Chi Lives: in the land of the fire makers | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Chi Lives: in the land of the fire makers 

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Ed Lace's guided walk through "Evanston's Potawatomi Past" begins and ends in the Kendall College parking lot. On the fringes of the blacktop, just past the encampment of Toyotas and Hondas and Jeeps, he points out the plants that would and would not have been here when the earliest Americans arrived: "Locusts, no; Chinese elm, no; ginkgo, yes, if you go back far enough--say 250 million years." Graceful white birch, like the one we pass in a yard up the street on Colfax, were used to make canoes--but not in Illinois. Around here, the canoes were dugouts, he says. "And see the shoot coming up at the bottom of that linden? The Indians would use those shoots to make baskets. They'd be green and supple, big as my thumb. Split 'em five times."

On the corner of Colfax and Ridge, with a river of traffic rushing past, Lace stops. "This Ridge road was regarded by the early settlers as 'Low Ridge,'" he says. "'High Ridge' is the Ridge road we have on the other side of town. Between the two, and ending right up in here, was a big swamp, a little like the Skokie marshes. Until the North Shore channel was dug, it was very wet, and it was good hunting ground. The edges of the marsh were rich soil and were used as farmland. So the Indians lived along these ridges." He points to a green-shuttered yellow frame house on the corner of Ridge and Lincoln. "According to the records, right where this house is was an Indian village--probably Miami, who were here before the Potawatomi came."

The Potawatomi--"fire makers"--came to the Chicago area in the 18th century. Allies of the French, especially of French Creole traders, they were pushed in this direction from the north by the British allies, the Iroquois. "But we don't really know who was here all the time, because Indians moved around a lot," Lace continues. "They would stay in one place till they used up all the energy, which was wood, then they'd pack up and move someplace else. In those days there was a lot of cottonwood and aspen here. Aspen especially burned hot and fast and made very little smoke, so it was great for cooking."

Lace is an elder now, a weathered storyteller for whom a green shoot or a piece of limestone is a path to another world. A self-taught naturalist and historian who became Cook County's chief archaeologist, his own past includes a boyhood of scouting and a lifelong passion for the outdoors. A biology teacher at Chicago's Harper High School, impressed with Lace's promise, offered to pay his tuition at the U. of C. But by the time he graduated, in 1942, America was six months into World War II and everyone's priorities had shifted. Instead of going to college, Lace trained as an electrician, married, and had a family. For 16 years he worked in one of modern culture's most interior environments--as an elevator mechanic for Marshall Field's. In his free time he moonlighted as a naturalist for the Boy Scouts, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and the Cook County Forest Preserve District. He was working in a Marshall Field's on the day President Kennedy was shot, and it became a personal turning point. The Forest Preserve District had been making overtures to him--offers of a full-time job that would pay less than he made at Field's. He didn't think he could afford the step-down in salary, but that day, with the assassination playing on every screen in the television department and store security trying to clear the area, he decided, "I'm out of here." He worked at the Forest Preserve for the next quarter century--first as director of the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, then as director of the Sand Ridge Nature Center. During that time he cataloged more than 700 archaeological sites in the county and became the authority academics turned to when they needed to know something about early local history.

Lace heads north on Ridge: "According to all the old maps, that marsh ended about Central Street here in Evanston," he says. "It was a huge triangle--the base of it reached to Foster Avenue in Chicago." Crossing Central, he continues north, pointing out a rock behind a tree on the grounds of Evanston Hospital. The rock bears an inscription: "This stone marks the site of an ancient Indian village and chipping station last occupied by Potawatomi who were removed from the area in 1835"--code for the land-grabbing treaties and forced relocations that wiped the Potawatomi off the local map. This is said to have been the last Potawatomi village in the area, Lace says, adding that he doesn't agree. "The last one was probably in the Berwyn-Lyons area, where there was a freshwater spring."

Lace says he learned all this by "taking a lot of walks with people who knew." The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, part of Kendall College, offers a chance to walk with him this Sunday, August 13, from 1 PM to about 3 PM. "Evanston's Potawatomi Past" is free; meet at the college parking lot, 2408 Orrington in Evanston. Call 847-475-1030 for more information.

--Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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