Friday, October 2, 2009

October Memories

It's October 2nd, and the official celebration of Autumn has begun at our house. A fall wreath decorates the front door, and two pumpkins -- each one already sporting a bite from a curious squirrel -- rest regally on the outside steps. The Robin Hood roses are making one last attempt at a desperate show of courage, but already the lawn is covered in leaves, signaling the end of the growing season in Chicago.

At this time of year I can't help but recall my many childhood adventures at Olson Memorial Park. The old postcard above shows it during summertime, but its true glory days came in the fall when Indian Summer was celebrated to the hilt there. A witch riding a broom across the face of a huge harvest moon soared high above the cold, clear waterfall while ghosts flapped eerily from the branches of juniper and spruce trees. Mums of every color vied with sunset-orange pumpkins for places of honor on the rocky steps leading up to the falls. It was a delightful sight for children and adults living in the heart of a big city, and it was all made possible due to one man's love of nature.

The Olson Rug Company was established in Chicago in 1874. A huge manufacturing mill was built on the corner of Crawford (later remaned Pulaski) and Diversey Avenues in the city. The mill put out the highest quality carpeting and was "the place to go" for rugs and carpets for many years.

During the war years, when raw material was scarce and people made do with what they had, Chicagoans sent their old wool rugs, rags, clothing, and other cloth material to the Olson factory. The company then turned these items into new area rugs for their customers.

It was during the Great Depression that Walter E. Olson, owner of the company, decided to build a park on the 22-acre lot next to his factory. Olson owned a vacation home in St. Germaine, Wisconsin. As the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, Olson wanted to "transplant some of the Wisconsin out of doors to the then somewhat drab factory grounds." The project took 200 workers six months to complete. 800 tons of stone and 800 yards of soil were used to build the park with its rock garden, duck pond, and 35-foot tall waterfall. 3,500 perennials were planted along with pine trees, arbor-vitae, spruce and junipers, and hundreds of annual flowers.

The park opened in 1935 on the 100th anniversary of the expulsion of Native American tribes from Illinois to land across the Mississippi after the Blackhawk War. Walter Olson made a symbolic gesture at the opening ceremonies by deeding the park back to these tribes. He also memorialized their former occupation of the land by erecting a statue of a Native American chief standing outside a teepee high up on the rocks to the left of the waterfall. To the right of the waterfall he placed a totem pole.

Olson Memorial Park was open to everyone free of charge. Set in the middle of a blue-collar neighborhood, it attracted Chicagoans from all over the city. Sunday afternoons were always busy times, but the displays mounted for Indian Summer and Halloween drew the biggest crowds. The park was a major Chicago attraction for decades. Then, in 1965, the Olson family sold their factory to Marshall Field's.

In 1970 Joni Mitchell wrote the hit song "Big Yellow Taxi". One verse to that song goes like this: "They took all the trees, put 'em in a tree museum. And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Joni Mitchell wrote that song about Hawaii, but it holds just as true for Chicago.

The Marshall Field Company closed the Olson Memorial Park in the 1970's. They dismantled the waterfall, tore down the rock gardens, and bulldozed the trees and flowers into oblivion. The site became what the Chicago Tribune called "the first of Chicago's Seven Lost Wonders".

Yep. Joni Mitchell had it right. Field's paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

My children never got to experience the joy of a cool Indian Summer evening spent wandering through Olson Memorial Park, never got to see the Indian chief standing there by the waterfall with his arms upraised to heaven, never felt the goosebumps I felt as a ten-year-old watching the witch on her broomstick flutter in the night breeze. Those are things I can only share as memories with my siblings and cousins, all of whom loved the park as much as I.

October memories. They're some of the best.