Sometimes in the course of my historical investigations, I look through the 1968 Brookfield Diamond Jubilee book and the 1967 Brookfield Historical Society (not the present BHS) Diamond Jubilee meetings minutes. It is then that I pause to reflect on just how far the study of Brookfield history has progressed.
Back in those “ancient days,” those budding historians relied on documentary sources, as should be expected. But they also relied, for a great deal of information, on an ever-dwindling number of early settlers still living, as well as any of their descendents still in the area.
It has since been noticed in some instances that the memories of these people were in error, or missing details, so they simply repeated what they had been told, way back when. And these people believed what they had been told, and thus passed it down as gospel truth to the Jubilee book committee.
It must be remembered that the study of Brookfield history was then in its infancy, and even genealogy was not as popularly researched as it is today. Brookfield Historical Society Chairman Michael Colgrass Sr. advised the people at the meetings, as well the Research and Documentation Committee (consisting of four citizens) that “as any information is challenged, we want to make corrections.” He actively sought confirmation form any source, including, alas, people’s memories.
Meetings of the society were held monthly, from January to October, 1967, and the members were charged with compiling the history of the village within those short 10 months for use in the following year’s Diamond Jubilee book, and by planners of the celebration festivities.
Over the years since the publication of the Jubilee book, much additional knowledge has come to light that either gave credence to some memories, or showed them to be incorrect in part, or in total.
For one of the best examples of false historical memory, we must go back to the burning down of the Grossdale Pavilion and Brookfield Village Hall building, at the corner of Brookfield and Prairie avenues, which occurred on July 7, 1897. By the way, those early researchers got this date right.
In the Diamond Jubilee book were two photos of the Pavilion on two separate pages, although with the exact same captions:
“Grossdale Pavilion located at 8838 Grossdale Avenue. Grossdale Avenue was later changed to Brookfield Avenue. The Pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1897. The children were ushered out and stood in the street to watch the building burn to the ground.”
Oh, why couldn’t they have left well enough alone? Why did the writer of this duplicated caption have to write that last sentence?
“The children were ushered out and stood in the street to watch the building burn to the ground.” Eighteen words of drama?”but they were wrong.
On a later page was published a photo of the children of “Grossdale School,” taken on April 26, 1894. The last two lines of the caption, after listing the children’s names were the words: “In 1897 the Grossdale Pavilion burned down. The children were led outdoors and watched it burn to the ground.” Wrong again.
Surely, even back in 1967 and 1968, didn’t people reading these words wonder why, on the seventh of July, school was being held in the summer? I know I sure did!
In 1995, I began an exhaustive study of the fire by way of consulting six July 1897 newspapers on microfilm at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. My first source, the venerable Chicago Daily Tribune, published around 400 words on it. Why was this source never consulted, back in the 1960s? Oh sure, the paper wasn’t on microfilm, but anyone could’ve looked it up on real, aging newsprint pages.
The Tribune report, by the way, is chock full of facts and reads pretty much as though the Grossdale Magnet editor, H.A. Cranwell wrote it. Apparently Cranwell was also the first person to spot and sound the alarm about the fire.
That paper and the others corroborated one of my long held major theories about the fire, namely, that there had been a drought in the area beforehand. What was especially noticeable was that in no paper were there any words about any children being ushered out. Which makes a lot of common sense. Why would children gather inside on the hottest day of the summer just before noon with the burning sun overhead? More likely, they were jumping in the creek to cool off.
Thus past faulty memory and/or faulty interpretation of facts were corrected in 1996 for all time to come.
Yes, the Diamond Jubilee book was an incredible production of history researched within several months. Unfortunately no one seems to have continued any historical research after 1958. Years later, in the early 1980s, I took up the threads of history and published some articles in the Grossdale Gazette, the current Historical Society’s newsletter.
The Brookfield Centennial book, “Brookfield, Illinois: A History,” came out in 1994, but didn’t dare to say how “the children were ushered out into the street” during the 1897 fire. The book corrected and expanded many aspects of Brookfield history. However, over the last several years, subsequent study has in some cases let to the need for alterations to reported facts. Any published book of history is still a work in progress.