Some of the first people to call this region home include the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi Nations, in addition to the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac and Fox tribes who were also native to this area. They traveled through what is now known as Jefferson Park by several trails – one of the most notable being “Sand Ridge” which was formed by Lake Michigan when the shoreline was as far west as Jefferson Park. Today, the local Sand Ridge trail runs south along Milwaukee Avenue, through Jefferson Park, and continues toward Six Corners before it heads south to connect to another Native American trail at Grand Avenue.
In 1816, the native tribes surrendered a twenty-mile wide piece of land to the United States through the Treaty of St. Louis, which included a large portion of Chicago and its northern boundary (the “Indian Boundary Line”) which extends through Jefferson Park. The native people were forced to migrate north of this line and by 1833, they were forcibly removed from Illinois in the aftermath of the Black Hawk War. Despite a complicated history, both the American Indian and Jefferson Park communities acknowledge the importance of the land, now composed of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Since the 1990’s, Ho-Chunk Nation has been an integral part of the fabric of the community, and now headquartered at 4738 North Milwaukee Avenue.
In 1830, Elijah Wentworth Sr. became the proprietor of a tavern located on the west side of the Chicago River near Wolf Point. That year Elijah traveled eight miles northwest of Chicago, to a place called Sand Ridge. There, just south of the Northern Indian Boundary Line, he purchased land and built a two-story log tavern – making him the first resident and business owner of Jefferson Park. Originally The Wentworth Tavern, and later The Jefferson Hotel, it was located at the intersection of Milwaukee and Lawrence, in the space now occupied by Hoyne Bank. Except for a brief stay at Fort Dearborn during the Black Hawk War, Elijah Wentworth operated the business until 1844 when he sold the property to David L. Roberts.
By the end of the decade most of the plats in the area were sold, and in 1850 the local Board of Trustees petitioned the State of Illinois to become a township. “Jefferson” was chosen in honor of President Thomas Jefferson, after the Board learned that another Illinois town had recently claimed the name “Monroe” for President James Monroe. David L. Roberts, would become a key leader in the area, as a major landowner and proprietor, and a prominent member of the Jefferson Board of Trustees. He platted the village of Jefferson and by 1855 there were fifty buildings. Officially incorporated in 1872, the Township also included other villages, such as Irving Park and Bowmanville.
During the 1860’s, population grew and local businesses included two taverns, two dry goods stores, a drug store, several markets, and the newly formed Congregational Church of Jefferson. By 1870, the first township high school, Jefferson High School, was established in the town hall at Irving Park and Milwaukee Avenue. By 1883 it would find a permanent home at what is now known as The Irish Heritage Center at Wilson and Knox Avenues. Around this time, Jefferson Park became known as the “Gateway to Chicago” or the “Garden Gateway” due to the truck farms throughout the area. Farmers would drive their produce to Jefferson Park to sell to the residents and brought products to Chicago by way of Milwaukee Avenue. This ideal location made for a successful business district with a large community to support such commerce.
During those early years, most residents obtained their water from an artesian well at a property located at Higgins and Long Avenues, owned by the Henry Esdohr family. In operation until 1895, the well was 2,200 feet deep with a flow rate of 200 gallons per minute. This gave tremendous impetus to population growth and helped attract immigrants from Poland, Germany, and other European countries over the next several decades. In addition to providing fresh water, the Esdohr family played a prominent role in the community. Henry served as the Knight Templar for the Masons (his brother, Herman was the Lodge Master), was appointed as the first postmaster, and as treasurer of the school board; and in 1881, he was elected as City Clerk of the Town of Jefferson.
During the late 19th century, Chicago grew rapidly in both population and geography through the annexation of suburban communities at its boundaries. Residents petitioned in 1886 and three years later, Jefferson was annexed to Chicago along with Lakeview, Lake, and Hyde Park Townships. The 1889 initiative was the city’s largest single annexation with the addition of 125 square miles of property and 225,000 additional people, making Chicago the nation’s largest city by area and second in population. By this time, Jefferson Park had become active and prosperous, as it was linked to the City of Chicago by the Milwaukee and Elston Plank Roads. In operation since the 1850’s, these roads had been Native American Trails, and were later called the “Upper Plank” (Milwaukee) and “Lower Plank” (Elston). Both became toll roads with Jefferson Park having a tollgate at Milwaukee and Leland Avenues. Now part of Chicago, new methods of transportation and ease of travel soon arrived in Jefferson Park – streetcar tracks were laid on Lawrence Avenue in 1909, and in 1911 the tracks on Elston were extended all the way to Lawrence Avenue.
Transportation options and new city services attracted residents; and during this period, many first and second-generation immigrants from Poland, Germany, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Sweden settled in the area. The 1910-20’s saw an emergence of neighborhoods of frame cottages and brick bungalows, and on May 24, 1920 residents filed a petition with the County Court requesting the creation of a park district. After a majority vote the following month, the park district opened to the public in 1921.
Area development slowed in the mid-1950’s when residents began to migrate to the suburbs, in part due to the ease of commuting with the construction of major interstate highways that led directly to the Loop. When the Kennedy expressway was built, it actually cut the neighborhood in half – a devastating blow as hundreds of residents lost their homes and businesses. In 1970, the Chicago Transit Authority opened the Jefferson Park Transit Station, which now serves approximately 10,000+ commuters per day and is the start or end point for over 800 buses. The CTA station, along with the Kennedy Expressway, and the METRA now provide the community with a varied transportation network.
Today, Jefferson Park has grown to a population of almost 30,000 residents within a one-mile radius of the Milwaukee and Lawrence intersection. It is home to one of the largest Polish communities in Chicago, and more than 25% of the neighborhood has first or second generation ties to Poland. In 1979, the Copernicus Foundation established Chicago’s Polish Cultural Center in the heart of Jefferson Park – at what was once the Gateway Theatre on Lawrence Avenue (originally designed to show the first “talkies” in Chicago). In 2000, Jefferson Park became the artistic home for The Gift Theatre, where it has continued to thrive ever since.
Courtesy of Frank Seurth