Growing Up In Libertyville in the Thirties and Forties
Around the Edges
Liberty Lake, 1957
Liberty Lake, 1957 Details
The "old pit" on Park Avenue had a swimming beach on the east side. Various service clubs maintained the beach and provided a lifeguard who kept non-residents out. The area out from the beach had poles and ropes. From there you swam out to the raft on barrels, complete with a diving board and two ladders. It was considered quite a stunt to swim from the west side to the raft. Happily, nobody ever drowned doing it. Sometime after the war the river overflowed into the pit and that put at least a temporary end to swimming.


There was a baseball diamond at the northeast corner of Seventh and Rockland with a small set of bleachers. It was the site of several Libertyville Days which featured carnivals. They had "strongmen" who would show up the locals on lifting weights, taking bets in the process. There was always a device where you banged a hammer onto a plate that sent a marker up the pole. If you rang the bell you got a prize. From time to time the strongman would stroll over and quite casually ring the bell just to show the locals how easy it was. The carnivals sometimes had boxers or wrestlers who would take on and toy with adventurous locals. There was always a booth where you threw baseballs at pyramids of wooden "milk bottles," and always a "dip" where you threw at a target to drop a jeering shill into a tank of water. There was usually a booth where you threw darts at balloons and, of course, various rides like merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, and a device called the "tilt-a-whirl" that had a circular platform that went around, with small cars on tracks that also whirled, so you had two circular motions that sometimes were too much for sensitive stomachs.


For several years Libertyville Days and similar days were held at the Serbian Monastery on Milwaukee just south of Belvidere. There was a screened pavilion with a dance floor just across the river, served by a small bridge.


The village dump was just north of Rockland, close to the river. It had rats and people went down there to shoot, usually at night with spotlights. Like most dumps, it stunk.


Someplace down there near the river there was a spring that smelled of sulfur. It supposedly had medicinal qualities and some people actually drank from it. There was a circle of mounds called the "Indian Hills." They were reputed to be Indian burial mounds. Probably that was a story for kids. I remember asking my parents, my uncles and various adults and never getting what seemed to be a convincing answer.



Butler Lake, looking east, 1947
Butler Lake, looking east, 1947 Details
You could walk down Bull Creek to Butler Lake and along that creek to where it entered the Des Plaines with minor detours for houses and fences. Just south of Butler Lake where the high school now stands there was a nice little woods where we camped as Boy Scouts, close enough to home if anything went wrong. At some point in 1942 an anti-aircraft battery from the army camped there, gun muzzles pointed skyward. Probably the soldiers were joking with us as they let us look at the guns close-up. They wouldn't give any information because "enemy spies might be listening." We were impressed by their cooking equipment and the latrines, which none of us had ever thought of. This unit also had searchlights which were a spectacular sight, at least to small boys.


On at least a couple of occasions Libertyville "blacked out" for simulated air raids. Air raid wardens chastised those whose lights showed. Even then, an air raid seemed unlikely. On one occasion two FBI agents visited my father and by dint of my ear at the door I realized they were asking him and other trustworthy citizens to keep eyes and ears open for possible subversive activities. That seemed more plausible than possible air raids, but I never had any idea of how seriously adults took possible subversion.



St. Marys of the Lake Seminary
St. Marys of the Lake Seminary Details
The walker or biker had quick access to interesting areas outside of the village proper. St. Mary's of the Lake Seminary was perfect for biking. The lake was formed from a stream dammed. A handsome arched roadway led across the dam. There was a little waterfall into a kind of concrete catchment. Bull Creek began its course to Butler Lake there. The daring would fish from under the arches until run off by caretakers. Some really adventurous kids even swam there, titillated by the stories of lurking snapping turtles. At the other end of the lake two piers jutted out from a structure that held the remains of the Hines Lumber heir, who died in World War One. There was a fascinating powerhouse along Route 45 with an elevated track for coal cars.



Lake Minear, 1956
Lake Minear, 1956 Details
The county farm was on Milwaukee just north of town at Winchester Road. As a child, my mother lived just north of it and she told stories of inmates there calling out to kids as they walked to town for school. One man nicknamed "Rass" always called out the same message, "A big drum makes more noise than a little drum." Tellers of that story would shake their heads and say that the wrong people were locked up.


Before WWI the Des Plaines was still clean enough to swim in. Its real decline probably happened with the advent of municipal sewage systems and their pumping of effluent into the river. During the thirties the water was almost opaque and there were no fish except for carp. However, it was a great place to play. Woods ran solidly from Oak Spring to Buckley roads and that area was used for kids playing "fox and geese," especially when there was snow on the ground.


The "new gravel pit" along Oak Spring was a fascinating place. The pit operated intermittently with a huge dragline to scoop gravel from the bottom into small gravel cars hauled by a tiny steam locomotive onto an elevated roadbed where they were dumped onto a screen that sorted them for size before they went into the crusher.


The new pit was a great, forbidden place to swim. The water was a luminous clear green and there were really no beaches. You stepped into the water and dropped straight down. At one point there were a couple of tiny islands where swimmers could rest.


Bigger and braver boys jumped from the dragline boom feet first into the water. I went up, looked down, and retreated down the boom. I never saw anybody actually dive. There were huge, cone shaped piles of gravel, sorted by size, along the railroad siding. You could go to the top, jump off into the gravel below and slide to a gentle halt. There were also huge piles of sand. It was a great place to play until the yard men caught up with you. Loaded cars were hauled to the North Shore tracks, then to Rondout where they were switched to the Milwaukee Road or the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern belt line. The Milwaukee Road engines that served the freight siding and factories along Church didn't enter the gravel pit sidings, whether the two sets of sidings didn't connect or for safety reasons.



Foulds, 1957
Foulds, 1957 Details
On the edge of town was Foulds Milling where I worked Saturdays for several months in 1943, cleaning out the giant presses that mixed flour, eggs and water into dough which was forced through stainless steel dies to give the shapes. The spaghetti, noodles or whatever form was draped over racks which were then put into the drying ovens. Once dried it went to the second floor for packaging. At least one package went out with a worker's missing fingertip. Diligent search failed to find the missing joint and it was considered too costly to discard the whole batch, so some consumer must have had quite a shock.


At that time "the noodle college" put boxes of Kraft dinner which came packed with cheese, into cartons which were then covered with wax. They were designed to be thrown off landing craft and washed up onto invasion beaches. It wasn't until years later that I realized I'd never heard the word "pasta" at the noodle college. The generic term was "egg products."


In 1941 workers were at a premium and I jumped at the chance to work after school from four until midnight, carrying a time clock to be punched at various locations around the buildings. This was for fire insurance purposes. There was also a night watchman who carried a gun. It was spooky going into the cavernous basement to the clock key hanging in the darkest recesses. There was a separate office building with a key in the main office; no problem there because there were night lights. The other key was on the attic floor by an open freight elevator. On several occasions wags who had sneaked into the building would run the elevator up and down while I was in the dark attic. It was unnerving because the building was supposed to be empty at night.


A period went by with no practical jokes until one night when I got off on the attic floor which was lined with large crates and shrouded objects. Suddenly my flashlight revealed a huge man standing right by the passage. I let out a yell of shock and fear and involuntarily struck the figure with my light. There was a crash and the man lay on the floor. My light revealed the large straw man dummy that was used at picnics and social functions. When my legs stopped shaking I went back into the factory trying to act normal. Nobody ever said a word about the trick.


There was a large, open freight elevator in the main building which I sometimes used to get from floor to floor. It was often used by trysting lovers who took a little time for a fun break. When luck held you could run them up and down by using floor controls and gates that overrode passenger controls. It was great fun to keep the elevator bell ringing to draw attention. A really special trick was to stop the elevator between the floors so the hapless occupants had to wait for rescue and the resulting comments.


Even more fun were the nightly visits from the switch engine that brought freight cars to and from the main line at Rondout. The fireman came into the dock area to get fresh drinking water and we struck an informal deal. For an occasional carton of egg products he let me ride on the engine. When he was feeling generous he'd ask the engineer to let me blow the whistle. The big thrill was being allowed to shovel coal from the tender into the firebox, switch engines not having automatic stokers at that time. Probably railroads are a little more strict today.


This egg product idyll ended when I incurred the wrath of the manager, Jack "High Pockets" Jaeger. My sin was not sticking to the strict time clock schedule. He gave me strict orders not to try to enter the plant again. I never figured out why he thought I might want to.


My last job was at Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago, where I helped make Halazone tablets which went to the armed services for water purification.


For years my uncle, Murrell Suydam, lived across from the noodle college at Third and Church. He had a beagle named Jerry, who made an unearthly howl when the Foulds siren went off at eight in the morning, at noon and at four-thirty when the day shift ended. The siren also signaled for the volunteer firemen. Right before entering the service I visited my uncle and looked across at the factory, hoping I'd never work in one again and so it proved to be.


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