Celery, Ceramics, and Conrad Sulzer | Feature | Chicago Reader

Celery, Ceramics, and Conrad Sulzer 

The story—or stories—of Lincoln Square and North Center

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the Aladdin’s Castle funhouse at Riverview in the 1950s

the Aladdin’s Castle funhouse at Riverview in the 1950s

Chuck Wlodarczyk

The Lincoln Square residents who gather each summer Tuesday at the neighborhood farmers' market, in the shadow of the el stop at Western Avenue just below Lawrence, are surely as familiar with another neighborhood amenity a few blocks southeast down Lincoln Avenue. But what few may know about their handsome regional library is that Conrad Sulzer, for whom it's named, was a Swiss immigrant who more than 160 years ago raised vegetables and flowers in fields a little further south and east, in the area now sometimes called Ravenswood.

Sulzer carted his produce into Chicago (which only came as far north as North Avenue) for sale, just as farmers from Indiana, Michigan, and rural Illinois today bring theirs to Lincoln Square.

By rights, Lincoln Square—and North Center to the south of it—could be known as Celeryville or Pickletown. By the mid-19th century some local farmers were boasting that they served as the celery capital of the United States. Other farmers, including the brothers Lyman and Joseph Budlong, grew cucumbers and other vegetables that they pickled at their factory at Lincoln and Berwyn. The growing German and Polish populations provided a ready market for the pickles, and the booming Budlong operations grew to include extensive greenhouses, which extended the local growing season.

Damen Avenue, looking north from Lawrence around 1890

Celeryville and Pickletown didn't make the cut, but if you were to tour the area bounded on the north by Peterson Avenue, on the east by Ravenswood, on the south by Diversey Avenue, and on the west by the Chicago River asking people where they live, you'd get a different answer almost every time. You'd hear Ravenswood, Welles Park, Saint Ben's, Bowmanville, Rosehill, and more. Those names persist, but in the 1920s sociologists from the University of Chicago surveyed the city with its Department of Public Health to identify "natural areas" that could be used for statistical purposes, and today's North Center and Lincoln Square became two of the 77 community areas defined by that campaign. Each was assembled from a cluster of dissimilar settlements, and each was profoundly shaped by the river, the railroads, and the elevated lines.

The land that farmers from England, Germany, and Luxembourg claimed in the 1840s had been Potawatomi fields. Lincoln Avenue was then Little Fort Road (its name a reference to its endpoint in Waukegan), traveled by farmers hauling their crops down to the city. When the Chicago and North Western Railroad laid the tracks in 1854 that would define the eastern boundary of North Center and Lincoln Square, farmers began to send their crops into Chicago by rail.

The railroad also led to the establishment of one of the Chicago area's first commuter suburbs. In 1868 the Ravenswood Land Company, formed by a group of Chicago businessmen, began acquiring acreage—including 40 acres from the Sulzer estate—on either side of the railroad around Wilson Avenue. The company subdivided the land, put up the Sunnyside Hotel to attract visitors, and put in a station to serve workers with jobs downtown. They were speculating, but they wagered well: lots that sold for $4 to $8 a foot in 1869 were worth between $20 and $30 a foot in 1874.

click to enlarge Conrad Sulzer in the 1860s

Everett Chamberlin, a local real estate agent who in 1874 wrote a book called Chicago and Its Suburbs, listed Ravenswood as one of the area's up-and-coming communities and noted that it had 75 commuters making the 20-minute trip into Chicago. In the decades after the Civil War Ravenswood's wealthy businessmen—among them wholesale grocers, manufacturers, real estate agents, and lawyers—kept pace with Hyde Park, Irving Park, Evanston, Oak Park, and Hinsdale by building two- and three-story Queen Anne and Victorian frame houses complete with indoor plumbing. In 1898, when Arthur Tebbets and Frank M. Simons published a History of Ravenswood, they described the area as "one of the finest suburbs in the city." Walk today along Wilson, Kedzie, Leland, or Greenview and you'll see some of these homes.

One stop north of Ravenswood, another development had been launched in 1859. In the second half of the 19th century cemeteries were being established away from the city center along streetcar, interurban, and railroad lines; mourners would travel to burial plots on special funeral trains, and taverns and restaurants outside the cemetery gates offered them food and drink, and shelter in the winter. The fortuitously misspelled Rosehill stop—the name came from Roe's Hill, a patch of land owned by local tavern keeper Hiram Roe—gave its name to a cemetery that grew until it covered almost the entire northwest quadrant of Lincoln Square.

Industry was growing along the Chicago River as well. By the 1880s, the Deering Harvester Works (on a site that included what is now the Julia Lathrop Homes), the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, and several brickyards were clustered around the river north of Diversey. Workers' frame cottages, saloons, groceries, and churches soon followed. Nowadays, not only the cottages but many of the factories house the residents who moved into the area as industry moved out late in the 20th century.

In 1879, a little farther north, at Belmont, a club of Prussian war veterans created a picnic grove and rifle range along the river's east bank. Locals knew it as Sharpshooters Park. Over time, a bandstand, a dance pavilion, and food concessions were added, and the park opened to the public as a beer garden. Then rides and other attractions changed it once again—into Riverview Sharpshooters Park. Eventually, its more than 100 rides included the 212-foot-high parachute drop and the Bobs roller coaster, and it drew people from across the region for family outings, company picnics, and church fund-raisers. It finally shut down after its 1967 season. Today, the Area Three police headquarters, DeVry Institute of Technology, and a shopping center occupy the site.


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