Was headed northbound up Ill. Route 25 to Aurora Saturday to pick up my wife and grandchildren at the Aurora METRA station when it struck me I’d driven that route thousands of times over the last 50-plus years since I got my driver’s license. And I’d traveled it thousands of times before that as a passenger with my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
With a few brief spans equaling only a couple years, I’ve lived on North Adams Street between the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch tracks and the Fox River since December 1954. Route 25 runs north along the brow of the Fox Valley ridge behind our house before dipping down to cross under the railroad tracks a quarter mile north. From there, it follows the banks of the river right into Aurora.
It’s a beautiful stretch of road year round. In the spring, flowering trees and shrubs brighten and soften the landscape; in the summer the river draws wildlife of all kinds plus thousands of folks, young and old alike, who pedal, walk, and run the bicycle trail between the river and the highway championed all those years ago by my friends, Bert Gray and Dick Young. In autumn the trees blaze with reds, golds, and greens; and in winter, the river’s frozen beauty is enhanced by hoarfrost-clad leafless trees and shrubs.
It’s a historic drive, too. Having lived along the route most all my life, the stories constantly pop up on the drive north. Keep on reading for the first bunch of tales as I drove north on my personal Memory Lane:
Pulling out of our driveway, we take North Adams north past the old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory site immortalized on the blog’s front page photo, and then make the curve onto Second Street past the vacant lot once the site of the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company’s gigantic ice houses up the hill to the stop sign at Route 25. When we were kids, John Morley and I lugged buckets of water up to the top of that hill on cold winter days to ice the road down for sledding. Starting at the top, and providing we made the right-angled curve to the left at the bottom, we could sometimes coast all the way to my folks’ (now my) driveway.
What with all the traffic these days, it’s more of a challenge to pull onto Route 25 but we make the left turn, northbound, past the now-vanished rail siding that served the ice company, loading out more than 100 cars some months with ice that kept Armour’s and Swift’s refrigerator cars cold enough to ship beef and hog carcasses to Eastern markets. The family of a childhood friend, Roy Burton, lived in the old switchman’s shack. Then it’s into the gentle “S” curve, under the tracks. Back in the day, the rail crossing was a grade, but it was dangerous, and so the bridge was added, first with a pylon in the center of the roadway that led to numerous accidents before the current bridge was built.
Route 25 passes the old driveway to the Haines house that crosses Cedar Creek on a dry-laid stone bridge that once carried stagecoach traffic north on what was then called the East River Road. And then past Violet Patch Park, which has always been called the Violet Patch because they were once so prolific there. Irvin Haines, a long-deceased cousin, operated the Violet Grove Campground there in the 1920s and 1930s. On the other side of the road are the abandoned gravel pits where we spent so much time as kids, eating wild strawberries that once covered the spoil heaps in June, hunting in November, and generally fooling around the rest of the year. The old pit is nowadays home to the Oswego Township Highway Department garage, as well as to a branch of the bicycle trail that connects to Boulder Hill from the Violet Patch.
We didn’t know then that the old pit also covered the semi-final resting place of one John “Red” Hamilton, the unlucky Canada-born associate of John Dillinger. Dubbed “Three Fingered Jack” by the 1930s media, Hamilton had two fingers shot off in various Dillinger Gang jobs. In fact, if someone in the gang was to be wounded, it was Hamilton. His final wound, a rifle bullet fired by a security guard following a payroll heist, put an end to Hamilton’s career. Dillinger and George “Baby Face” Nelson and a couple others took the wounded Hamilton to an apartment in Aurora where he died. They looked for a handy place to bury him, and chose a rise along a fence line just uphill from Route 25. The Feds didn’t find out where his body was for more than a year, after which the FBI dug him up and confirmed his identity at the Croushorn Funeral Home in Oswego. Hamilton’s sister paid for his burial in the Oswego Cemetery. The young, novice mortician tapped to work with Hamilton’s body in Oswego subsequently decided he’d better look for a new line of work.
Farther north was the home of my sometime classmate Tom Wilson, perched up on the ridge overlooking the Fox River. Then it’s past the home of the late Bob Watson, who was A Character. A former CB&Q conductor, Bob was a prolific jokester and contrarian who spent his summers at the resort his family had owned since the 1940s in northern Wisconsin. And then past the house of my one-time junior high classmate Lonnie Precup, who dropped out of Oswego to go to a Lutheran school and who became a Lutheran minister.
The route extends under the railroad tracks one more time, as the old Fox River Branch heads across the river towards the Main Line in Montgomery, just before passing Boulder Hill, a huge, unincorporated subdivision began in the mid-1950s by developer Don L. Dise. My wife’s parents bought one of the first 100 houses there back in 1958, and early on the development was home to CB&Q executives (like my father-in-law) as well as workers and execs for the then-new Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants on the west side of the river.
The Western Electric plant, on the west bank of the river across from Boulder Hill, occupied a former wallpaper factory and World War II munitions factory. It was located on the old Riverview Park site, whose name was later changed to Fox River Park to avoid confusion with Chicago’s huge Riverview Park. From 1900 to the mid 1920s, Fox River Park hosted thousands of visitors weekly who enjoyed a roller coaster, merry widow swing, shoot the chutes ride into the river, boat rentals, dances and more. Annual Chautauquas drew thousands more to hear presentations by revivalists and nationally-known speakers. And the ball diamond featured professional players, including one whose name was Casey Stengel.
Along this stretch of the road, it’s always wise to keep a sharp lookout for folks crossing the highway to get to the biking and hiking trail, and I’m also pausing as I let the car in front of me turn into Boulder Hill.
The drive up Memory Lane continues below…