In 1887 laborer George Hillman, who’d come to Oak Park from the Netherlands, quarreled with some union members and came home from work with two big gashes on his head. This frightened his wife, Lena, also a Dutch immigrant, and she imagined the worst when he went out to buy meat one day and didn’t return when he said he would.
She set off to find him and wandered for hours before police picked her up in Chicago. “They packed her away in an insane asylum because she couldn’t speak English,” says Jean Guarino, author of the new book Yesterday: A Historical View of Oak Park, Illinois. George Hillman, who’d been delayed at the butcher’s, ended up spending months searching for his lost wife. He stopped taking care of his appearance and his house, and eventually lost his job. Finally the police picked him up, and he ultimately landed in the men’s ward at the asylum where his wife was. “A doctor from Oak Park recognized them and reunited them,” says Guarino, who writes in the book, “Today, of course, the couple who had suffered grievously would hire a lawyer and file suit for damages. But what actually happened to the Hillmans was that they returned to their small cottage in Oak Park and began rebuilding their life together.”
Guarino, who has written a local history column for the town’s newspaper Oak Leaves for the last 12 years, found the story while nosing through microfilm of old newspapers at the Oak Park Public Library and the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, where she’s on the board. Discovering such nuggets is something she’s familiar with after writing 1988’s Oak Park: A Pictorial History. “I get caught up in something and I can’t stop,” she says of her research. “I kept scrolling and scrolling.”
The new book, the first of two volumes, details the village’s history through World War I. While covering all the bases–early settlers, the first banks and schools, the movers and shakers–it goes beyond the usual stories about the usual suspects. One chapter on Frank Lloyd Wright focuses not on his architecture but on what happened to his wife, Catherine Tobin Wright, after he ran off with “emancipated freethinker” Mamah Cheney. “Wright left town owing a $900 grocery bill and leaving Catherine with no visible means of support,” says Guarino. “She had a sad life afterward. He eventually came back and divided their home into apartments so she could rent them out for income. She worked with Jane Addams at Hull-House and for the Juvenile Protective League. She remarried when she was in her 30s, but it was a very unfortunate marriage. They divorced after about five years.” The book quotes from a letter from Catherine Wright to her friend Janet Ashbee–which Guarino thinks is being published for the first time–in which she wrote, “Each morning I wake up hoping it to be the last and each night I hope may prove to be eternal.”
Guarino’s book includes many such details. There’s a story about Julia Gale, one of the town’s leading ladies, who wrote a note to her son’s teacher in response to a reprimand suggesting she discipline him more: “Oliver is the youngest of six boys and I’m very tired.” There’s even a sec-tion on spring cleaning and what a drag it was.
Guarino has also included chapters on suffragettes, who were locked out of board of trustees meetings, and a section called “Oak Park Deals With Death and Disaster,” which covers domestic violence, drug addiction, labor disputes, corruption, and graft, as well as local reverbera-tions from various catastrophes, such as firsthand accounts of the Titanic and Eastland tragedies and the 1903 fire at the “absolutely fireproof” Iroquois Theater in Chicago, in which 602 people died.
One of her biggest sources of photos was Oak Park eccentric Philander Barclay, a bicycle enthusiast and history and photography buff who enjoyed the over-the-counter drugs sold in his father’s pharmacy. He made some wax-cylinder recordings of early settlers’ experiences in Oak Park and left behind a collection of 1,000 photographs, both his own and some by other residents. “He also wrote newspaper articles based on what he was told by the early settlers,” says Guarino. “He liked schmoozing with the old-timers.”
There could be more local lore to come from Guarino, who published Yesterday herself. “You have to buy ISBN numbers in lots of ten. I have nine more books in me based on that.” The second volume of Yesterday, which will cover the town’s history from World War I to the present, will include “the really juicy stuff,” including race relations and changes that have taken place since 1988. But Guarino says the research probably won’t be as time-consuming. “There are living people who can help me with that.”
Guarino will discuss her book Tuesday, November 14, at 7:30 PM at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake in Oak Park (708-383-8200). It’s free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry/Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.