department of Transportation in 2000. But the ongoing maintenance, both the building and the grounds around it, largely falls to Ketchmark. The roughly 15-year-old paint job is beginning to peel, especially on the south façade.
Without its mail fundraiser, the society is funded randomly, through donations. A recent $10,000 donation allowed for the rehabilitation of the war memorial in front of the station and eight of the station's windows, which were crumbling after more than a century of being exposed to the elements.
The windows were fabricated to match the originals and cost about $1,000 apiece to replace. Four more deteriorating windows remain.
Ketchmark admits that the lack of public access to the museum and its dwindling outreach efforts haven't helped raise the profile of the museum or instill interest. He's hoping the 125th birthday of the village may help.
In the meantime, he and his small band of volunteers will continue to sift through Stach's collection and make sense of it all.
"Chris' stuff makes you realize that we need to do this as a community," Ketchmark said. "But someone has to do it."