The photo shoot that spanned a century

Back in 1995, our intrepid Chris Stach recreated an 1895 photo shoot that showed a panoramic view of Grossdale, Illinois. What a difference a century makes.

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It all began back in the year 1895, when someone took a series of photographs of the village of Brookfield, or Grossdale, as it was then known. Out of the dozens of images, five in particular were so striking in scope that they defined the very center of the village.

The village's earliest commercial photographer was Emil Theodore Behrens of 3609 Forest Ave. Born on Jan. 20, 1865, in Wesselburen, Holstein, Germany, he lived as a youngster in Wisconsin, coming to Grossdale in 1893 at the age of 28.

According to his 1947 newspaper obituary, he "had dedicated his life to photography," and was the best known local photographer in the 1890s. It is believed that he was approached to take on this challenging job.

What is very certain is that the Village of Grossdale did not commission the creation of these photos. An exhaustive search through the old village board minutes book from 1894-97 revealed no discussion of this matter, or were any funds ever allocated or paid. And at the board meetings, money was something which was always discussed. Every little expense was meticulously noted on the pages of the village's books.

Could it have been that Behrens shot dozens of photos then printed them on his own time, using his own money for the project? Maybe. Or perhaps he took an informal survey of local residents, as to whether they would like to see and own professional-looking cardboard-backed photos of their village. Possibly he asked people what they would like to see photographed and took advanced orders. Granted, this is only speculation, but this project would've taken real money to complete.

What is known is that some of the photos were later hung in the Council Room at the Grossdale Pavilion, which served as the village's municipal hall and at the West Grossdale Opera House, a boulder-walled building that was once on the southwest corner of Ogden Avenue and DuBois Boulevard, currently the site of All Auto Repairs, Inc.

As any serious photographer knows, even in 2005 there are certain times of day which are better than others for acquiring good outdoor images. No hapless sub-amateur could go out and just begin shooting without any plan set down beforehand. Well, maybe so, but the results would be mixed and limited.

The first thing Behrens might have done would be to make a list of the subjects to be photographed, asking if residents wished to be in the photos of their homes when they were taken. This would probably assure a sale or two of the images. The next thing to do would be to pack the heavy camera, tripod, glass film plates and other supplies in a horse-drawn wagon. And lastly, most importantly, the photographer would need a bright, sunny day. Flash photography was almost non existent and was extremely dangerous.

Behrens waited for such a day then set off to begin his photographic tour of Grossdale. My best estimate, made in the early 1980s, put this date at being in late spring or summer of 1895 or 1896. Certain details in one photo, such as the existence of telephone lines and the non-existence of the Brookfield Avenue Bridge over Salt Creek, were used to make this judgment. I more firmly believed in the 1895 date. A decade later, in 1993, while collecting photos for the Brookfield Centennial Book, I came upon a handwritten verification of this year on one, long unseen, ancient photo that simply read "Grossdale 1895."

Many commonplace photos taken apparently all in the same day, were of predictable sites: prominent residents' homes, the S.E. Gross Grammar School, the Grossdale Pavilion/Municipal Hall, the Grossdale Train Station, the West Grossdale (Congress Park) Train Station, and views up streets and down streets.

Examining only these images is still interesting, but the subject matter seems uninspired. Photographers all over the country were doing much the same thing. But Behrens decided to get creative. There was one place, one point of view in which much of the village could be summed up in just five photographs.

From the top of some building, along the 8800 or 8900 block of Burlington Boulevard, a person could see all over town, a panorama view, sure to be popular, from east to west, and north to south. But which building would be best to shoot from?

There were exactly seven along the entire street from the creek to Maple Avenue. Four were pitched roof houses. Three were business buildings, with flat roofs. The Melville Hall, scene of dances, meetings, and lectures was only two stories high at the time.

Today it is three stories high and located at 8866-67 Burlington. But the Hall was ruled out because the cupola tower at the front of Jacobsen's Store at the corner of Prairie and Burlington got in the way. This is not the same building that Irish Times operates out of today, but it is at the same site. The cupola also ruled out using the Jacobsen's Store roof, although it was flat further back.

The third flat roof seemed ideal being on top of the newly built McDermott Hotel, a wood frame structure at what would be 8907-09 Burlington. Behrens could shoot towards Maple Avenue and get in the western part of what was called Central Grossdale. He could shoot east and get in the train station, one house, two business buildings and the vegetation-lined Salt Creek. He could shoot northeast and get the Pavilion/Hall into the picture. He could shoot northwest and get the Gross Grammar School as well as many houses, all at once. Due north, Grand Boulevard would be covered with the first few store buildings on what would become the 3700 block.

Once up on the roof, he surveyed the area. Shooting south with the few one houses here, would be wasted sots, especially since the sun would be shining directly into the camera lens. Shooting east presented a real problem. From this vantage point, no one would ever see the fronts of the Melville Hall or Jacobsen Building. And shooting north, a big new telephone pole, out in front of the hotel was in the way. What to do?

Behrens made a decision. First, he got the easy shots taken care of: the west shot along Burlington, the northwest view, and the northeast view. Now for that telephone line pole. Being a young man of 30, and still able to do a little muscle work, Behrens concocted a plan to take his camera off its tripod, and get to the top of that white pole. Once up there, he would take only two shots; of the north, with Grand Boulevard, and the east, getting in the fronts of the two business buildings.

How did he get up to the top of that pole with that camera, and at least two photographic plates? Were there metal toeholds on the pole? Or did he make his ascent on a hastily-improvised ladder, or a ladder attached to still another ladder, and attached securely to the pole? Possible? Sure. Likely? Maybe. Unknown? Exactly. But he did take the five photos, of which only four are known to still exist. The northeast view, showing the Grossdale Pavilion/Municipal Hall, is apparently lost to the ages.

But many of Behrens' photographs somehow managed to defy the decades and were exhibited in October and November, 1933 for Brookfield's 40th year celebration and later in Tabor's Cigar Store, 8836 Brookfield Avenue. When Brookfield celebrated its Diamond Jubilee in 1968, and its Centennial in 1993, more photos saw the light of day.

Fast forward to Tuesday, June 20, 1995. Recognizing the significance of the photos' centennial date, Mary Kircher, Brookfield History Book Committee Chairperson, and I had contacted the village and arranged for a Lift-All, "Hi-Ranger" type of truck to recreate the series of five panorama photographs. With the help of Paul Bures of the Public Works Department, several black and white, and color photos were taken between 11:07 and 11:25 a.m., from a height approximating that of the roof of the old McDermott Hotel, on that exact site. Though it was 90 degrees in the shade, the centennial shoot went well.

After examining the 1995 photos, the changes were quite evident. In 1895,the now-vacant Fisher's Pharmacy was nothing more than a pie-shaped field. Today, in 2005, the building scene is still much the same as in 1995, although some new businesses now exist. Well, maybe things will be different in another 90 years, for the next photo shoot.

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