Picture this: On the dawning days of spring, 1895, if anyone went down Maple Avenue, south of the train tracks and looked west towards LaGrange, there was nothing much to see.
Well, maybe except for a farmhouse or two, and the little rutty dirt road called Ogden Avenue. This was unspoiled prairie land, with some tilled soil on leased farms. But that was all.
Four years earlier, the Chicago Tribune of July 26, 1891 ran a column on real estate sales, stating that "a syndicate headed by John H. Crowell purchased 157 acres located between LaGrange and Grossdale for $117,750, or at the rate of $750 an acre. The larger tract [133 acres] lies between Ogden Avenue on the north, and 47th Street on the south, and between Raymond and Bismark Avenues [east and west]." Bismark may be the old name for Eberly Avenue.
The smaller tract of 24 acres extended across this property, north of Ogden to the railroad tracks. In other words, from south of the tracks to Ogden Avenue, and from Raymond on the east to Eberly on the west. The syndicate intended to make "improvements and to carry on extensive building operations," but nothing seems to have happened.
Fred Steinbach and his wife Wilhelmina bought their block of this land in 1892. In 1893, Frank H. Foster bought the remaining property, with the idea of subdividing it into lots, much as Samuel Eberly Gross would do two years later. But Foster defaulted on his payments and on March 26, 1894, George Hofmann of Chicago was the high bidder. Later Valentine Hofmann had control of the land.
In November 1894, William J. Moore, Gross' business manager, bought the land, except for the Steinbach block (annexed in 1897), for a cost of $68,000, and then transferred it to Gross, who had founded Grossdale (Brookfield) in 1889 and Hollywood in 1893, but hadn't yet gotten around to changing the name of the latter to the locally despised name of East Grossdale.
Gross looked over the land that was to become Congress Park, bought it and platted it out as West Grossdale, covering just the land from Raymond to Eberly Avenues, and from Southview Avenue (across the railroad tracks) all the way down to 47th Street. Not included in this subdivision was the block bounded by Eberly to Blanchan, and from Ogden to Rochester. This block of land was still privately owned by Frederick Steinbach.
Gross began to build on his own property the very next spring and issued a catalog to tell prospective buyers all about West Grossdale, his "Beautiful New Monarch Suburb." In advance, and after his formal opening date on May 18, 1895, Gross placed ads in Chicago newspapers to attract visitors to West Grossdale.
As was also his usual custom, he freely gave away tickets to ride here on his excursion train, leaving from Chicago's Union Station. Gross had also entered into his standard agreement with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad that if he built a station house, the railroad would stop at it. And, as before, Gross paid for the building of the station and owned it. The station was probably the first building constructed here.
In keeping with his desire to impress people, Gross had the wooden platforms on both sides of the tracks made wide and spacious. North of the tracks appeared a wide, raised berm with the name "West Grossdale" spelled out in white shells against a darker-colored shell background. The name was angled to face south, towards where the visitors getting off the train could not help seeing it. Then they stepped on the wooden-planked path across the three sets of tracks, and they were at the station.
It is important to understand that the station and platforms were only about two feet off the ground, nearly at street level. It wasn't until 1897 that the C.B.&Q. Railroad began to get ideas about raising the tracks. Standing on the platforms, you could face north and look out over the fields that now comprise the area known as "Portia Manor," ranging from Washington Avenue to Southview Avenue, and Kemman to Maple. You could even see the 1894-built S.E. Gross School building quite clearly. It was all wide-open space.
On the platform, below the west canopy of the station there was an old-fashioned water pump, where thirsty visitors and commuters could, by pushing and pulling the handle up and down, get a drink of cold, refreshing well water. It was also highly mineralized, due to the presence of extensive deposits of limestone rock underground. Mineral water, the same as found at famous east coast spas, was said to be exceptionally healthful, so it was something of an attraction.
Passengers also had the use of two outhouses. The one labeled "Ladies" was on the south side of the tracks, east of the station platform. The "Gents" was directly across the tracks, on the north side.
The station house's north wall had a double-doored baggage room entrance on the east, bay windows in the center and a passenger entrance door on the west. On the south wall, and east, were baggage room delivery doors. Then came a window to the east of the streetside entrance door. On the west-facing wall were three windows, and on the east wall was at least one window giving light to the interior of the baggage room.
Living on the second floor was the station master's family. It is known that in 1899, agent Jacob Meyer's family lived here, consisting of himself, his wife Amelia, son Franklin and daughter Elsie. Meyer may have been the station's first agent.
The second floor wasn't especially spacious. Facing east was the single bedroom, with two closets. A dining room was in the middle, facing north, and the kitchen was on the west. Adjoining the kitchen was a pantry along the middle south wall, and next to this was the staircase leading down to the ground floor. All in all, it was not much space for a family of four to live in.
Two centered towers brought in light, in addition to two windows on the east and west. Minimal light was furnished by two eyebrow windows on each of the sloping north and south roof sections.
Once arriving at this newly built station house, prospective buyers would be met by a band, that would strike up festive airs and lead the visitors down DuBois Boulevard to "Grossdale Park." Today these are the islands along both sides of Congress Park Avenue.
On the way to Grossdale Park, visitors passed by the narrow, unpaved Ogden Avenue. On the southwest corner of DuBois and Ogden stood the West Grossdale Opera House, which was the main business building here.
The first floor housed the post office, grocery, drug and dry goods store. On the second floor was a large theater, with floor space that could be cleared even for dancing if need be. The first floor's outer walls were made of boulders set in place by local stonemason Conrad Schneider.
The first house built in West Grossdale was the one currently at 4172 DuBois Blvd., and living in it was the family of Gross' brother, John Wesley Gross. It is the area's first boulder home as well, also built by Schneider.
At Grossdale Park, a tent was set up, with the same free box lunches and speeches served up as had beenā"and were still being doneā"in the promotions of the Grossdale and Hollywood subdivisions.
Gross also gave away what he called "a free pictorial souvenir" to every visitor. One still exists, and is essentially an ad for West Grossdale, with a colored illustration of three barefoot girls in nightgowns going upstairs to bed.
The caption of the piece reads "'Good Night' In A West Grossdale Home." The image, on 10-by-15-inch thin cardboard stock, has on the reverse, even more advertising: "My New Monarch Suburb, West Grossdale, Is Destined to Excel Them All. Small Cash Payments. Easy Monthly Installments. Your Choice of the Whole Suburb for $200 and Upward."
The back of the picture also once had a cardboard stand that folded out so people could prop it up on tables, and an extension at the top so it could be hung on walls.
Able to speak German and Swedish, besides English, Gross' salesmen took people around to view the various properties and houses. Some people made down payments, but far fewer of them actually went so far as to build houses. However, West Grossdale slowly grew in population, and was doing so well that by 1898, Gross had bought more land, extending West Grossdale south of Ogden Avenue down to Shields Avenue, and from Raymond Avenue to Maple Avenue in that section.
First school classes were held on the entire first floor of the new Henry L. Berg bakery building at 9433 Ogden Ave. as of Dec. 1, 1898. The rental cost was $20 a month, and extended to July 1, 1899. At that time Berg would stock and open his bakery.
After that time, classes were held at various locations until finally settling in on land donated by Gross for the erection of a school building, at the southeast corner of Raymond and Shields avenues. By September 1900, classes were being held here at the East School. Schneider faced this building with boulders, too. Years later, this school was renamed the Congress Park School.
In the early 1900s, a fire destroyed the theater section of the West Grossdale Opera House, and the second floor was replaced by apartments. In 1981, the building again caught fire, and this time it was completely destroyed.
Though this was still known as West Grossdale as of 1902, the Post Office designation here was for "Congress Park," three years before the official name change in 1905 of Grossdale to Brookfield, East Grossdale to Hollywood and West Grossdale to Congress Park.
Theories have abounded over the years as to why the name Congress Park was chosen. The most likely reason was that there was a Congress Hotel, Congress Springs and Congress Park section at the popular mineral water spa at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., since 1803.
Taking into consideration that hard mineral water was being drawn from wells in Gross's new subdivision, it seems possible that somebody started calling it "Congress Park," then others took up the name, and it stuck.
A few years ago, Congress Park School was having some outside work done, and a vein of smelly mineral water was struck, and it gushed up out of the ground for two weeks before stopping.
The West Grossdale/Congress Park train station suffered a fire on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 1950. The twin towers and eyebrow windows were removed, and the roof smoothed. The station lasted a while longer and was demolished in a day, on March 17, 1979.
Until 2004, the station's original two-foot-high limestone foundation was still evident along the wall, south of the railroad tracks, but it has since been covered over by precast cement blocks, as it was deemed to be unsightly.
This year, trailing vines coming down from overhead were supposed to be covering up the wall above the cement blocks, but nothing much happened. Yes, from 1895 to 1905 to 2005, history, in its own way, is still being made in Congress Park.