It Started With a Farm | Feature | Chicago Reader

It Started With a Farm 

How Logan Square became the neighborhood it is today

Twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher Martin Kimbell blew into town from upstate New York in 1836. Andrew Jackson was president, the Potawatomi had been fought out and bought out of northern Illinois, and footloose young Yankees were turning Chicago into a go-getter city. Kimbell supposedly rejected land at Dearborn and Lake as "a damned mudhole"—the story's so good I fear for its truth—and instead staked his claim to 160 acres five miles northwest. There he raised a crop of hay, the gasoline of the 1836 transportation system, and that was the start of what we now call Logan Square.

Today the Van Phat Chinese restaurant and a Foot Locker occupy the northeast corner of what was Kimbell's farm, right at the suicide corners of Milwaukee, Kimball, and Diversey. The traffic, fast and heavy, might have pleased Kimbell. No subsistence farmer, he struggled to haul his hay and produce across country that was soggy even in dry weather and impassable for months in the spring. His challenge was being able to move at all.

By the early 1840s a confusing network of trails ran northwest from the center of Chicago in what's now the Milwaukee Avenue corridor. The state legislature granted a petition to have a road surveyed there. George Powell ran an inn where Milwaukee and Armitage cross today, and the story goes that he promised the surveying crew wine, whiskey, and a good dinner if the road came his way. A few years later, three-inch oak boards were laid across the dirt path the surveyers had defined to create the Northwest Plank Road, which eventually ran 23 miles from downtown Chicago to Wheeling. Somehow it comes as no surprise that the tolls charged (two-and-a-half cents a mile in 1881) outlasted the planks.

Logan Square didn't exist as a neighborhood or even a square in Kimbell's day. Beginning in 1850, the relevant political unit was Jefferson Township, stretching west of Western and north of North Avenue. What few public services the township provided to its scattered settlements were usually financed by special assessment. The Chicago Fire of 1871—or rather, its political aftermath—jump-started its journey from foodshed to suburb to urbanity.

Kimbell's fellow Yankees were in charge of what was left of the city, and they proposed to make it safe from future fires by outlawing wood structures. German immigrants fought the law (wood was all they could afford), and when it passed anyway, some of them moved out to Jefferson Township to build as they pleased. That's right—long before there were University of Chicago economists to explain it, Logan Square showed that when government decrees one thing it often accomplishes something quite different.

There were other reasons to look to Jefferson. Factories were going up at the western edge of what would become Logan Square and at the northeast edge along the railroad. Since land was safer than most bank deposits, some workers bought lots even before they could build. But farming was still big. In 1874, one of George Powell's sons sold 600 bushels of cherries from his five-acre lot on Western. And according to Northern Illinois University historian Barbara Posadas, another family employed seven workers to turn locally grown cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and cauliflower into pickles, catsup, and Worcestershire sauce.

As Jefferson Township grew, its residents began to demand Chicago comforts like water, sewerage, and, yes, fire protection. In Chicago History magazine, Posadas quotes one Fred Salsgeher, who wrote to the Tribune in 1887: "We are all poor workmen . . . [who] can't afford to insure for the full amount. . . . I don't wish to come home from the city some evening and find my house all burnt up."

After annexing the township in 1889, Chicago's City Hall upgraded Milwaukee Avenue to wood-block pavement, but it also renamed local streets. According to a neighborhood history written by Katherine Janega and printed by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in 1979, "Powell Street became Campbell, Byrne was changed to Spaulding, Ballou to St. Louis, Dunning to Altgeld." Shockingly, Kimbell became Kimball. Martin's son Charles, a peppery character, "was so incensed by the altered spelling that he went out in his horse-drawn wagon, paintbrush and bucket in hand, and reinserted the 'e' in Kimbell on every street sign from Armitage to Diversey."

As this story suggests, Logan Square wasn't overburdened with clout even then. Ever since that first influx of Yankees, most of its residents have been immigrants, hardworking people who cherish their native tongues. First there were Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes; then Poles and Russian Jews; now Latinos.

Annexation heralded Logan Square's boom years as stores and houses replaced the remaining farms. The 1890s were to transportation as the 1990s were to computers. Cable cars replaced horse cars in 1890 and electric streetcars replaced cable in 1906. Meanwhile, the northwest branch of the Metropolitan Elevated began running trains to Logan Square on May 25, 1895. Transit generally followed a path laid down in Indian times, but the city's boulevard system, designed in the 1860s and built in pieces over the next three decades, was something new. The generously proportioned boulevards attracted elegant houses, the side streets filled with modest homes and apartments for workers, and everybody shopped on the commercial streets. Rich and poor lived side by side; diversity was built into the neighborhood from this point on.

The boulevard mansions were built with new money, often by immigrants. Entrepreneur John Rath came from Austria as a boy in 1884 and made his name and fortune in high-quality cooperage (barrel manufacturing). In 1907 he was able to hire Prairie School architect George Maher to design his home at the southwest corner of Logan Boulevard and Washtenaw (see Lynn Becker's story about Logan Square architecture). The city landmarked the house in 1993 and the boulevards themselves in 2005.

The neighborhood's signature square was named for John A. Logan, an immensely popular Civil War general who'd helped keep Illinois in the Union. A native of what's now Murphysboro, he was the founder of Memorial Day, served for years in Congress, and tried for vice-president in 1884 as James G. Blaine's running mate. He died in 1886, just as the west-side boulevards and squares were being realized. The focal point of his square didn't arrive until 1918, an elegant classical column marking the centennial of Illinois' statehood.

Because they were paved, the boulevards were often used for bicycle races. In May 1896 a crowd of hundreds gathered at Logan Square to watch racers make the difficult turn from northbound Milwaukee onto southbound Humboldt. A few blocks south, at 2128 N. Humboldt, the cyclists passed the home of Ignaz Schwinn, an immigrant who'd made good building bikes and motorcycles.

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