Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Celebrate Naperville's Founding This Week

Happy Birthday, Naperville!

In 1831, Joseph Naper, along with his brother John, his sister Amy and their families and friends, settled down along the banks of the DuPage River to build a new community. While we can’t pinpoint the exact date, historians are fairly sure it was during the week of July 15 in 1831 that the wagons completed the three-day journey from Fort Dearborn.

You may want to stand in an actual northern Illinois prairie this week and imagine that you are one of Naper's settlers. Much of the original prairie in our area has been plowed up or built over, but there are still a few places that are either original or restored.

One of the best places to find original prairie is in very old graveyards. Yes, the settlers did dig into the prairie long ago for graves, but they didn't plow the land, so the grasses and wildflowers continued to grow in the natural way. Conservationists will often collect seeds from old graveyards to help create prairie restorations with native plants.

The Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove boasts some original prairie, but there are also some restored areas that are worth a trip. Both the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and Fermi Lab  in Batavia have been working on prairie restorations in recent years.

Or visit the Joseph Naper Homestead site in Naperville and try to imagine what it looked like in 1831. Now a park, signage and landscaping give visitors an idea of where the original house and trading post stood. Down Mill Street, Naper would later build his mill, swelling the DuPage River into a mill pond that he could see from his log house.

If you get to visit a local prairie, use all your senses to put yourself in the place of the early Illinois settler. What can you smell and hear? How does it feel to walk through such tall grass? Are there bugs? Imagine yourself barefoot, for nearly everyone went barefoot in the summer to save on shoe leather, walking for three days in the July sun from Chicago.

Now imagine trying to explain hitting the highway in an air-conditioned SUV to Joe and the rest of his group! Our forefathers were certainly a hardy lot!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Moving Pictures: Going to a Show in 1913 Naperville

Continuing our look at what Naperville was like one hundred years ago, here is a page from the City Council meeting minutes from March 17, 1913.

Asa Frank Stoner applied in March “to operate a moving picture show.” Stoner was a prominent citizen and a member of the Euclid Lodge, the local Masons chapter. He served in World War I and was also a member of the American Legion.

The early 1900’s was the “wild west” of cinema, before big corporations monopolized the industry. Anyone who could scrape together a little cash could open a nickelodeon theater in an existing storefront.
They would rent films from a distributor, patch them up if they were a little worse for wear, and run them maybe thirty times a day.

Folks would pay a nickel to watch about a half hour’s worth of entertainment — twenty minutes’ worth if the operator sped up the projector to squeeze more showings into an evening.
Moving pictures were considered “not quite nice” at first, but by 1913 they were well accepted. Men could bring their wives and children along to a nickelodeon, unlike a saloon.

In 1913, the Keystone Cops and Tom Mix cowboy movies were popular. Dialogue titles were not yet common so the silent film stars mimed their roles completely.

The earliest moving pictures were presented as one act of a vaudeville show and many of those traditions continued in movie theaters. Live piano music accompanied the films and the show might include sing-a-longs to filmed “illustrated songs.”

Traveling moving picture shows offered the same film every night for a week before heading to the next town, but Chicago was the biggest movie-going city in the entire nation. No doubt there were plenty of new titles available to watch on a regular basis at Mr. Stoner’s moving picture show.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

150th Anniversary of Gettysburg and our Local Connections

Civil War history buffs are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle at Gettysburg, While the three day battle resulted in a horrific number of casualties, Gettysburg was considered the turning point of the war which would lead to cessation of hostilities.

Several men in our local history had connections to the Battle of Gettysburg. While there is some debate on the matter, many believe the first shot of the Battle was fired by Marcellus Jones of Danby, Illinois, which is what Glen Ellyn was once known as.

But Jones is not the only local connection. According to the tale, Jones made the shot with a carbine he borrowed from Sergeant Levi Shafer of Naperville.

Following the War, Jones moved to Wheaton and was most likely among the men who swiped the DuPage County records from what was then the county seat in Naperville. He’s buried in Wheaton Cemetery, a few steps from the cemetery office.

Jones' home, built in 1865, was moved about one block away from its original location to Illinois Street in May of 1977. It now serves as the law offices of Peregrine, Stime, Newman & Ritzman.

Shafer returned to Naperville where he married Anna Naugle, worked as a carpenter and raised three daughters before being laid to rest in the Naperville Cemetery.

Visitors attending Gettysburg Anniversary events might learn about DuPage County from a monument that Jones, Shafer and buddy Alex Riddler erected to their contribution to history. The men had a stone monolith cut in Naperville commemorating the event and then, using their own funds, they dragged the marker to Pennsylvania and purchased a small piece of the battlefield from a local farmer on which to rest the monument. Kathleen Logothetis features the stone on her Hidden Gems of Gettysburg website for history buffs who want to view it.