A village’s history is expressed in many ways. It can be found in old newspapers, in old photographs, in both legal and ordinary documents, by its surviving architecture, and even by the memories of its longtime residents.
However, there also exists a history of old Brookfield in three-dimensional miniature. There is only one place where these recreations of bygone days can be seen, and that is at the Brookfield Historical Society Museum at the Grossdale Train Station, at the corner of Forest and Brookfield avenues, which will be open for its summer season next month.
These miniatures of history are four glass-fronted dioramas, which were originally on display during Brookfield’s Diamond Jubilee celebration week, July 31 to August 6, 1968.
An article in the Brookfield Enterprise for July 17, 1968 reported that “one of the major projects undertaken [for the Jubilee] is the Brookfield Diorama Series, sponsored and conceived by the Brookfield Kiwanis Club as part of that club’s participation in the village’s 75th anniversary celebration. Time, labor and expenses have been donated by the club.
“All events depicted are based on historical facts, maps and photographs provided by the Brookfield Historical Society [not the current one]. Mike Colgrass is president of the society; Max Dietrich, president of the Kiwanis Club; and Mel Gimbel is chairman of the project.
“Both Kiwanis and Historical Society expressed their indebtedness to the ingenious craftsmanship of Otto Stach and his family for the untold hours and weeks spent in detailed construction on the entire project. Assisting Stach were Leonard Miekiszak, A.F. Ricker, B.L. Head, and Kiwanians Hugh Frazee, Bill Willms, Mylon Fisher, Red Clark, Frank Incrocci, Tom McCormick, and [former Brookfield Village President] Dan Kulie.”
Back in 1967, the Kiwanis Club had considered and voted the project a budget of $200. The Brookfield Historical Society provided the necessary information and copies of old photographs. A total of 19 black-and-white photos were used to make the dioramas come to life.
Project Chairman Gimbel drew up a list of nine diorama scenes. Some that never made the final cut were “The Glacial Age,” showing Brookfield covered with retreating ice and a sea level up to LaGrange Road; “The West Grossdale Station [Congress Park] with Train and Band and Tent;” and “The Grossdale Pavilion [corners of Brookfield and Prairie Avenues],” a large size replica of Brookfield’s first business building and village hall.
On the cold winter evening of Dec. 26, 1967, two persons entered the building of the construction firm of Fisher and Willms, at 3713 Grand Blvd., and proceeded down to the basement. These persons were my father, Otto Stach, and myself, at age 15. My dad had volunteered for the project, and, to my surprise, I had been volunteered, too.
Using lumber donated by Fisher and Willms, we began assembling the wooden cabinets for the dioramas. I was not much enthused about cutting wood in a chilly basement, but that changed when I saw the photos of old Brookfield serving as optical references for the scenes. I found the project, as well as all Brookfield history, fascinating from that day forward.
The construction site for the dioramas’ interiors was the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce building at 3724 Grand Blvd. Set up on tables eight feet long, the scenes slowly evolved over the next six months.
On Jan. 27, 1968, Mel Gimbel typed up a list of two diorama descriptions that would explain what people were seeing. “Pathway to the Portage … from Buffaloes to Brookfield” related to Mud Lake, “the link between Lake Michigan and the Des Plaines River,” and the trail taken by buffaloes, on the South Plank Road, Ogden Avenue.
“Follow the Band to Brookfield” referred to the brass band that village founder S.E. Gross had waiting at the station when trainloads of lot-buyers came out from Chicago. He then led them up Grand Boulevard to the Eight Corners area, where a large tent was set up, speeches were made, and free box lunches given out.
There was plenty of time to iron out other descriptions. Otto Stach typed up some as late as July, 1968. The 5-by-7-inch cards were then put into simple black-bordered glass frames.
Fortunately, creating the dioramas was not up to only us. Leonard Miekiszak and A.F. “Tony” Ricker did excellent model work on the Grossdale train station, Grossdale Pavilion, and other dwellings.
Also drafted into helping were my sisters Kathy, Patty and Beth. Many evenings and weekends we all sat down on folding chairs in the Chamber of Commerce building. If somebody had come in, not knowing what we were doing, he would have wondered at the sight.
Along the tables, we each had in front of us a metal cigarette lighter set up and flaming. This assignment was very simple. We took a piece of strong bare wire, clipped it off at a certain length, held it over the flame for a few seconds, and then plunged it into the back of a small plastic person. Once the plastic was cool, my father would take it and apply paint to the person, and then stick it down firmly in the Styrofoam “ground” of a diorama. It’s a wonder we didn’t burn the building down.
Two of my sisters were in their teens. The youngest, Beth, was a whole 7 years old and, even though we didn’t trust her with a cigarette lighter, her contribution was just as important. Every tree in the dioramas needed a trunk, so my father had her scout around our Morton Avenue home and pick up sticks from tree limbs. The sticks could not be too thick. Thanks to her, every small tree was made using a part of a genuine Brookfield tree.
At last, the dioramas were finished. Each cabinet was 4-feet wide; 1 foot, 8 inches high; and 2 feet, 7 inches deep. Frank Incrocci donated the $30 cost of the quarter-inch-thick glass used on the fronts and tops of the dioramas. The interiors were lighted by long, concealed fluorescent lights.
So that small children could see inside, 8-foot-wide wooden steps were built and set up in front of each two dioramas mounted on each 8 foot-long table. During the Diamond Jubilee, hundreds of persons looked upon them at the Chamber of Commerce building.
After the Jubilee, the dioramas’ useful life continued. Some of them were loaned out to schools, and all of them were loaned out and set up in the Brookfield Library’s children’s section, in the basement.
Though they were generally well cared for and protected from harm, sometimes mistakes occurred. In June 1976, they were set up at a site outdoors and in the hot sun. The sealed, black-painted cabinets, combined with the glass fronts and tops, turned the interiors into mini ovens. Plastic building roofs sagged.
Soon after, the dioramas disappeared, and no one seemed to know where they were. The Brookfield Kiwanis Club rediscovered them in 1981, in the basement of the old Brookfield Water Works building at 3840 Maple Ave. They found them just in time. Apparently they were on the verge of being tossed out as a part of a cleaning operation.
The second Brookfield Historical Society had just moved the old train station in April of that year. Mel Gimbel, former project chairman of the diorama series, and still with the Kiwanis Club, contacted Brookfield Village Manager Jeff Williamson, asking about the dioramas. Williamson contacted Ann Egger of the society, who, in turn, mentioned their existence to me. My father and I were both willing to assist in rejuvenating the dioramas.
In June 1981, they were delivered from the water works basement to the old train station. I hadn’t seen them since 1968. Then they were stored under blankets, and little more happened to them for about a year, until 1982.
The Kiwanis Club then asked my father to examine the surviving dioramas, and reveal his findings at a Kiwanis Club dinner. I was invited along, as I had been quite closely involved with their construction. As a result, a repair budget of $50 was granted to us to begin the work.
Estimates for repair completion dates depended on individual dioramas. The “Grossdale, 1893” scene had a lot wrong with it. Buildings had been uprooted from the “land” they were on, and the Grossdale Pavilion remained stuck on top of a clump of lychen-mossed trees against the rear of the diorama cabinet. Gross’ sales tent looked like it had been in a mudstorm, then baked. A passenger car had its roof melted, then had left the tracks and “crashed” into the front of the train station.
The “Pottawattamie Indian Village” and “Ogden Avenue-South Plank Road” dioramas had minimum damage, and needed only basic touching up and light repair. The worst affected diorama was the combination one, showing “The Legend of Salt Creek” and “Here Comes the Trolley.” The top glass had been smashed and there was much glass to be removed. The possibility existed that someone had deliberately done this to steal the two streetcars within.
Though my father was very busy, he expected to begin work on them, and to have the “Grossdale, 1893” diorama back in shape by the spring of 1983, and did so, with my help. At first I was just learning what to do. The “Ogden Avenue-South Plank Road” diorama was next. He and I began repairs, but, seeing as I now had matters well in hand, he allowed me to finish the work. Then I tackled the “Pottawattamie Indian Village” scene, which needed the least work of them all.
But the last diorama needed so much work that I told my father I really needed help on that one. Where was I going to get replacement streetcars? And it was going to be no picnic trying to pick out every shard of all that glass. Well, three out of four wasn’t bad, and soon they were on display in the Museum. Oddly enough, all their fluorescent bulbs were still working, after many years.
In 1990 and 1991, I opened up the three dioramas again, and did minor maintenance work on them. The “Streetcar/Legend of Salt Creek” diorama has been slow to fix. The biggest pain was in getting all the broken glass out. Today, the Salt Creek part looks just fine. The streetcar section isn’t bad, and I hope to add a few houses soon, replacing ones that disappeared. The streetcars need the most work.
Lastly, there exists the legend of the existence of a fifth diorama, showing the complete inside of the Puscheck Grocery and Meat Market, located in the building still at 3729-31 Grand Blvd.
The story goes that many small miniatures of food products and scales and even plastic meat were set up here. However, I have never seen this diorama. The reason for its disappearance was that someone liked collecting miniatures so much that they broke into it and took all the items. The diorama’s contents were irreplaceable, and no one had the heart to try to attempt repairs. Well, that’s the legend. No photos of this diorama are known to exist.
The next time the museum in the station’s open, remember that this is the place to see a real, historic rarity, old Brookfield in miniature.