The search for local history sometimes turns up that which appears to be fable instead of fact. In every community, there exist legends of certain residents, what they have done, and events that have been passed down through the years, sometimes as mere memories. Brookfield is just such a community.
Take the legend of the first baby ever born in Brookfield”then known as Grossdale.
In Brookfield’s Diamond Jubilee Book for 1968, it states that “the first baby born in Grossdale was Jessie (Gerhardt) Jeter, born Sept. 15, 1890.”
However, there’s another child that also claims not only that title, but perhaps the strangest first name ever possessed by a child in the village.
First a little set-up.
Brookfield was hardly a year old, in 1890, when its first, and historically mind-boggling legend began to take shape. In August 1890, the Chicago Evening Post newspaper began a contest, called the “Suburban Ballot.”
The paper realized that over a million people were living in Chicago’s suburbs, and so printed a ballot, asking readers to finish the statement: “The most desirable Chicago suburb for permanent residence is …”
Readers could even write their reasons why they thought their suburb was the best, and then bring in or send in the ballot.
Grossdale (Brookfield) came in second to Franklin Park, and Riverside’s total votes are too embarrassingly small to reveal. Some of the comments accompanying a few Grossdale ballots were real eye-openers.
“Mayor’s Office, Grossdale, Illinois, August 20, 1890.
“I have noticed the votes cast for the most popular suburban city around Chicago. Well, it is Grossdale. No use voting. Everybody says so. I say so. My chief of police says so. My attorney says so, everybody says so. It must be so. Inclosed (sic) I send you the votes of the city officers.
“(Signed) John Johnson, Mayor of Grossdale.”
A very interesting declaration, considering the village wasn’t even incorporated until 1893. According to Mr. Johnson, Grossdale had a mayor before it had a village president. It even had a chief of police and city officials, whoever they were. And then came this letter from August 22, 1890.
“I want to cast my vote as to (the) desirable residence suburbs in favor of Grossdale, for my little baby girl, now 10 months old. Her name is Grossie Dale Van Cleve, so named in honor of the fact that she was the first child born in this city. Her health is excellent, owing, we think, to pure air and healthy surroundings. Never sick for a day, weight 22 pounds. Hurrah for Grossdale, and hurrah for Grossie Dale! Mr. Editor, come out and see us.
(Signed) James Van Cleve.”
So, according to that letter, which at first glance seems like a prank, little Van Cleve was born in November 1889, 11 months before Jessie Jeter, which would give Van Cleve the title of “first kid.”
But that is just the beginning of the curious life of the legendary Van Cleve child, whose next known existence appears on the April and May 1899 S.E. Gross School monthly student attendance sheets. Somehow little Grossie’s name was changed to Grossdale (or Gross, for short) Van Cleve.
Oh, one other thing. “She” was now known as a boy, listed under the column “Names of Males.” Surely the teacher, Miss Mary D. Shrock, knew the difference, and wouldn’t make the same mistake on two succeeding months. The 1900 census lists “Gross” living here as a nephew, with his, Uncle William Van Cleve.
Grossdale’s mother died of a few days illness on Thursday, June 10, 1897, according to the Grossdale Vigilant newspaper, and no further local mention is ever made of his father, James. No photos exist of the family. So what was the story here? Apparently, people didn’t talk about it too much. Maybe we’ll never learn any more about this.
Here come the Nelsons!
There appear to be quite a few legends circulating about famous people who have, or have not lived in Brookfield. Remember the television show “Ozzie and Harriet”? Local people have stated that young Harriet Hilliard Nelson was a Brookfield kid for a few years before 1920, prior to moving on to California.
Barbara Hannah was herself a Brookfield kid back in the 1940s and 1950s, and her mother used to tell her that Harriet was the daughter of Henry Campbell, who owned the Strand Theater on Grand Boulevard, beginning in 1917.
“My mother told me that Harriet used to gather with a bunch of the local kids on the big lawn on the west side of the 3500 block of Grand Boulevard,” said Barb Hannah. “The little girl named Harriet would give singing and dancing shows, which she was the star of, and she would include local kids, and give them parts to play.
“Then one day when my mom was about 7 or so, Harriet told the kids that they were going to California with her mother and grandmother. For some unspoken reason, they had to leave her father.” (Mr. Henry Campbell was still managing the Strand Theater as of 1924.)
But apparently others knew of this connection between little Harriet and the later, famous Harriet.
“When in about 2000,” Hannah recalled, “a Gross School friend of mine, Grace (Skoda) Leonard, called me up and invited me to a luncheon with some other friends who’d gone to Gross. Among them was Rosalyn Feely. As we talked, she brought up the ‘Harriet Hilliard living on Grand Boulevard’ story. Roz had heard it through her family. We both laughed, that both families had known the same story, and so it must be true.”
So it would seem that Harriet once lived here. Or did she?
According to biographies, Harriet Hilliard Nelson was born on July 18, 1909, so the age would be about right. But Harriet was born in Des Moines, Iowa. Well, maybe the family moved. Could be.
But what about the fact that she was born Peggy Lou Snyder, in Iowa? Well, I guess show people can change their names. Maybe whatever the trouble her father had gotten into made her decide to never again mention her few years in Brookfield. Too late to ask her, now. She died in 1994. But just maybe she did live here!
Legendary odds and ends
Here’s a legend, but is it true or false?
On April 13, 1939, some person or persons unknown painted Nazi swastikas on business windows on Grand Boulevard and at Eight Corners.
The answer is, regrettably, true. The act of vandalism was written down at 6:20 a.m. in the Brookfield Police Department Log Book.
It has been long believed that band leader Les Brown, of his the famous “Band of Renown,” was a Brookfield boy, back before World War I. Later in life Mr. Brown was a popular bandleader, who appeared for years with Bob Hope and Dean Martin.
There’s even a picture of supposedly him in the 1968 Diamond Jubilee book. There’s just one problem here, though. There’s no known physical evidence to support this.
In fact, I heard years ago that somebody asked Mr. Brown if he was from Brookfield and he said right back, “I never heard of Brookfield.”
Brown’s biographies state he grew up in Tower City, Penn. They also state he was born in 1912, while the picture in the Diamond Jubilee Book is purportedly from 1916 and depicts a teenage “Les Brown.”
There have been people who did go on to fame, whom actually did live in Brookfield. But their names are so much a part of the past that they have pretty much been forgotten.
I am speaking, for instance, of Joy Layne, a genuine, bonafide singing star of the 1950s. She was described as a “singing vision,” with an extraordinary vocal range.
She made her first recording “Your Wild Heart,” at age 15 for Mercury Records, while still a sophomore at Lyons Township High School. “Wild Heart” zoomed to number 20 on Billboard’s pop charts, and she had a singing career in front of her. But nobody’s heard much about her lately, say, within the last 30 or 40 years.
Ever hear of Carol Smith? She was real hot stuff around here in the late 1950s and early 1960s, gaining fame as an opera singer all over the world”in Berlin, Milan, Vienna, Hamburg, Munich, Geneva and Salzburg. She was even a star at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
A graduate of Riverside-Brookfield High School, she, in the 1960s, used to visit Brookfield where her family still lived. But does she still visit, today? She has been gone so long that her existence is nearly forgotten.
Alan Ciner. Now there’s a legend for you. This Brookfield lad, who was born here on May 14, 1947, and lived at 4011 Vernon Ave., joined up with a rock group as a guitarist in the 1960s, and made it big for awhile.
His group even played at the Diamond Jubilee. What group? If you’re old enough, you’ve probably heard of the American Breed. They had five big hit singles in 1967 and 1968, the most famous of which was “Bend Me, Shape Me.” Originally with the name of Gary and the Nite Lights, the Breed signed with Acta Records. Ciner’s fame is, locally, only a distant memory.
One legendary man who has gained fame in the world of musical composition is 1978 Pulitzer prize winner Michael Colgrass, who is now living in Toronto, but he has not forgotten his roots. As if his sister, Cathy Colgrass Edwards, Brookfield village trustee, would ever let him.
By the way, it seems that anyone from Brookfield who makes it big is no longer from Brookfield. According to various biographies, Joy Layne, Carol Smith and Alan Ciner were all born in Chicago. I can hear the press agents now. “Brookfield? Where’s that? Say you’re from Chicago. Everybody knows Chicago.”
It seems as though legends are always in the process of being made in this village. A spoken, undocumented source at my elbow in the Brookfield Library recently told me that “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak was once a Brookfield resident.
Hmmm. I’ll believe that when I see Vanna White squeezing tomatoes at Tischler’s.