Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Olson Memorial Park, Waterfall and Rock Garden, Chicago, Illinois. (1935-1978)

Olson Rug Company was established in 1874. The manufacturing mill was located in Chicago at Diversey and Crawford Avenues (now Pulaski Road). When the raw material was scarce during WWII, people would send in their old wool rugs, rags, clothing, etc., and Olson Rug would turn them into a beautiful area rug. The family-owned business was "the place" to buy rugs for many years.
Alongside the factory was the renowned Olson Memorial Park. Walter E. Olson built the approx. 2-acre park in 1935. The project took nearly six months to complete. About 800 tons of stone and 800 yards of soil were used for its construction. Approximately 3,500 perennials, along with numerous species of pines, junipers, spruces, arborvitaes, and annuals, starkly contrasted the area's industrial surroundings. Olson Park's stunning rock garden, duck pond, and 35-foot waterfall replicated a waterfall on the Ontonagon River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
The park was intended for his employees to bring nature to the factory grounds. Olson's idea for the park came from his summer home in Little St. Germaine, Wisconsin, where nature in the north woods created a peaceful setting, and he thought he would do the same for employees and the crowded Avondale community well.
The opening of the park took place on September 27, 1935, what was then American Indian Day in Illinois (the fourth Saturday of September), as well as the 100th anniversary of a treaty that resulted in the final expulsion of the Pottawatomies, Chippewas, and Ottawas across the Mississippi, and included a symbolic gesture deeding back the area of the park to the Indians.
During the first Sunday after its dedication, Olson Park attracted as many as 600 visitors per hour. This theme was kept up with visiting Native American chiefs performing war dances in authentic period clothing periodically at the park.
As Olson Rug Park became more elaborate, it was opened to the public free of charge. A trailer was set up to serve hot dogs, lemonade, and other staples. The word spread. By 1955, over 200,000 people a year were visiting the park.

The park's decor changed with the season. At Christmas, there was the obligatory Santa. At Easter, the obligatory Easter Bunny. Halloween saw a floodlit moon hanging over the waterfall, complete with a witch on a broomstick.

In some years, the great lawn featured a re-creation of McCutcheon's famed cartoon "Injun Summer." [1]

Marshall Field & Company bought the Olson Rug plant in 1965 and converted it into a warehouse. They kept the park that was adjacent to the plant operating until 1978 when the waterfall became too expensive to repair. It would have cost over $100,000 ($472,000 today) to fix it, and it's not clear how much the park costs to operate and maintain each year. Fields decided to level the park and paved it over to create a parking lot for employees and customers. Since the park was on private property, Fields had the right to do whatever they wanted with it without interference from the city. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] "Injun Summer" was first published in the Chicago Tribune, written by John T. McCutcheon, and printed in the September 30, 1907 newspaper. McCutcheon won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, the first Tribune staff member to receive journalism's coveted award.


Thoughts About "Injun Summer."
One day in the early fall of 1907, cartoonist John T. McCutcheon found himself groping for inspiration for a drawing to fill his accustomed spot on the front page of the Tribune. He thought back to his boyhood in the 1870s in the lonely cornfields of Indiana. "There was, in fact, little on my young horizon in the middle 1870s beyond corn and Indian traditions,McCutcheon recalled later, "It required only a small effort of the imagination to see spears and tossing feathers in the tasseled stalks, tepees through the smoky haze..."

That "small effort of imagination" became McCutcheon's classic drawing, "Injun Summer." It was accompanied by a lengthy discourse with the plain-spoken charm of Mark Twain. The cartoon proved so popular that it made an annual appearance in the Tribune beginning in 1912 and ran in hundreds of other newspapers over the years.


  1. I remember this well as a kid and teen. My family would go and spend time with each other as we listened to the water fall and shared food and the younger ones played around. A real treat for a family that had virtually no resources for vacations or other ventures.

  2. Lovely and we'll researched. I dont recall my family going there but I wish we had. Ironic Fields bulldozed it then went out of business.

  3. Replies
    1. As stated in the article, it was bulldozed it in favor of more parking.

  4. I loved this place! We lived at Pulaski and Fullerton an easy bus ride to the Olsen Rug place. We went often. It was magical.

  5. "They pave paradise, put up a parking lot."

    1. My parents had no money, this was our only "vacation" me and my brother had as children. This WAS paradise to us city folk.

  6. Great story and pictures, my parents took me to Niagara Falls when I was 4. I told them I preferred my waterfall back home.

  7. In the early 60's, I was a member of the Weber High School Red Horde, the club that would dress in Indian costumes and perform at football games and other local events. Every year in the Fall, we would have a photo shoot at the Olsen Rug Falls. I know that somewhere, I still have a couple of those pictures.

    1. Hello,Gregory. Was reminiscing about Olson Rug. Saw your post. I too was a member of the RedHorde “tribe”from 1959 to 1962 when the football team won the football team won the city champs ( 1961). Those were great times. We were very lucky to have had those experiences. Be well. Veritable et Caritas. 😉

  8. I worked at Marshall Field's downtown in 1971-1972. Even though everybody called it the Olson Warehouse, the official name was the Operating Service Center, or, OSC.

  9. they destroyed a magical place for a parking lot - that's progress

    we went all the time, threw pennies and made our wishes

    and there wasn't any prejudice from the Indian population

  10. My Dad would take there every year. We had some baby ducks one year and dropped them off there. Great memories

  11. My father took me there on a bright cold winter Saturday. Very soon, he had to take me across the street, so I could use the facilities at the bowling alley. Wouldn't take me back to the park. He even told me: "Park rules say you can only visit once a day." And of course, being very young, I believed him. What a cheap trick to play on your own kid!

  12. As I read this, I’m wondering if there was a town called Little St. Germain? I raised my children in St Germain, Wisconsin (Germain has no e on the end, that is a totally different spelling than the French Germaine) There is a Little St. Germain lake and a Big St. Germain lake.
    Very interesting article and though I was raised 35 miles northwest of Chicago in the 60’s, I have never heard of this park.


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