Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Fischer Windmill, 1850, Mount Emblem Cemetery, Elmhurst, Illinois.

The History of the Mill
Facing Northeast to the entrance of Mount Emblem Cemetery is the Fischer Windmill, the oldest standing custom windmill in Illinois. Now beautifully adorned by planned landscaping—including Lake Emblem, evergreens, and lilac bushes—it is hard to imagine that this was once a thriving farm.  

Johann Frederick L. Fischer owned nearly three hundred acres across DuPage and Cook counties. Before his death, he left his son, Henry Frederick Fischer, with the land in DuPage County. The land was unincorporated, and it wasn't until 1981 that the City of Elmhurst annexed it.  








Henry began mill construction around the end of the Civil War in 1865. As an interesting side note, the Graue Mill was erected by Henry's brothers-in-law, William Asche and Frederick Graue. The mill was not made from local timber; its parts were prefabricated to Henry's specifications and shipped to Elmhurst from Holland in pieces (similar to the method used in constructing De Immigrant in Fulton).  

Asked to aid with the construction of the mill were: Christian Heidemann, whose own mill in Addison would later be based on Fischer's design, and Henry Korthauer, a cabinet maker from Bensenville. It took nearly three years to build because of design changes during construction. 


The hand-crafted mill features cypress beams on a two-story stone and brick foundation. The gears are made of hickory and white oak; the great spur wheel, located on the third floor, took six months to complete. The mill was fitted with white pine sails spanning 74 feet, making it one of the largest in the state. 

Technologically speaking, the mill is very advanced: it features grain elevators; a fly-ball governor to tenter the grinding stones; an auxiliary drive system; "shakers" that tap grain into the stones, the latest wheat-cleaning and corn-shelling machines; and a spiral conveyor. 

The east shipping wing was built into the mill to house the large wheat bolter, which separated fine flour from more coarse bran. During construction or shortly after completion, a north wing with wide double doors was added for receiving wagonloads of grain.


The mill began the grinding process with 'two run-of-stones,' one for wheat and one for corn, by 1867, capable of grinding 40 barrels daily. A west wing was constructed not long after to house a 25-horsepower wood-burning steam engine to drive the machinery on calm days. A small building just south of the east wing was built around 1875 and likely served as an office, but it does not appear in photographs taken after 1886.

In 1877, Henry sold the mill and ten acres to Edward Ehlers for $10,000. Henry moved his family to Oregon, Illinois (est 1833), where, three years later, he sold another 21 acres to Edward. Henry used the money to purchase a water mill capable of 50 barrels per day.

Mount Emblem Cemetery


Edward Ehlers' widow, Caroline (daughter of Henry Korthauer, one of the original builders), sold the farm and windmill to the Mount Emblem Association for $10,000 in 1925 ($170,000 today). Although the windmill and farm buildings were initially scheduled for demolition, the association hired Henry and Franklyn Ehlers, Edward's sons of Ehlers Brothers General Contractors, to preserve the mill as a museum. Ehlers Brothers Construction also built the Elmhurst State Bank Building (now a 5th/3rd Bank) at 105 S York Rd.   

They installed new windows, shingles, and trim; replaced and reinforced the stage and handrails; painted the mill; and built new sails, which were turned into a Saint Andrew's cross ("X" formation), meaning the mill is in a "long rest."  

The cap was turned Northeast toward the cemetery's entrance, but prevailing west winds lifted the mill's cap off the dead curb track. To prevent future damage, the cap was permanently strapped to the tower. The Itasca Electric Store installed flood lights on the roof of the North and East wings to illuminate the mill at night. The west wing was destroyed to construct the parking lot of the administration building, but the iron drive shaft flange is still visible from the exterior of the mill's west wall.  

The cemetery's administration building, along with the entrance gates and bridges, was designed to resemble the English architecture of the 1850s to "match" the styles used when the windmill was built; however, these copper and stone English structures only contrast with the German and Dutch woodwork of the mill.  

It took eleven years for the architects of Simonds, West, & Blair to transform 75 acres (now 160 acres) of flat farmland into a picturesque, tranquil scene with tens of thousands of new trees and shrubs, in addition to the creation of Lake Emblem. Dr. Preston Bradley dedicated the cemetery in June of 1936. For years, the mill could broadcast music on Sundays and holidays from loudspeakers in the third-floor windows.  

The mill became an icon as the subject of artists' paintings and the backdrop for both weddings and funerals. In 1956, the DuPage County Historical Society awarded Mount Emblem for its mill preservation.   

Over the years, west winds continued to cause damage to the mill. The sails lost their wind boards, and three of them broke. The replacement sails, nearly identical to the one remaining original, were a few feet shorter with only 26 sail bars instead of 30. 

During the winter of 1990-91, a severe storm nearly destroyed the mill. Forces against the tail of the cap caused the brake to release and the sails to turn. The wind shaft twisted apart. As the sails fell, the brake wheel rose until its teeth came into contact with the wallower, which, thankfully, held together and prevented the machinery from causing further damage. The aging mill was deemed structurally unsafe and was thus permanently closed to the public. 

New replacement sails were installed for show, built without an angle of weather, and this time with only 19 sail bars each. In 1998, yet another storm tail-winded the cap, snapping the two upper sails. These were replaced, and all four sails were reinforced with extra bolts, clamps, and cables.  

A winter storm in 2004 brought them down again. For the bulk of 2004, the sails and wind shaft sat on the ground to the east of the mill as a gaping hole in the cap exposed the brake wheel. In early 2005 the sails were replaced again, with just 13 widely-spaced sail bars and constructed of lightweight aluminum. 

Wheat grinding likely stopped around 1894 when production moved further West into Kansas and Nebraska. The steam engine in the west wing was removed in 1910, and its space was used for storage. The mill probably stopped grinding corn between 1912 and 1916 when Edward Ehlers died. 

Renovation, but not Restoration
In 2010, the east shipping wing slipped off its foundation, breaking one of the stage's supporting timbers from the stone wall. The blizzard of 2011 caused the stage to fall onto an electrical box near the east wing, and the wind blew open two of the access doors allowing snow to drift in.

As part of the O'Hare Airport runway expansion program, deceased members of the Fischer and Asche families were relocated from St. Johanne's Cemetery to Mount Emblem. Norma Asche Lagerhausen convinced Dignity Memorial, the new owners of Mount Emblem, to keep and restore the mill.

Despite the outcry from the community and millwright Lucas Verbij, general contractors were hired to reinforce the structure but not restore the mill to working condition. Work began in April 2015.

The Fischer Windmill Data
Tower Height: 51 Feet
Sail Span: 74 Feet (Original); 50 Feet (Current)

OWNERS
Henry Frederick Fischer (1867 - 1877)
Edward Ehlers (1877 - 1916)
Caroline Ehlers (1916 - 1925)
Mount Emblem Cemetery (1925 - present)

MILLWRIGHTS
Henry Frederick Fischer (Original)
Christian Heidemann (Original)
Henry Korthauer (Original)
Henry Ehlers (Restoration)
Franklyn Ehlers (Restoration)

CONSTRUCTED
(1865 - 1867) Original
(1925 - 1926) Restoration

USES
(1867 - 1874) Wheat
(1867 - 1916) Corn
(1936 - present) Bell Tower

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

People's Pure Ice Company, Chicago, Illinois. Founded 1901.

People's Pure Ice Company started in the 1890s and originally consisted of four buildings at 34 Clybourn Place. Today's location would be Cortland Street at Winchester Avenue. 


The plant was built on one floor and was the first plant in the United States to utilize the "closed system" throughout. Nowhere within the buildings or about the plant is any escaping steam visible or is any water to be seen. All the machinery and apparatus, steam condensers, ammonia condensers, reboilers, water filters, etc., are all enclosed, and the steam passes in a continuous course, absolutely unexposed, from the boilers to the cans in the freezing tanks.


The model plant where all this was satisfactorily accomplished was known as the ice factory of the People's Pure Ice Company, Chicago, which was erected in 1901.

The "Ice and Refrigeration" Newsletter,  March 1, 1904 (pdf), an 11-page article, with lots of pictures. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

The Association House of Chicago, an early Settlement House.

The Association House of Chicago (AHC) was one of the original Chicago Settlement Houses located at 2150 West North Avenue in today's Wicker Park. AHC has played a significant and historic role in Chicago's westside neighborhoods. Founded in 1899 as a settlement house by Ellen Holt, a student of Jane Addams, AHC served as a "port of entry" for new immigrants for decades. At one time, they boasted the best playgrounds in Chicago. 



As early as 1900, (AHC) began serving women and girls working in nearby factories. The founders laid the cornerstone of the new and expanded Association House building at 2150 West North Avenue in 1905. That year attendance topped 1,000, and more than 4,500 showers were taken at Association House in the summer.
The original settlement house building is on the left. 1905

The reading room and library opened in the new building in 1908, and within two weeks, 500 children had borrowed books.

Early participants included many Scandinavians, Germans, Poles, and later, Russian Jews, reflecting changes in the 1910 census. Leadership welcomed the diversity and provided a place that celebrated all cultures and religions.


With a generous estate gift from fellow founding organizer Susan Poxon, Association House opened Druce Lake Camp in Lake County to provide a summer escape from the city for young girls and boys.

During the depression, funds were scarce, but programs continued, including dental and nutrition services, manual training, and art and music classes. A pilot program providing education for children with developmental disabilities began. The program rapidly grew and catalyzed the formation of 17 other parent groups in Illinois and 350 groups across the country, ultimately helping to deinstitutionalize countless children.


By 1950, multi-cultural participants represented 29 different nationalities, with Latinos representing a significant new population. 

Ellen Holt bequeathed Association House $50,000 ($495,000 today) at her death in 1961.

AHC began services in Child Welfare with a foster care program in 1976. 

The AHC is still going strong at 1116 North Kedzie Avenue in Humboldt Park since 1997. They served thousands of families each year through programs focused on Behavioral Health, Workforce Development, Child Safety, and the Association House High School, a charter school for youth left behind by the traditional school system.

The original building was sold and converted into condos in 1999.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Friday, September 30, 2022

International Horseradish Festival, Collinsville, Illinois. (June 5-7, 2015)

I visited the Festival on the morning of June 7, 2015. It is a small festival with one stage and a dozen or so vendors and artists. There were three different inflatables for kids and a beer vendor for adults.
Contests for kids include a Horseradish Root Derby where the kids build a derby vehicle (i.e., Cub Scouts Pinewood Derby). The "Little Miss Horseradish Festival Pageant" where girls between the ages of 4-6 years old participated to win a savings bond, crown, sash, trophy and flowers, and a photograph package.

For adults is the Amateur Recipe Contest, where amateur chefs compete to be named "Master of the Root."

A Root Toss is a throwing contest using a horseradish root. Each participant gets one free toss. Additional chances are $1 each. Prizes will be awarded to men and women in various age categories.

Root Golf, A closest-to-the-pin contest where participants use a golf driver to hit a horseradish root "ball." Prizes are awarded to both men and women each day. A $100 prize goes to the person who hits the first hole-in-one!

Root Sacking Contest put as many horseradish roots into the burlap sack in 30 seconds. The heaviest bag wins. And then there's the Horseradish 5-K Race.

Ahhh... the small-town life.
Article and Photographs, Copyright © 2015, Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin, Illinois.

EARLY PASSENGER OPERATIONS
The Fox River Line dates back to 1896. At the turn of the century, this interurban line was part of the Elgin, Aurora and Southern [EA&S] Traction Company and ran about 40 miles along the Fox River from Carpentersville to Yorkville. It also included and was connected to the streetcar systems of Elgin and Aurora. 



In 1906 the EA&S became part of the high-speed interurban, the Elgin, Aurora, and Chicago Railroad [EA&C]. This line ran west from its connection with the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Company and had four branches with western terminals along the Fox River in the same towns that the Fox River Line served. Even though the two divisions were part of the same company from 1906 to 1919, they were continuously operated separately with different equipment, repair facilities and employees.

In August of 1919, the AE&C went into receivership, both divisions emerging from bankruptcy in the early 1920s. They were separated and renamed. The third rail division to Chicago (former AE&C) was renamed the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad [CA&E], and the Fox River Division was renamed the Aurora, Elgin and Fox River Electric Company [AE&FRE].

The AE&FRE on its own began again in 1924, acquired new one-man cars, cut costs and modernized its track, signaling and operations. Business was good through most of the 1920s, but as more people purchased automobiles and the roads in Kane County were paved, ridership began to drop. First to go were some, then all the streetcar routes in Elgin and Aurora, with the last being retired in 1934. All of these were torn up and replaced by company-owned bus routes, with the interurban line between Aurora and Elgin (including our right-of-way) being the final one in March of 1935.

THE FREIGHT ONLY YEARS
As you can see, not all of the track was torn up. A short 3.5-mile segment was retained from the interchange with the Illinois Central at Coleman north along present-day Route 31 to the State Mental Hospital in Elgin. Two homemade flatcar motors were kept to handle the freight-only business, chiefly coal and other supplies for the hospital and a few other customers along the route. Carload freight tonnage was high, the overhead low, and the AE&FRE even dieselized in 1946.

Things were going well for the freight operator until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the hospital in 1971 that it would have to stop using coal (from Southern Illinois) for its power plant because of pollution. This was the railroad's last and only customer, and this loss forced AE&FRE out of the freight business.

A MUSEUM CONCEPT WAS HATCHED
The Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railway went out of business in 1961, but a small group of loyal railfans struggled to keep the line's memory alive. Starting first as the Railway Investment Club in August 1959 and then as Railway Equipment Leasing and Investment Co. [RELIC] in September 1961, they began what would become the Fox River Trolley Museum. 

RELIC first acquired several CA&E cars saving them from scrapping. Next was finding a suitable place to store and someday run them. RELIC agreed with Bob DeYoung, the line owner, to hold their cars on his mainline and later operate them on weekends when there were no freight operations. 

WELCOME TO THE MUSEUM
A new electric railroad had to be brought in, cleaned and assembled. All this was done by a group of volunteers who had never worked a day for an actual railroad. 

Finally, all was in place, and the RELIC TROLLEY MUSEUM opened on July 4, 1966. The first rides were 50¢ ($4.60 today). Now named the Fox River Trolley Museum, located at 365 South La Fox Street, South Elgin. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Manhattan Beach, Windsor Bathing Beach, Rocky Ledge Beach, and Rainbow Beach, at 75th - 79th Streets at Lake Michigan, Chicago.

Today's Rainbow Beach at 75th Street at Lake Michigan in Chicago was named for the U.S. Army's 42nd Rainbow Division in World War I. Rainbow Beach Park began as two separate beaches; "Manhattan Beach" and "Windsor Bathing Beach."

Manhattan Beach was a popular spot for middle-class families to enjoy until the turn of the 20th century. Because the beach was private and not monitored, issues surfaced in the neighborhood. Problems of sexual promiscuity and minors drinking alcohol were some of the reasons the City of Chicago reclaimed the land to operate it as other Chicago beaches.

Manhattan Beach



The first was established in 1908 by the Special Parks Commission, a city agency that studied open space needs and created parks, playgrounds and beaches in densely populated areas of Chicago. 
Manhattan Beach advertising The Fair Department Stores.


A small beach at 79th Street at Lake Michigan was called "Rocky Ledge Beach." The name referred to the area's rocky terrain and the manufactured limestone ledge that served as a shore promenade and prevented shoreline erosion.
The heavily used Manhattan Beach had men's & women's toilets and changing rooms by 1912.
Manhattan Beach was Illuminated by electric lights. The beach remained open until 9:30 pm to benefit working folks and provide families more time together.

In 1914, the city began efforts to expand the beach and soon acquired the land between 75th and 79th Streets, nicknamed "Rocky Ledge Beach." The City Council officially renamed the cojoined area "Rainbow Beach" in 1918. The little Rocky Ledge Beach continued operating as a children's beach.
Windsor Beach

Manhattan and Windsor beaches were consolidated in 1959 when the Chicago Park District began leasing the sites from the City of Chicago. Rocky Ledge quietly joined Rainbow Beach's party.

For many years the park lacked sufficient indoor recreational facilities. In 1999 the Chicago Park District constructed a large field house. Designed by David Woodhouse Architects, the field house takes full advantage of Rainbow Beach and Park's breathtaking views of the lakefront and skyline.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Monday, September 26, 2022

The First Elongated Coin Souvenirs in America were at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Modern Example with
Four Different Stamps
It's generally accepted that the first elongated coins in the United States were sold at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. A commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America. 

Coins were rolled through a hand-cranked machine with two die rollers with a reverse-engraved image cut into one of the steel rollers. Regular coins are run between the rollers with over 20 TONS of pressure, causing the "elongated" shape of the coin. Elongated coins came in all denominations, including blank tokens and foreign coins. In the U. S. the 1¢ penny was the most common coin and was sold as souvenirs.

The penny roller takes a different approach, with a purpose-built machine that 'eats' a coin, usually of a small or inexpensive denomination and then 'presses' the coin out between two rollers, engaged by a set of large gears. The rollers are engraved with a design pressed into the elongated metal. This way, the inserted coin is both 'drawn out' while being imprinted. 

The rolling of elongated coins seemed to be rather popular for the first 23 years of their existence, and a large amount was rolled between 1893 and 1916. Then for some unknown reason, there was a slack period between 1916 and 1932. After 1932 momentum seemed to regenerate, and the number of coins rolled had steadily increased. In the 1970s, there was a resurgence of penny rolling innovation, with automated penny rolling machines appearing in popular amusement parks, zoos, and museums. 

In recent times, many of us have watched or personally placed a penny on a train track, watched the train go by, then search for the flattened penny beside the track. In this case, the penny gets stretched and elongated into random shapes. Still fun.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.



Buy Souvenir Coins at the Fair.
We'll Stamp Any Coin You Present.









Sunday, September 25, 2022

Checkerboard Flying Field & U.S. Air Mail Field in Broadview, Illinois.

Before 1919, the tract of land located south of Roosevelt Road and west of First Avenue in today's Broadview, Illinois, was a cornfield.

During the spring of 1919, clothing merchants Decker & Cohen acquired this land and constructed an airfield. A metal hangar was erected on the northeast comer of this field, near the banks of the Des Plaines River. Meadows and pasture lands that were relatively level and free of holes made a suitable landing field for the airplanes of this era. Flying operations were possible in this field without having to prepare special runways.
I cleaned up this map to make it easier to read.


Chief mechanic Louis Meyer and ex-Signal Corps pilots David Behncke and Bert Hassell uncrated and assembled two planes the company had purchased. These airplanes, equipped with 90-HP Curtiss OX motors, were Curtiss JN-4 models, more commonly known as "Jennies." The Jennies carried a pilot and a passenger, fore and aft, in open cockpits and enough gasoline for about two hours of flying time at a speed of sixty miles an hour. They were first put into action on June 13, 1919, as Checkerboard Flying Field opened for business and began sending the Jennies on delivery runs, bringing "Society Brand Clothes" to local towns within a 120-mile radius.

When Checkerboard was operating, bright red and white Checkerboard designs were found on the Jennies (to aid in the eye-catching advertisement of Society Brand Clothes) and on the hangar's roof (to help pilots locate the airfield). Such bright patterns made it difficult to miss the airport when planes passed overhead!
Broadview Air Mail Field, previously U.S. Air Mail Field.


Obviously, the pilots did more than just deliver clothes in those Jennies. Off-hours were devoted to flying lessons, joy rides and pleasure hops. In addition, there was always stunt flying on weekends; such attractions brought people from miles around, creating a carnival atmosphere at the airfield.

In September 1921, the spectators were entertained by Ethel Dare dropping from the clouds, and in 1922 Bessie Coleman entertained crowds at Checkerboard. Such excitement induced the spectators to buy raffle tickets for the chance to ride in one of the planes."
U.S. Air Mail Field, aka Broadview Air Mail Field.
The first recorded instance of an Air Mail delivery was in January 1911 from Nassau Boulevard Flying Field in Garden City. New York to Mineola, New York. 

The first organized Air Mail route was started on May 15, 1918, by the Post Office Department and the Army Air Force, and utilized Army pilots and airplanes flying between Washington D.C. and New York City with Philadelphia as a halfway stop. Initially, Curtiss Jennies with 150-HP Hisso motors were used on this route.

At the end of World War I, the Army converted many DeHavilland Observation and Bombing Planes into mail planes for the proposed transcontinental Air Mail route.

In August of 1919. the Post Office Department took over the entire Air Mail operation, hired their own pilots, bought their own planes and started mail flights from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio, with Bellefonte, Pennsylvania as the halfway stop. On May 31, 1921, the route to Washington D. C. was discontinued. The Jennies were also discontinued then, and the DH-4 became the official Air Mail plane.

The official Air Mail plane had its problems; most significantly, the plane's engine endurance for the long transcontinental haul was troublesome Plus, the structural modifications amounted to some 600 changes in the fuselage. The forward cockpit was removed and moved further back, leaving space for the mailbag compartment, and the Liberty engine had to be overhauled.

These 400HP Liberty motors enabled the DH-4 to carry a cargo load of 400 pounds plus 100 gallons of gasoline at speeds up to 100 mph for as long as four hours.

Before the end of the summer of 1919, the route was extended from Cleveland to Chicago, with Bryan, Ohio, as a refueling stop. A strip of land in Grant Park, extending south along the lakefront from Randolph Street, was used as a landing field. A small hangar was erected at the north end of this field, about where the Amoco Building is today. Field size at Grant Park was limited, and prevailing lakefront winds made operations hazardous. Soon after, Checkerboard was proposed as a new site due to its superior year-round flying conditions. In 1920 it was officially designated as Chicago's Air Mail field.

Early in 1920, a hangar was built on the west side of the field along First Avenue, several hundred feet south of Roosevelt Road. A small garage-type office was also built at the north end of the hangar, and in January, the Air Mail operation officially moved to Checkerboard Field. Operations went well the rest of that winter until a heavy April 1 snowfall followed by an early thaw softened the ground so badly that several landing aircraft nosed over in the mud and were severely damaged. Air Mail operations immediately returned to Grant Park and remained as cinder runways were put in at Checkerboard.

On May 15, 1920, Checkerboard resumed operations with its new runways and regular flights to and from Omaha, Nebraska, began. By the end of the month, the Air Mail service was fully established at the increasingly well-known Checkerboard Airmail Field. Later in 1920, Decker & Cohen clothing deliveries were discontinued, making Checkerboard exclusively an Air Mail field. Additions and modifications to the field included the setting up a repair hangar, brought in from Bustleton, Pennsylvania, just north of the original hangar that summer.

The first transcontinental flights were attempted on February 22,1921. Four different airplanes participated in the grueling trip, two leaving from San Francisco and two departing New York. The four simultaneous flights were intended to prove to Congress that day-night transcontinental flights were possible. Of the two New York-based flights, one was forced down shortly after takeoff, and the other landed at Checkerboard, only to be grounded by a snowstorm. The first pilot from San Francisco crashed and died in Nevada, but the second made it to North Plane, Nebraska, where a relay pilot named James H. ("Jack") Knight took over. Knight left North Plane at 7:50PM and arrived at Omaha, Nebraska, at 1:15AM, where he found that his relief pilot had been snowed in Chicago and had never made the flight meet him at Omaha. Knight decided to continue on himself and fly the 435 miles to Chicago even though the Midwest was getting blasted by the fiercest snowstorm they'd seen in years. Since the Des Moines refueling stop was also shut down due to the weather. Knight was forced to an alternate site in Iowa City, which had also closed down once they had heard that the relay flight from Chicago had been canceled. Fortunately, the Iowa City night watchman could guide Knight to a safe landing just as the plane's fuel ran dry.

While his plane was being refueled. Knight ate a donut and drank some coffee. He wasted no time and took off into the driving snow as soon as his plane was ready; he arrived at Checkerboard at 8:40AM, proving once and for all that day-night coast-to-coast service was indeed feasible.
Checkerboard Flying Field


In June of 1921, a large hangar was obtained from a former Army airfield at Key West, Florida, and was assembled south of the original Checkerboard hangar. Though this new building was intended to be used as a separate repair hangar, it soon became the only one when the original hangar burned down on Christmas Day. This wasn't all bad, as the newer structures were more substantial and larger than the older ones. It was said that ."..the mechanics really appreciated doors that closed tightly to keep out the cold winter wind. Later, all major repair and overhaul operations were moved to Checkerboard Flying Field from New York, making it my maintenance center for the entire service. By this point, my Air Mail service had extended as far west as Omaha and Iowa City, with St. Louis and Minneapolis soon to follow.

Checkerboard operated from 1919 through 1923; after that, it was occupied by Yackey aircraft. Checkerboard, now no longer an Air Mail center, continued as a private and commercial airstrip until 1924, when David Behncke sold the field to Wilfred A. Yackey. Checkerboard served as an overhauling center, where French Brequet bombers were converted to five-place civilian transport planes. Later, Yackey built and planned to start production of a new aircraft of his own design; his progress on this endeavor ended on October 4,1927, when he crashed and died during a test flight of one of his new planes. The Government Civil Aviation Board declared Checkerboard unsafe for private and commercial use in 1927.

Let us backtrack a few years to 1918; the Government bought the land west of First Avenue, built Hines Hospital near 9th Avenue and turned the eastern portion of the land over to the Post Office Department, who in turn started building their own Air Mail field there and finished it in 1921. January 1923, the burning down of the Checkerboard repair hangar put pressure on the Post Office Department to complete their own field on the west side of First Avenue, from Roosevelt Road south to the Illinois Central Railroad tracks just north of Cermak Road (22nd Street). The brick and steel building, designated as the repair facility, was the closest one to First Avenue and the Railroad tracks and still has a facing stone on its north elevation that reads "U.S. Air Mail." Two additional hangars were built west of this main building along the tracks and used for service and operations.

A 200-foot-wide L-shaped cinder runway was constructed, with the long leg running the length of 5500 feet along First Avenue; the short leg extended west-northwest toward the Hines hospital building, which was the only building on the grounds at the time. Army fliers at that time said. ."..it was the best field in the country, and large enough to handle all the types of aircraft of that era." This field, which opened in May 1922, was generally known as the Broadview Air Mail Field."

"U.S. Air Mail" airport is currently part of Loyola Hospital. Checkerboard Field is now the Miller Meadow Forest Preserve.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D



For those who don't believe that Broadview was north of Roosevelt Road (22nd Street).



Saturday, September 24, 2022

A Former Southwest Chicago Suburban Airfield's Connection to Aviation History.

Cornelius R. Coffey made aviation history in the 1930s at Harlem Airport at 87th Street and Harlem Avenue in today's Bridgeview.
Cornelius R. Coffey
In the history of Negro aviation, Bessie Coleman, the first Negro woman to earn a pilot's license, is usually remembered as the one who opened the skies to Negro aviators. 

Less well known was Cornelius Coffey, who, with much the same vision and fighting the same obstructions, changed a cornfield in south Chicago into an airport that housed the nation's first large group of young, talented Negro aviators. 

In the years just before and after World War I, some 180,000 Negro Southerners immigrated to Chicago, settling on the city's rough south side. Bessie Coleman, a Texas transplant who wanted to fly, learned that aviation schools didn't accept Negro applicants, and she had to sail to France to earn a pilot's license. "Queen Bess" subsequently became the toast of the Chicago Defender newspaper, and when she died in a fall from her airplane in 1926, some 10,000 Chicago Negro mourners filed past her casket.

Coffey never met Coleman, and the Arkansas native quietly mapped his own route to the sky. Young Coffey possessed a great gift for mechanical work. He was the top graduate in a south Chicago auto engineering class in 1925, quickly earning the allegiance of Emil Mack, the white Chevrolet dealer who employed him. Coffey later found a spot at the dealership for a mechanic friend named John Robinson.

The two young men wanted to fly, but no one would teach them, so they taught themselves. Later, in 1929, they enrolled in an aviation mechanics program at Chicago's Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation. When they showed up for class, they were turned away because they were Negro, even though they had already paid their tuition. Mack threatened to sue on their behalf, and the school reluctantly admitted the pair. 


In 1931, the 28-year-old Coffey finished first in his graduating class and Robinson second. Two weeks later, Coffey took the exam to earn his mechanic's license from the U.S. government. The school must have been impressed because it changed its policy, inviting the men to return and teach all-Negro classes. They did. The aviation mechanic's degrees didn't open many doors, however. Coffey and Robinson were still unwelcome at airstrips except Akers Airport, near where they worked, so when Akers closed, they were grounded.

The men joined with several other local Negro aviation enthusiasts to form the Challenger Air Pilots Association (the name referred to the Curtiss Challenger engine). The new group looked for a place to fly from. In 1931, the group, joined by one or two white pilots from Akers, bought a half-mile-wide tract of land in Robbins, an all-Negro town southwest of Chicago. There they buried boulders, dropped trees, roughly leveled the terrain, and cobbled together a hangar from second-hand lumber. When they finished, their small fleet of disparate craft—a Church Mid-Wing, an International F-17, and a WACO 9—was parked at what historians consider the first Negro-owned airport in the United States.

The achievement is primarily a historical footnote: About a year later, a violent thunderstorm roared through Robbins, demolishing the hangar, flipping airplanes, and scattering hopes.

But a few miles north, at 87th Street and Harlem Avenue in Oak Lawn (today's Bridgeview) intersection, William Schumacher had purchased 140 acres of farmland with an airport in mind, and his brother Fred would manage it. Before Robbins' devastating storm, Fred Schumacher visited Robbins and, probably sensing a good tenant, invited the group to come to use his brother's airport.

After the storm, while Coffey was on a trip to Detroit, Robinson and two other Challenger members—pilot Dale Lawrence White and Curtiss-Wright school graduate Harold Hurd—approached Fred Schumacher to take him up on his offer. The facility was taking shape. Grass had sprouted where cornstalks had been plowed under, and a hangar and office sprang up along Harlem Avenue.

Schumacher readily agreed to rent the lower end of the airport to the Challenger group. Still, in an interview recorded for the Smithsonian Video History Program on Negro aviators, Hurd said that Schumacher initially insisted on segregation. He was already running an all-white school. "Look, fellas," he said, "I'm going to put you at the end of the field to save you from having any trouble with the other guys."

Negro and white pilots parked their airplanes in separate hangars, sharing Harlem's four sod runways, the longest of which was 2,000 feet. The rural area soon echoed with the thundering exhausts of Curtiss engines; the sky above the corn and wheat fields of Worth Township teemed with WACOs, Travel Airs, and Taylor Cubs. The leaders of the Challenger group were acknowledged to be Coffey and Robinson. 

At Harlem Airport, Schumacher asked Coffey to recertify the overhauled aircraft of his white customers, enabling Coffey to begin earning money as a mechanic. It started an amicable working relationship with the man Coffey called "Shoes." The Coffey Flying School operated on the airport's south end, and Schumacher's school was on the north. Coffey taught both white and Negro students together. "Every 10 students I took, I had one white student and one girl student in that unit," he said years later.

One of those "girl students" was Willa Brown, a former Curtiss-Wright student of Coffey's. In 1938, the pert 27-year-old traveled to Harlem to take flying lessons from her old teacher. Two years earlier, Brown, a former Gary, Indiana schoolteacher with a master's degree in business administration, had strutted into the Chicago Defender newsroom in jodhpurs and boots to promote an amateur airshow at Harlem. City editor Enoc Waters was so taken by her that he assigned himself to cover the event.


At Harlem, Brown became the first Negro woman to earn a pilot's license in the United States. She became indispensable to Coffey's operation and the Negro aviation movement. For a time, she also was Coffey's wife. In 1939, editor Waters proposed that the Challenger Air Pilots Association broaden its scope; within weeks, the new National Airman's Association was chartered, with Coffey as president, Dale White as vice president, Brown as secretary, and Waters as the group's unofficial promoter.

Smith remembers that Coffey and his instructors washed out few students, almost willing the young men and women to succeed. Smith himself struggled until Brown rescued him. She asked Smith to go for a ride one day. Smith was six-foot-two and weighed 210 pounds, and the five-foot-two Brown took off in a Cub. "She said, 'I've been watching you, Quentin, and I know you can learn to fly. Let me show you something,'" he remembers. "She pulled it up into a stall, and we spun seven or eight times—and you don't spin a Cub!—and then she pulled it out, and this little lady said to me, 'You can't be King Kong, Quentin. You've got to be gentle. You're going to learn to fly today.'" And he did. Smith completed training at Tuskegee and was assigned to a bomber group based in Seymour, Indiana.

In late 1939, civilian pilot training sites were announced; they included seven for Negro students (Tuskegee, which had finally begun flight instruction, was one). Harlem Airport was the only Negro training site that was not a college campus.

Coffey was to direct flight training and personally maintain the aircraft of his renamed Coffey School of Aeronautics. Willa Brown would run a ground school at Chicago's Wendell Phillips High School and coordinate the overall program.

"Shoes" sold Coffey a 50-horsepower Piper Cub needed for primary flight training, and another white friend helped Coffey buy a second one. For secondary training, Coffey and Brown cajoled the Curtiss-Wright school into lending two 220-horsepower WACO PT-14s.
The Coffey school also would teach cross-country and flight instruction; it and Tuskegee were the only Negro programs offering all four levels of instruction. Each trainee received 35 hours of flight time. By June 1941, the school's fleet—mostly Cubs—had increased to 10. When rain caused excessive puddling on Harlem's sod runways, the students practiced from paved airfields in Harvey or Joliet.

Everything about the civilian pilot training program at Harlem was modest. Coffey and Brown lived in a small cottage at the southern tip of the airport, a building that doubled as the Civil Air Patrol unit headquarters. Classroom work was conducted in a small one-room building crowded with student desks. 

The government wouldn't fund student housing at Harlem, so in 1942 supporters of the program erected a dormitory: a cot-lined room with adjacent latrines and showers. At one end, Brown supervised a dining area that served three meals daily to flight students and anyone else who wandered in.

"The atmosphere at Harlem was camaraderie," Quentin Smith recalls. He trained at the airport in 1942 at the invitation of Brown, whom he had known in Indiana. Smith says in his months at Harlem, all the student pilots had at least some college education and quickly bonded. "Every day, it wasn't raining, and we weren't flying. All we had to do was study," he recalls. "In the evenings, we'd get in the planes and get the feel of them. I probably wouldn't have made it without all the camaraderie. I mean, out there, we were so far from Negro people, we had to drive 20 miles just to see any."

Coffey and Brown procured olive green Civilian Conservation Corps uniforms to bolster the students' esprit de corps (a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty). They also quietly used some of their earnings to set up a pool of cash that the unpaid students could dip into for incidental needs.

Coffey remained committed to integration. When the Army Air Corps announced that the military unit from Tuskegee would be segregated from white servicemen, Coffey, speaking as NAA president, objected. "We'd rather be excluded than segregated," he declared. In the end, Army traditions prevailed. The Tuskegee Airmen would be a separate fighting unit known informally as the Red Tails; their most famous mission was flying escort for bombers in Europe.

Coffey offered to pay the Negro teen­ager, Bev Dunhill, 50 cents an hour to work at Harlem, plus give him 30 minutes of flying time each weekend. Dunhill instantly accepted though he didn't tell his airplane-fearing mother for six months. Each day Dunjill rode a streetcar to the end of the line at 63rd Street, where Coffey met him and drove him to the airport. The teen spent his days pushing airplanes from the hangar, washing fuselages and performing minor maintenance.

The number of pilots that the Harlem wartime program turned out is unknown, but it was in the hundreds. No airplane was ever wrecked. After the war, Coffey worked at Harlem but spent most of the next two decades teaching aviation mechanics in high schools and an area college.

Some of the aviators from Harlem's early years had distinguished careers. Coffey got a patent on a popular carburetor warming system, and the Federal Aviation Administration honored him with an aerial navigation waypoint ("Coffey Fix" in FAA spelling) to align aircraft landing at Chicago Midway Airport. Harold Hurd was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame. Dale White broke employment barriers for Negro mechanics. Willa Brown ran twice, unsuccessfully for Congress, the first Negro woman to try for a Congressional seat. Quentin Smith stayed active in aviation, becoming president of the Gary, Indiana Regional Airport Authority. And Bev Dunhill, who had entered the cadet program at Tuskegee as World War II ceased, re-enlisted in 1949 and became an F-86 jet combat instructor in Korea, along with a pilot named Gus Grissom.


Harlem Airport grew even busier in the post-war years, with six flying schools, a repair service, and half a dozen hangars. Forty acres were added, and 10 unpaved runways crisscrossed the field.


In September 1956, the airport lost its lease. A parcel of land that had once been a cornfield was transformed once more, this time into a residential sub­division and a shopping center named Southfield Plaza. 

Today, customers walk to Shop' N Save, Hobby Lobby, and Walgreens on the pavement where leather-helmeted pilots once revved engines to taxi and take off. Grassy airstrips scarred by ruts have disappeared under smooth streets lined with houses and trees. The acreage's only link to aviation is several hundred feet overhead, where airliners descend toward landings at Midway Airport.

For Harlem's 23-year existence, Fred Schumacher was manager, building his business on twin pillars: full service and a relatively enlightened sense of brotherhood. When the facility closed, he picked up and moved to Chicago-Hammond Airport. Probably the person in the best position to know, Schumacher told a newspaper reporter at Harlem's closing that some 350,000 hours of instructional flying had been logged at the rough field. This number represented a lot of realized dreams, regardless of their race.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.