Pretty much this whole Pizza Hound thing has been about mystery and the joy of discovery. It has been about seeking out delicious pizza, but also about learning about the people and places in all corners of Chicago. While on the one hand outwardly focused, the process has often been, on the other hand, honestly, conducted in a bubble. The routine of anonymous trips in and out neighborhoods and towns (some familiar and some not) arriving to look around, pick up an order, chat a bit (if at all), then leave to enjoy the pizza at home, can be pretty effective to a degree. All the while we endeavor to be friendly, pay attention, and observe, leaving the drive home and next day to wonder about where just quickly slipped in and out. But as one might guess, this process does not always work entirely well. Sometimes we leave with more mystery than discovery. For so long, we’ve tried to understand one of our favorite destinations, Hegewisch, merely through these glimpses. Instead, the neighborhood always left us slightly perplexed, leading us to rely on the same cliches of isolation and insularity that writers have applied to the community for years. Then one day we had a strong suspicion we had no idea what we were talking about.
We had to do something about that feeling because Pudgy’s is the pizza that started this whole thing, and its place in Hegewisch made it an ultimate destination. Like most of the communities Ernie and I have visited, we’re not from Hegewisch and we’ve never lived there. We’ve studied it and thought about it a lot. We’ve read a few books and articles about it, too. But in the few of those that are out there, most of the time Hegewisch is presented on the periphery of the story, not at the center, which left us feeling like we didn’t really know what the neighborhood was all about.
There may be reasons for that. Honestly, despite your best intentions, Hegewisch, has a way of reminding you that you are an outsider. Insularity and isolation are not completely off-base. Maybe that isolation from the rest of Chicago does help define it. Maybe residents are guarded from dealing with all those academics who traveled there in the 1970s and 1980s to examine the devastating effects of steel industry’s shocking decline–and the lack of positive results that came from all of those studies. It could be that Hegewisch is really just a small town like any other that isn’t used to visitors without an agenda; a community that only appears in literature and Google searches because of its presence within the Chicago city limits. Or just as likely it’s from an ingrained culture of hard work and modest successes, where there’s not too much that impresses you, especially not a North Sider showing up for pizza. “Don’t you have that up there? O-kaay…” We get that.
So, from time to time, we kind of thought we weren’t. . .welcome.
Or maybe we were wrong.
Even when we felt like outsiders, we always saw signs that Hegewisch is the kind of place that if you tried, stayed, and actually proved that you gave a damn, a special world would be revealed to you. Just talk to someone who grew up in the community and truly loves it, and you’ll realize it can be a friendly welcoming place where the people are justifiably proud of their history. We were lucky enough to do just that.
But it took us awhile to get to that point.
It’s hard to know where to begin with Hegewisch. If you aren’t from there, then there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it (which seems to be a theme expressed in almost everything written about the neighborhood over the last 130-plus years–when something is written at all). If you didn’t grow up there, there’s a good chance you mispronounce its name, too (“wish,” not “wich”). But it is also hard to know how to understand Hegewisch. The weight of the Second City, perhaps, makes doing so seem more important than trying to get at the heart of any one of the thousands of America’s small towns. And when the questions start, they really never stop: Where? Why is it there, so far from the world-famous skyline and the neighborhoods that so many people know as the city? It’s not downtown, it’s. . .uptown? Wait. . .we’re still in Chicago?
Surrounded by lakes, rivers, marshes, active and dead industrial sites, railroad tracks, highways, other Chicago neighborhoods, independent Illinois cities, and even the Indiana border, Hegewisch is about 16.5 miles from the tourist hordes that pack the Loop and the Magnificent Mile on a daily basis. It is–with South Chicago, South Deering, and East Side–one of the four relatively-distant major communities that make up the traditional Southeast Side, a place where the emergence of great industrial factories brought numerous different ethnic and religious groups that have mixed for decades and decades, building their own institutions and communities within the communities. But even in that section of the city, Hegewisch has always been something of an outlier. The furthest south and the most secluded of all the neighborhoods, Hegewisch was for a long time perhaps the least diverse neighborhood in that section of the city, resisting demographic change longer than many parts of the region, too. Despite this, in the last decade and a half Hegewisch has evolved, though at a pace relatively slow compared to the shifts seen in other urban neighborhoods in Chicago. Very few places in the urban form of the Midwestern metropolis–a place were neighborhoods are in a constant state of flux, where major changes commonly occur from decade to decade, year to year–have exhibited such a tension between change and stasis, making it difficult to know whether the theme Hegewisch’s existence is one of consistency or exactly the opposite.
So, is it an independent small town, or an urban community within Chicago, south of the Skyway?
The first time Ernie and I headed to Hegewisch and to Pudgy’s was a few years ago. Previous trips to Southeast Chicago had been made to enjoy unique crunchy fried tacos at the now-shuttered Mexican Inn on the East Side and doughnuts at the Calumet Bakery in South Deering. Quick trips had been made to farther south to Hegewisch before, too. We found a quiet small community that gave us more questions than answers, but you could say we were smitten, due in no little part to the fact that Hegewisch had a lot of local pizzeria options at that time. There was Pucci’s, Doreen’s, Mancini’s, and a place called Pudgy’s. Pucci’s was the first pizza place we had seen in the neighborhood, so that was our original choice for our first pizza in Hegewisch. We kept thinking about one of the other places, though. Pudgy’s. . .something about that one. What a perfect name. How on Earth could the pizza not be fantastic?
So, by time the Pizza Hound and I had made our first trip to Hegewisch specifically for pizza in our 1999 white Ford Escort, we had adjusted course toward Pudgy’s. We had a good feeling about it. And while we had managed to locate Hegewisch and Pudgy’s on a map, we still had to do some careful planning to get there. If we hadn’t, we may have never made it. Difficulty and even mishaps have long been part of the traveling-to-remote-Hegewisch narrative.
We just needed to get away, so we took a long casual Saturday afternoon drive that turned into night by the time we completed our journey. We didn’t have much money, either, so we had to dig through the record collection to fund the trip. (Goodbye, original copy of Voices of East Harlem.) Now, we could have just flown down the absolutely manic Dan Ryan, then taken the exit at 130th Street and headed east to Torrence and Brainard avenues, but of course we like to make our pizza trips in dramatic fashion. So, we drove through the hustle and bustle of downtown, then hopped on the relatively docile Lake Shore Drive. After Hyde Park and Jackson Park, we drove through the mid-rise apartments and former motels of the South Shore neighborhood, and once we hit 79th Street–the beginning of South Chicago and the traditional Southeast Side–we continued on South Shore Drive through South Chicago past numerous two- and three-flat houses, some storefronts, and a church or two, including St. Michael the Archangel, a former Polish parish that provided a then-unrecognized clue to the history and culture of our ultimate destination. We can’t remember if the new extension of Lake Shore Drive was open at the time–the part that hurtles you through the old U.S. Steel South Works site in South Chicago along the lakefront–but nevertheless we continued the way we had in past trips. And with a few turns, we crossed a bridge over the Calumet River and ended up on on Ewing Avenue, a main drag on the East Side.
The great Skyway Doghouse is on Ewing, and Phil’s Kastle, a diner that’s home to delicious hamburgers, is just around the corner on 95th Street. From there, the famed Calumet Fisheries is about a quarter-mile to the west. We kept heading south on Ewing, though, traveling beneath the massive Chicago Skyway, the namesake for the hot dog stand we had just seen, passing the main location of Pucci’s as well as a number of East Side storefronts. While expressing nuanced differences, it still essentially felt like we were in a neighborhood of Chicago, though far removed from where we had been just about fifteen minutes earlier. Pedestrians were still fairly common, and there were a lot of cars, too. Traffic can really back up on the main thoroughfares during certain times of the day. The Indiana border was very close, fittingly, just to the east down Indianapolis Avenue. We stayed in Illinois, though, and at 106th Street we made a right and headed west until we hit Avenue O, where we headed south to begin the last leg of our trip.
A former tavern at 106th and Avenue O? Look at those rounded windows! Turn left at the corner store. . .
Are you still with us?
We ask, because to get to Hegewisch, you probably really have to know where you are going. Either that or you are just incredibly lost. You probably won’t find a sign directing you there, and locating it on a map might prove unfruitful.
A closer look at our map. . .Hegewisch is not listed. See that triangle in middle? Right around there.
There just aren’t very many roads that lead directly there, either. The Southeast Side is full of hidden passages, though. If you look closely enough, you can find the one that serves as the pathway to your destination. Avenue O is somewhat like that. It passes many tidy bungalows, some of the cutest in Chicago, in fact.
Rows and rows of them.
We then passed George Washington High School and a sign for the First Savings Bank of Hegewisch, though we weren’t yet to our destination. We also saw a newer suburban-style development with a large new grocery market, a couple of fast food restaurants, and a handful of other stores. Interestingly, a rusted, decaying industrial building can be found just across the street to the south, contrasting with the strip mall, big box development that is often rather busy. Two versions of America, facing one another.
But the biggest shock is on the western side of Avenue O. There’s a stark emptiness to behold. Not so much empty, per se, but noticeably lacking something. . .something that was once there.
Rather than more rows of single-family homes or a peaceful nature scene to admire, one cannot help but note what was once there for so long. The gigantic lot is somewhat overgrown, marshy-looking with a number of interspersed trees. Some of buildings in the distance once housed several large industries. Currently, the site may be home to some active business establishments during the day–just a fraction of what was once there–but in the dark of night it can look a little frightening. In the distance stands a few lonely buildings. So lonely that my friend once quipped that there could be some guy sitting in a chair, tied up, with a light bulb just above, all the while being interrogated by a mob boss or secret government agent.
Just before 116th Street, a faded, dirty sign reads “LTV Steel.”
At this point, we were not yet to the main part of Hegewisch, but no doubt many residents of Hegewisch traveled to this site for work. Or at least some of their ancestors did after they left their homes in Europe, Mexico, or the American South just a couple of generations ago. Despite the grueling work that was once done at this site–and despite its relative emptiness now–for about a century it was considered by many to be a jumping off point to a better, brighter future. We would even meet someone special who would say he thought those days would never end. They did, though, and today, the lot is a fading reminder of what once was. . .a scar that has not fully healed.
It is also the site of one of the most infamous days in labor history. LTV for much of its existence was known as Republic Steel.
In 1937, after the Congress of Industrial Organization’s (CIO) Steel Workers Organizing Committee spearheaded the Little Steel strike, police confronted sympathetic marchers on the Republic Steel property. Tensions ran high and violence ensued.
Ten marchers lost their lives and many more were injured. The event, dubbed the Memorial Day Massacre, garnered nationwide news coverage as well as the attention of Congress. Previously suppressed film footage confirmed the marchers’ account of the bloody events.
A steel sculpture commissioned by Republic Steel, once located on the mill site near Burley Avenue, sits at the corner of Avenue O and 117th Street. Though it has ten metal bars–ostensibly to honor the ten victims–the company claimed they actually represented the four cardinal directions and the six steel districts. Just a half block south, a plaque honors the strikers–“martyrs – heroes – unionists”– that were killed that day by name, leaving no doubt to its intentions.
The massacre was not forgotten locally–it was even fictionalized to critical acclaim in Meyer Levin‘s novel, Citizens–and its memory played a large role in labor/management relations in the following decades. Ceremonies were held each year to commemorate the bloody event.
The Steel Workers Organizing Committee was a precursor to the United Steelworkers of America (USW). Local 1033, just one of several union locals representing workers in the region, served the Republic Steel rank and file until the mill’s closure.
The leadership of Local 1033 published newsletters to the members updated on current issues facing the union.
Never forgetting the massacre, union members were often prepared to strike if workplace demands were not met.
In the 1960s, the view from Republic Steel entrance sign looked much different than today.
With the steel industry thriving, a new union hall was dedicated.
Through many economic ups and downs, overtime and occasional layoffs, steel mills like Republic could be depended upon for employment and stability for generations.
But by the early 2000s, all the mills in Southeast Chicago were gone. The building still stands, but with no steel to produce, there’s no need for steelworkers to meet. A church now occupies the building. The solemn marker remains, easily missed as drivers fly down Avenue O. Nevertheless, the history of local steel production is essential to understanding the economy and culture of Southeast Chicago, including Hegewisch. As a testament to this, retired steelworkers still meet in the church hall once a month.
If we didn’t keep going, we may have mistakenly concluded that we had reached the end of Chicago, because here the city doesn’t blend into a suburb as it does in many of its other corners; it just kind of fades away. Or does it? Did we pick the wrong hidden passage? We must have made a wrong turn at some point, right? Was the mythical Hegewisch really down the road at all? We kept going, knowing it was worth it. At one point, we saw an automotive parts manufacturing plant on the right with a number cars surrounding it showing that industry is still alive on the Southeast Side. But on the left, we saw an indication of the area’s even longer history: the William W. Powers State Recreation Area which, along with other nature preserves point to area’s distant past–and present–as a natural wonderland. The prehistoric Lake Chicago covered the area about 13,000 years ago, as the glaciers of the ice age receded. The area was still completely covered by the waters of Lake Michigan just 1,100 years ago. As recently as a century ago, much of the land where this lonely section of Avenue O is located was covered by Hyde Lake, a body of water just to the west of Wolf Lake (and a cause for some fun exploring). When streetcar service lines connected Hegewisch to South Chicago and the East Side, the tracks had to be built over the water.
There’s a bit of curve around 126th Street that you notice when driving the route, but the bottom two-thirds of yellow line provides a rough idea of today’s current Avenue O.
But the glow from the Indiana Tollway as well as heavily polluting factories and refineries from the other side of Wolf Lake reminded us of how tainted the environment of the Calumet Region has become in just a relatively short century and a half. There are large slag heaps over just to the west of Avenue O, too, where Republic steel used to dump its waste. Many on the Southeast Side are working to restore and appreciate the natural ecosystem. While the days of industry in Southeast Chicago have left a major imprint on the region’s identify, in the great scheme of things, the days of steel may just be a blip.
Then after miles and miles we traveled from the North Side (and what seemed like many more). . .small, tidy homes appeared, one after another.
We made it. Hegewisch was real.
And we were quickly reminded why we had been looking for this place for so long. Honestly, though, if had not carefully planned out our route or made a wrong turn, we may not have found Hegewisch this time at all.
We turned right on 133rd Street, right after Pucci’s, a place that in retrospect, did more for us to wonder about pizza and history throughout the city than any other thing. It is also a place, we would learn much later, that would help connect the history of pizza in Hegewisch to its present. If we remember correctly, it was still open on one of our first visits to the neighborhood. Sadly, by the time of our official pizza trip, Pucci’s had been shuttered for good. Perhaps two locations were unsustainable in the area. Its closure served as a subtle reminder that parts of the Southeast Side had been open for business, often thriving under the industrialized economy of the twentieth century. They had held on for so long, in many cases years after many large industries had left or closed. Then, with little fanfare, they slowly faded away.
Just like in other parts of the city, we saw lines of houses on a strict grid and the occasional Chicago Transit Authority bus stop sign. But when we crossed those railroad tracks, it was like entering Small Town, America circa 1950.
Those little idiosyncrasies make the history and character of Hegewisch unique enough to be worthy of a closer look.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
The history of human settlement in and around the area of present-day Hegewisch is relatively short. It was only a thousand years ago that Lake Michigan receded from the area, leaving wetlands that were used for hunting, fishing, and trade routes by American Indians of the Potawatomi nation. Some have suggested that Father Jacques Marquette actually camped between the Grand Calumet and Little Calumet rivers at Hegewisch in the winter of 1674-75 rather than doing so on the portage between the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers (the exact location, however, remains a matter of debate). The Potawatomi left the area in large numbers after the signing of the Treaty of Chicago in 1833. Around the same time, Chicago, then a small village, incorporated as a town then as a city a few years later. Its subsequent growth led to the incorporation of surrounding areas, including the town of Hyde Park, which included the not-yet-founded area of Hegewisch, in the 1860s. As recalled by Henrietta Gibson, her father, David Combs purchased an inn and a farm in the early 1850s along a stagecoach line in Hyde Park’s far southeast corner. Well into the 1850s, she recalled a playing with Potawatomi children in the area. Later in that decade, rail companies looking to connect various cities to the growing Chicago market used immigrant labor to construct railroads through the area, setting the stage for the area’s development in the coming century and a half.
Recognizing the advantages of the natural waterways and the opportunities offered by rail lines in Southeast Chicago, a number of heavy industries built factories in the area. One of the them was the United States Rolling Stock Co., a railroad car manufacturing firm. In 1883, Adolph Hegewisch, president of the company, commissioned the purchase of land in the far southeast corner of the Hyde Park township right at the Indiana border that included the Combs farm. There, at the meeting point of railroads a new car factory was built, replacing the company’s factory located on Chicago’s Lower West Side at Blue Island and Robey (now Damen) Avenues (the factory’s location is often erroneously listed as Blue Island, Illinois). He envisioned a town that would be a regional center of industry.
The car works for the United States Rolling Stock Co. were planned clearly before their construction. Wood-working, erecting, and painting shops, as well as a car truck shop, a blacksmith shop, an engine repair shop, and a machine shop, where iron work was done, were each important facets of the factory. Various cranes, pits, lathes, furnaces, and specialized machines were used throughout the works, and rail lines connected different shops. There was also a foundry divided into three sections: a wheel foundry, a general foundry, and a brass foundry. The U.S. Rolling Stock facilities also included offices and a drafting rooms. Thus, the factory provided numerous opportunities for different types of work for those with specialized skills and for those who possessed no prior experience whatsoever alike.
Just eight years earlier, in 1875, Joseph Brown built the first heavy industry, a steel mill about four miles north of the Rolling Stock Co. works.
Brown’s mill eventually evolved into Wisconsin Steel, one of the most important employers in the region.
Other large industries soon followed, particularly more steel mills.
In 1880, the North Chicago Rolling Mill Co. built their South Works steel mill in South Chicago along Lake Michigan north of the mouth of the Calumet River.
The South Works mill became the largest employer in Southeast Chicago, and was later owned by Illinois Steel, then Carnegie-Illinois Steel, and finally U.S. Steel.
More steel mills and foundries would be built in the next few decades, including Grand Crossing Tack Co., the future Republic Steel. Iroquois Furnace Co., later Iroquois Steel, and Youngstown Sheet & Tube after that, opened a facility in South Chicago in the 1890s, as well.
Industrialists also built mills across the state line, including Inland Steel in East Chicago and, by the early 1900s, U.S. Steel‘s Indiana Steel, or Gary Works. The region surrounding Hegewisch and the Rolling Stock factory showed signed of becoming an industrial center, where hard, dangerous labor was a way of life.
Many of the factory’s workers were immigrants who came to Hegewisch to build a better life for themselves. Recognizing an opportunity to provide workforce stability for his factory and profit on real estate, Adolph Hegewisch purchased acreage north of the factory site with the intention to build and sell houses to his factory workers, which he predicted to be numbered in the thousands. Thus, Adolph (sometimes listed as Achilles) Hegewisch’s subsequent namesake town intentionally rose from the Calumet marshes as a workers’ community in the vein of the nearby–and more famous–Pullman. Unlike Pullman, where the Pullman Car Company exerted tight control over local housing, workers in Hegewisch typically owned their homes.
Adolph Hegewisch’s Hegewisch Land Co. tasked the real estate firm of Bogue & Hoyt, with the physical development of the Hegewisch community. Bogue & Hoyt was previously responsible for subdivisions in the Kenwood and Woodlawn sections of the Hyde Park Township, and, later, another industrial subdivision near the Grant Locomotive Works in Cicero. Preparing for service-sector economic development that would accompany new workers and residents, South Chicago Avenue, the main commercial street in the newly-platted community, would be paved at no cost to new home buyers.
Many of the earliest lot owners came from other parts of Chicago, and some stayed for the rest of their lives. The first lot owner in the Hegewisch plat, John Harris, moved to the section from Pullman when the area was mostly swampland. Harris and his wife reportedly often tied their daughter, Irene Harris Frishkorn, the first child born in the community, to a tree with a rope so she would not get lost the marshy wilderness. Harris, who was listed in early directories, lived in the community until he was 84 years old. (Hammond Times, January 5, 1940) Still, some residents moved in and out of Hegewisch relatively quickly, not showing Harris’s lifelong commitment to the town. Adolph Hegewisch did not, however, live locally. Instead, he called New York home, a fact that fit with the local community’s ideal as a perfect home for the common workingman.
Many of the street names listed in the 1889 directory changed in the following decades. Superior is now Burley Avenue. Hegewisch Avenue became Ontario and, later, Brandon. South Chicago Avenue, after a few years as Erie Avenue, received its current name, Baltimore Avenue, in 1913. The Strand referred to the entry to Hegewisch for Ernie and me, today’s Avenue O.
Settlers in the late 19th century came from many countries, and included many German, Irish, and Swedish residents, with each group building or supporting churches. Germans founded Trinity Lutheran Church at 132nd and today’s Burley Avenue in 1887. St. Columba was founded in 1884 as territorial Catholic parish that was often associated with the Irish Catholic community. Local Swedes founded Lebanon Lutheran in 1896. Hegewisch also included Poles, Serbs, Slovaks, Croats, Czechs, and among others. Despite the diversity of new residents coming mostly from Europe, the community failed to reach Adolph Hegewisch’s population projection of 10,000 people within two years, and his dreams of constructing two grand canals never materialized.
The U.S. Rolling Stock Co., through some headache-inducing corporate ins and outs due in part the Hegewisch factory’s initially unspectacular business performance, was purchased in the early 1900s by the Western Steel Car Company, a subsidiary of the Pittsburgh-based Pressed Steel Car Co. Keeping the names straight can get pretty exhausting, though one researcher, Eric A. Neubauer, has managed to sort it out. Nonetheless for decades the car factory located on the southwestern edge of Hegewisch between Howard (later Brainard) Avenue and the Calumet River and later known simply as Pressed Steel provided jobs in one form or another for thousands of local residents and helped define the culture of the community.
In 1889, just six years after the founding of the town, the huge, rapidly growing city of Chicago annexed the Hyde Park Township, which included the very young and quiet community of Hegewisch.
Without the factory, the Hegewisch likely would not have been founded, making the town’s orderly development seemingly a secondary concern at first. But soon enough residents of Hegewisch demanded better services, especially after the town was annexed by Chicago. They felt particularly neglected by the city at the same time the neighborhood was experiencing economic success in the early 1900s. The community, just as today, was rarely recognized. Most Chicagoans did not know where it was nor had ever heard of it, so why should they do anything to help it?
The remoteness of Hegewisch was a common theme expressed by residents and observers of the community. One reporter’s description of arriving in Hegewisch in 1905 highlighted the mystery and eventual second guessing that occurred while traveling to the area located so far from busy, densely-populated central Chicago and bustling surrounding neighborhoods. “When the train finally leaves the Englewood station the passenger knows he is really on the way to Hegewisch.” Englewood itself was several miles from downtown. To get to Hegewisch, one had to travel much farther south. “Glimpses of pretty suburbs, clubhouses, and spacious training grounds claim his attention as the train gathers speed,” continued the reporter. “Great manufacturing establishments pass before his vision on either side, and the train is at last on the open country. On both sides of the tracks in the ditches formed by the overflow of Calumet lake hundreds of mud turtles are sunning themselves on logs in a dreamy manner. Just as the passenger is beginning to wonder if by any chance he is one the wrong train, or has been carried beyond his station, the train stops, two people get off and make for the nearest saloon.” (The Inter Ocean, September 17, 1905)
“This is Hegewisch.”
While that description may have been written over 110 years ago, we found that it can still be remarkably accurate. As the reporter notes, a local “gazes with curiosity at the pilgrim from the city and goes to sleep again.” We’ve encountered that look a few times! So, Hegewisch changes. But it also does not.
Those that came to work and live there, like John Harris, often stayed for a lifetime. Visitors, like the reporter, only stayed only briefly.
That reporter may have never made his brief visit to the community had it not been for a local resident who had “put it on the map.”
That resident–by far the most well-known early resident of Hegewisch–was light heavyweight boxing champion Oscar Nielson, famously known as Battling Nelson.
A Danish immigrant born in 1882 who came to Hegewisch after a stop in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Nelson worked cutting lake ice as a boy, and later as a meat cutter at George H. Hammond Meat Packing Co. across the state line in that company’s namesake community, Hammond. He achieved initial fame after defeating a seemingly-unbeatable opponent in circus sideshow and quickly became one of the fiercest–most famous–fighters in America. His thrilling adventures across the country were followed closely by the press, with reporters often highlighting his home base, Hegewisch.
Throughout regular articles detailing his exploits, the press–locally and nationally–repeatedly referred to Hegewisch as “Hegewisch, Ill.” In his autobiography published in 1908, Nelson highlighted–and even exaggerated–early outsider impressions of Hegewisch that have persisted. “In fact I was togged up like a real fighter, even though I was an unknown and from a place called Hegewisch, Ill.,” Bat, as he was often called, wrote of an early fight in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “‘Hegewisch, Illinois!’ exclaimed the Master of Ceremonies. ‘Where in the world is that located?'” Nelson even published his book in Hegewisch, Ill., not Chicago. (Two thorough books detail Nelson’s career and connection to Hegewisch: The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914 by Arne K. Lang and Battling Nelson, the Durable Dane: World Lightweight Champion, 1882-1954 by Mark Allen Baker.)
Hegewisch stood above all Nelson’s other geographic connections–be it Oshkosh, his first home in America; Hammond, where he previously earned a living; the numerous towns across the country he visited as a fighter; or even his native Denmark–in shaping is personal identity. As Nelson writes in his autobiography, “Enthusiastic writers have been wont to call me “the PEERLESS DANE,” “the DURABLE DANE,” etc.” But jettisoning his ethnic heritage in favor local loyalty and fame, he writes, “This is all very nice, but I am simply Battling Nelson, of Hegewisch, Illinois, a champion boxer, that’s all.”
Hegewisch may have been known for the construction of rail cars–and now for its famous son–but greater acclaim seems to have stuck with another car-producing town, nearby Pullman. The histories of Hegewisch and Pullman are linked not only by that common industry but also the ambitions of their respective founders. Both towns were intended to perfect the company town concept. Despite the company’s mutual long work days and the fact that the Calumet River, marshland, and the sizable Lake Calumet created significant travel barriers, there apparently was some degree of common interaction, and even rivalries, between the two blue-collar communities. Shop and club teams competed against one another, as they did other with teams based in industries across the region, in sports such as baseball and football. For instance, baseball teams from various foundries and and mills competed in the Inter-City Industrial League.
An incident in 1902 highlighted connections and tensions between the two communities, both of which were by then remote neighborhoods of Chicago. Nelson was apparently about to put fighting behind him–even telling his father he would strongly consider quitting–but neighborhood pride got in the way during a night out on the town with friends. As he tells it, “The crowd usually hangs out at Dad Knight’s bar.” According to his mother, he never smoked or drank, and was more interested in investing his earnings than having fun. But if he wanted to socialize, avoiding taverns altogether was likely quite difficult. “Just as we went in the door two fellows were having an argument. One of them was from Pullman, where they make the sleeping cars. In Hegewisch we have the largest car works in the world, but we only make working cars, such as flat cars, freight cars, etc.” Were there perceived class differences between the Pullman and Hegewisch communities? Workers in Pullman made “palace cars,” after all. “The Pullman fellows think they have something on us because they make fancy cars, and there is always an argument about which is the better town.”
Despite this recollection, we’re not really sure how in 1902 a guy from Pullman ended up in a Hegewisch tavern without some effort. This map from 1897 shows the aforementioned barriers, and no direct rail line between the communities, much less a passenger one. Streets only provided a roundabout route, and many of them weren’t in passable shape. The lake, years before major dredging operations there, was relatively shallow, possibly allowing for boat travel, but that would only take a person part of the way. Nelson described Pullman as “just six miles away,” but it may as well have been much farther.
A map from 1904 (not shown) didn’t show an easy connection, either, but by at least 1912, the Chicago Lake Shore line crossed the marshes and Calumet River. That was about a decade after Nelson’s fight in Pullman, though.
Also in 1902, McCormick and Deering reaper company merged with three other firms to create International Harvester. Meanwhile, that same year, International Harvester took over Joseph H. Brown’s original steel mill north of Hegewisch in Irondale (which had previously changed hands a few times), and began producing steel exclusively for the company’s factories, including the one in West Pullman that employed about 1,400 workers. Many residents of Hegewisch would work at the mill, now named Wisconsin Steel, and create somewhat of symbiotic relationship between the two areas on opposite sides of Lake Calumet.
Some residents of the Pullman/West Pullman/Roseland area were connected to Hegewisch through work. During his days as a football star, Minnie LaForest lived the Pullman area and played for the Pullman Thorns, among other teams, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but he worked at Western Steel in Hegewisch. And some who lived in Hegewisch worked elsewhere in the region, including for the Pullman Company. For instance, a different, younger Oscar Nielsen from Hegewisch (also of Danish descent) worked for the Pullman Company at the beginning of World War I.
So despite the physical travel barriers, the communities were at least aware of one another, and movement between them did occur, even if, in 1902, interaction was a little less common than just a decade later. “‘Maybe you do make the best cars,’ said the fellow from Hegewisch, ‘but you can’t fight over there,'” Nelson writes. Quickly, the argument escalated and soon a fight was scheduled between Bat and a fighter from Pullman named Frank Colifer. Bat’s father, who had once opposed his son fighting, got worked up and fully supported his son taking on the fight.
“I had to fight for the honor of Hegewisch, and the fellow who was boosting me patted me on the shoulder and said: ‘Now bring on your fancy Pullman fighter!'” Fancy, huh? A jab at one’s masculinity, or was this another instance highlighting subtle class distinctions being made between the two communities? At a crowded barn next to a saloon in West Pullman, the fight commenced. Workers from Pullman cheered for their man, and all the workers from Hegewisch–the now-united “Danes and Swedes” who populated much of Hegewisch at the time and were reportedly often at odds with one another–pulled for Nelson. As Nelson punched his way to victory, “the Hegewisch crowd was crazy with joy.” Pullman, in this instance, may have been silenced. So far, though, that community is winning the battle of historical recognition, first as a Chicago historic district, then as a state historic site, and most recently as a national monument. Hegewisch has none of those distinctions.
Just a year after the publication of his autobiography, Nelson again created a bit of controversy when a teacher invited him to a West Pullman school to speak. The invitation came from the school’s principal, who had previously taught Nelson at Henry Clay School in Hegewisch. The principal, however, did not inform the superintendent and school board president, both whom were shocked by the prospect that a pugilist could be directly influencing impressionable children, possibly causing an outbreak of fistfights. Despite their fears, Nelson reportedly recommended that the children learn to box but they should not bully others, and they definitely should not pursue the sport as a career. “And don’t smoke, chew or drink if you want to grow strong and keep healthy,” Nelson said to the children. “Take lots of exercise, too, and whatever you do, try and be the best at it.” With this motivational language, one can only wonder how Nelson would have been received had he been a hero of Pullman instead of Hegewisch.
Just a few years later, Hegewisch and Pullman began playing one another in football. Eventually, their interaction was so common that they were once accused of conspiring with one another to beat the rival East Chicago Gophers, one of the league’s standout teams. An accusation was made that the Hegewisch team was “loaded” with five players from the Pullman team to beat the mighty Gophers, who had completed a number of recent seasons undefeated. The offended Hegewisch coach refuted the claims somewhat, stating that two of the replacements did indeed play for the Pullman team, but they were only added because two players for Hegewisch were out sick or injured. As for the three other accused players, they did not belong to the Pullman team and had not played for the Pullman team. . .that year. “[A]ltho,” manager Joseph Powell wroted, “they all played with that team last year,” and have been permanent members of the Hegewisch team for the entire current season. In this instance, the two car company towns were sticking together.
Most articles written about Hegewisch during its first three decades of as a town repeated common themes, some of which linger today. One common theme expressed by both residents and outsiders who visited was the dichotomy of a community moving both upward and nowhere at all at the same time. Hegewisch was an established settlement with a large factory and locally-based workforce, but by the early twentieth century it had had a hard time attracting the same type of investment seen after the building of the Adolph Hegewisch’s facility. Other factories did not immediately follow the founding industry to the town as had been predicted, resulting in population levels that failed to meet his original expectations. This slow growth likely did little to attract the attention of Chicago lawmakers, and as the town instead grew slowly, conditions of the former wetlands improved even slower. “Hegewisch has been patient for twenty-three years, which is about the length of time the town has been in being. At that time the great railroad car shops were built, which gave the town an excuse for existing, and started the advance guard of building and loan associations on their preliminary raid. They did with Hegewisch that which has happened to many embryo towns.” (Inter Ocean, September 17, 1905)
A number of houses were quickly built to meet the high demand, but services and amenities that would make the community livable were of secondary concern. “Homes purchasable on on the installment plans sprung up by hundreds and were disposed of to the thrifty mill operatives. A few wooden sidewalks were built, and are there today. The roadbeds were slightly elevated, leaving plenty of space beside the walks for the waters of Calumet lake, the river, and other bodies of water as an overflow.” Due to this water, ducks “have since become domesticated, the hundreds of ducks which dwell contentedly adjacent to and beneath the sidewalks seem to be part of the town. Swimming gracefully up and down or floating with the gentle current they are at peace.” There are a few large trees, too.
Sidewalks were still made of planks and the streets were unpaved, but 22 years after Hegewisch was founded, things were looking up. In 1905, as has been the case throughout Hegewisch’s existence, “[the] modest cottages of the inhabitants are fairly well kept up.” Bat Nelson was buying up real estate with his earnings, too, and local businessmen were “planning to take advantage of the sudden fame of the town,” with a huge celebration in Nelson’s honor. Furthermore, “according to reports, there is now more building going on in the the town than in the past fifteen years.” The $10,000 department store being built across from the opera house probably may have had more to do with national economic trends–the panics of the 1890s were over–but no doubt many residents connected Nelson’s success to the success of Hegewisch.
At this time, about 4,600 people lived in Hegewisch, with most men working in the local factories. Western Car and Foundry employed about 1,500 people, while another car plant, the Northwestern Car & Locomotive Company, employed a smaller, but still large number of people. The General Chemical Company, a producer of sulfuric acid that was located on today’s Carondolet Avenue north of Hegewisch at the Calumet River, employed a large number of people, as well.
But despite the economic turnaround, they just couldn’t get Chicago’s city hall to pay any attention. “‘The trouble here is,’ said E.M. Skinner, a well known grocer, ‘that the city has never done anything for our streets, and it doesn’t make any difference what administration is in, we don’t cast enough votes to make it an object of the city to do anything to fix up the town. The people here are prosperous, but we can’t get anything done, and that is the reason the town seems to be in such bad shape. It is not our fault.'” (The Inter Ocean, September 17, 1905)
Comprised of a population similar to a small town and with most of the labor force employed by local factories, the isolated Hegewisch was very quiet during most hours of the day in the early 1900s. And it was certainly far from a police officers’ haven that it would become in the mid-twentieth century. The patrol was so dull that some officers deemed it a punishment, while others stationed there enjoyed the quiet.
The old Hegewisch police station, located the northwest corner of 134th and Erie (today’s Baltimore Avenue), and torn down years later, fit the neighborhood well, as we would find out: it was a former saloon. It was often confused for one, too, which isn’t surprising considering there were reportedly 21 in the neighborhood at the time. The saloon’s old ice box had been converted into a storage facility for police records, and the old billiard hall was now a cell.
The force had a total of six individuals, each of which lived in Hegewisch with their families. It was a lonely job that included a lot of hanging around, with patrols spread out throughout the day. In 1905, just as over a century later, officers made very few arrests.. The Chicago Tribune even ran story entitled “Studies in Police ‘Still Life’ at Hegewisch, Where an Arrest Is an ‘Event.'”
Apparently, not much happened throughout the day. Hegewisch, “the dullest place in the world,” said a police lieutenant, was “so lonesome and you can still hear your hair grow.” These comments prompted another officer–one who had worked in Hegewisch for the last 19 years–to say “lonesome but good.” Those who knew Hegewisch best, defended it.
Despite being a curiosity to outsiders, some local thought the state of Hegewisch police department was unacceptable. A year and a half after the Tribune article was published, Nelson, increasingly active in local affairs, headed a committee of citizens that demanded that local Alderman Pat Moynihan work to give the neighborhood paved streets, electric streetlights, a street car system, improved school buildings, a clean water supply, incentives for new industries, and, as the article stated, “A real police station, with real policemen.” The tavern-turned-police station was yet another example of Hegewisch’s second class status.
Opinions expressed just a couple of years later confirmed the neighborhood’s disconnection with Chicago, especially how the city failed to fully provide Hegewisch with essential services. Even the town’s recent economic success had not improved day-to-day living conditions to a great extent. Contemporary reports highlighting squalid, dangerous, and unhealthful surroundings reflect Progressive era values, as does the urgent call to fix them. An article in the Lake County Times published August 20, 1907 pointedly addressed conditions in the town in true muckraking fashion, deriding local environmental conditions, the lack of services, and the apparent apathy and “total lack of public spirit” of the town’s citizenry. Deriding the local indifference, the article noted that eight of eleven people “were either unable or unwilling to inform a stranger as to the location of the postoffice.”
But, of course, they misspelled the town’s name. Or maybe it’s a “clever” pun?
As the “beggar suburb of Chicago,” the article highlights the tension with it’s massive overlord. “The casual observer [. . .] would think the citizens of this community would rise up in their wrath and seceed [sic] from the city that has gobbled it up, sloughs, cinder roads, houses and all, and then set up an independent government. The average man would refuse to pay taxes to a city that neglected a portion of its citizens to the extent that Chicago neglects Hegewisch.”
Sanitation was a critical issue. There were no sewers, too-prevalent water in sloughs was stagnant, and housewives dumped their dirty water in front of their houses, all of which contributed to an inescapable fly and mosquito problem.
Despite making good wage, “[. . .] the average citizen of Hegewisch is putting up with conditions that are simply revolting.” The three to four thousand people of Hegewisch, the writer suggested, were so used to being neglected that many had “lapsed into a state of indifference from which it appears they will never recover.”
But, true to the spirit of Hegewisch would express throughout its history, saloons thrived. “[The] most prosperous places in the city are that saloons, and that with the exception of the department store, all of the best business blocks are occupied by saloons.” This last assertion can be confirmed by directory listings, as the five digit addresses of local taverns often ended with “00,” “01,” “58,” or “59,” the corner numbers. Two other defining features of Hegewisch’s historical character were evident, too: the concept of hard work and, previously noted by the police, the town’s sleepiness. “The men are all working. This is proven by the fact that the streets, which are practically deserted during working hours, are crowded with the employes [sic] of the big car shops soon after the whistle blows.” Hegewisch is a lot like that today. You notice a little more buzz around 4 or 5 p.m. when everybody gets off work for the day, then it gets quiet again as people head home.
Despite its problems, the article served as an optimistic call to arms. “[In] spite of the fact that the town has been considered the end of the earth in Chicago [. . .] the town has forged ahead and is as prosperous as any city in the Calumet Region. New residences are being built, the streets are thronged with people, [and] the business houses are thriving [. . .]” the article continued. “Some day, however, there is to be a reckoning with Chicago.” Streets will be built up, predicted the writer, rail lines will connect to the central city, marshes will be drained, and the “city with its industries will be one of the manufacturing centers of the Calumet region, and Hegewisch, the beggar city, despised and shunned, will come into its own. The dreams of its one staunch friend, its favorite son, Batling Nelson, will come true.” Nelson wrote of his defeat of “Jack the Slugger” O’Neil in 1904 that, “I, of course, won the affair by a Hegewisch block, which means a mile.” Was he referring to the poor conditions of the Hegewisch streets? Business leaders hoped Battling Nelson’s success could change that.
This boosterism likely did not hurt Nelson’s real estate interests in the community, either, as he acquired many local properties with his winnings, no doubt making him even more popular. In 1906, at the age of 24 , and reportedly already owning $30,000 worth of real estate in Hegewisch, he was elected president of the Hegewisch Businessmen’s Association. “Instead of undertaking to elevate the stage, or striving to become prominent in politics, he has devoted his attention strictly to the upbuilding of the material interests in Hegewisch.” He would fight for Hegewisch, and “he was only a lightweight, in a professional sense,” the article stated. “In a business sense he is the heaviest weight that Hegewisch cares to boast of at present, and he has already marked out a line of policy which stamps him as a far seeing promoter of those things which make for prosperity.” (The Inter Ocean, July 11, 1906)
Nelson reportedly would “have maps printed showing Hegewisch as the great railway center of the Northwest, and upon which the name of Chicago will appear, if it be mentioned at all, in small letters. But his efforts will not be directed against the mother city, as the mother city is not really a rival of Hegewisch. We take it that Battling Nelson will devote himself to the task of crushing Gary in its infancy.”
Gary, a company town similar to Hegewisch, was reportedly projected by U.S. Steel to house 50,000 to 75,000 people, with the company’s Gary Works to be its central industry. “Yet it will be handicapped from the beginning, because Hegewisch is already on the ground,” the article stated. “Hegewisch is in Chicago, if only on the edge of it, and Hegewisch enjoys the advantage of water and rail communication sufficient to place it in the front rank of the world’s greatest industrial cities.” Not long ago, the article concluded, Hegewisch was known primarily as a duck hunting destination. But with Bat Nelson leading, “it is only in the dawn of its history.” Gary, however, would quickly take the lead, and by some measures, hold it for decades.
Despite the article’s claim that Nelson did not have his eye on politics, it appears that he actually did to some degree, at least locally. In fact, just two years later, in 1908, he attempted to mount a campaign as a Republican to unseat Moynihan as one of alderman of the 8th ward. Likely not a coincidence, this move into local politics occurred in the same year that his Hegewisch-lauding autobiography was published.
Nelson was popular, but Moynihan had supporters in the press, too. One cheerful article entitled “Here’s To Hegewisch” detailed how Hegewisch was “outgrowing its Cinderalla-hood.” The community soon would finally get modern improvements such as a sewer system and a new road connecting to Chicago thanks to the alderman. While it briefly noted Nelson, it claimed that “Alderman Moynihan seems to be the generally accredited philosopher, guide and friend of heretofore neglected Hegewisch. He is the fairy godmother who by a few waves of his wand has changed the gloom of the swampy settlement into a bright atmosphere of hope and pride.” (Lake County Times, November 1, 1907) After leaving the city council in 1909, Moynihan would effectively serve as the Republican boss of South Chicago and Eighth Ward and, after restructuring, the Tenth Ward into the 1920s.
Hegewisch would get to keep its name, too, which it almost lost entirely when several railroad companies chose to name a local train depot “Burnham.” Offended by this effective removal of the town’s identity, Nelson himself wrote to Pennsylvania Railroad officials in protest. “If I advertised myself as coming from Burnham the big bugs across the pond would think I was a pink tea fighter,” he later stated. “Burnham is a soft name. It suggests mild blue eyes and yellow curls.” (Lake County Times, March 20, 1907) Eventually, the Hegewisch name that Nelson had fought so hard to champion returned in 1907, but the flippant attempt to remove the town’s civic identity likely put many residents on the defensive, helping create a sense of community but also a culture of suspicion of outsiders. The Burnham name appeared on maps as late as 1910, right in the middle of Hegewisch. In retrospect, Burnham seemed to at best draw a parallel between Western Steel and the other more famous car company, or at worst taunt Hegewisch by claiming the local car works for itself: one of the first streets just south of Hegewisch in Burnham was once named Pullman Avenue.
Nelson may have made the Hegewisch name famous, but Moynihan’s power and local customs likely kept the champion from mounting a successful campaign for the seat. It’s unclear to us whether or not he actually made it on the ballot. The local Republican ward bosses were also reportedly “perturbed” by his candidacy (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 29, 1908). While he was very popular with many business owners, he may have faced opposition from everyday voters to his political stance against the ever-popular saloons that lined Hegewisch’s commercial streets and residential street corners. His platform stood for better schools, more factories and railroads, and improved services, such as the extension of the Chicago sewer system that perhaps Moynihan had yet to deliver. But by taking on taverns, an essential part of life in Hegewisch, he may have picked the wrong battle.
Decades later, in 1978, Barney Kurnik, then president of the Hegewisch Community Committee (and related to the former Kurnik’s Tavern?), lamented how things had changed in the prior decades. “‘There used to be taverns all over this place,’ mused Kurnik, ‘all over the street. Now maybe there’s 28 in the whole neighborhood.'” That said, we wonder if there were actually ever that many taverns in Hegewisch at one time. The 1905 Inter Ocean article about Nelson and Hegewisch claimed that there were 21 in the neighborhood. The 1917 city directory lists at least 16 taverns in Hegewisch. Businesses listed in the restaurant category, may have also qualified as taverns, increasing the number. If one added the taverns along or adjacent to Torrence Avenue in South Deering, the number would spike. A few taverns were located near the millgate at Republic Steel on Burley Avenue, as well. To confirm a number of 42 at one time might require a more thorough analysis.
Taverns are undoubtedly a part of the local culture and history. Their numbers were likely seen as a reflection of local industrial vitality: if industry was going well, then there were a lot of taverns, and if there were a lot of taverns, then industry must have been going well. Nelson and the anti-saloon folks were not only challenging social and cultural customs, many of which had been brought from workers’ countries of origin, but also indirectly threatened the community’s economic well-being. They are also–in discussions of the way things used to be–a part of the local working-class folklore.
Other political currents may have swept Nelson in a direction away from the aldermanic race, as well. One article passively stated that “Nelson had some thought of running for the city council in the Eighth Ward,” but the voices at a local mass meeting put him at the center of a brief secessionist movement. A mass meeting, held November 30, 1908–dubbed “Hegewisch’s independence day” at the “Faneuil hall of the Eighth Ward in an article the next day (Lake County Times, December 1, 1908)–in the town reportedly turned from discussion of the continued lack of services and disconnection from Chicago, to a vociferous call for politically leaving the city altogether and forming a new town.
The people of Hegewisch had reached a “boiling point” and were tired of being “dragged down by the rest of Chicago.” The only way for Hegewisch to achieve its “city beautiful dreams” was to “cut loose” legally. “Chicago has never done anything for this part of the city,” Nelson said to the crowd. “We have no streets, no sidewalks, no sewers, and yet we pay heavy taxes. Let us separate from the city and form a city of our own.” Cheers of “Bat for mayor” and “Bat for us” came from the assembled crowd. “Mr. Nelson was visibly impressed with his becoming mayor,” the article noted, “and in a speech of some length that sounded suspiciously like chapter eighteen of his newest and first book, Mr. Nelson accepted the honors about to be thrust upon him.” A couple of photographs in his autobiography indeed showed him dappered up, possibly ready for a position of importance.
Hegewisch did not secede, and Nelson’s political ascent seemed to stall, particularly when his boxing career plateaued. And as much as he loved Hegewisch, he sometimes had a hard time getting people from out of town to love it as much as he did. For instance, his wife, Fay King, a famous cartoonist, was not impressed with the town at all. The tumultuous short marriage fell apart soon after the vows, which occurred at the Nelson family home in Hegewisch. Apparently, King had no interest in becoming the “queen of Hegewisch” and returned to her home in Denver. This site presents an excellent rundown of their courtship and marriage (if those words could be used to describe their connection), as well as their divorce, all based on newspaper accounts. Mark Allen Baker also details it in his biography of Nelson. He retired from fighting in 1920 and never seemed to reach the same level of popularity that he experienced a decade and a half earlier.
Hegewisch’s commercial districts became more sophisticated by the 1910s, as storefronts offering a variety of goods and services lined Erie and Ontario Avenues. Grocery markets, tailors, banks, clothing and dry goods stores, drugstores, restaurants, and, of course, taverns all served the working folks of the neighborhood.
While Erie and Ontario avenues were becoming the primary commercial districts of Hegewisch, the Western Steel factory–the former U.S. Rolling Stock works–remained a focal point of of the community. Businesses, such as a hotel and several taverns clustered near it, each hustling for the workingman’s dollar. Barney Glinski’s restaurant was located on Howard Avenue (now Brainard) just steps from Western Steel.
World events soon shifted the focus away from local issues, however. Following the American entry into World War I, residents of Hegewisch served in the armed forces, many seeing action in Europe. Meanwhile, work continued at the Western Steel factory.
With the demand for explosive chemicals high, the General Chemical Co. delayed its expansion plans and, without compensation, turned over its patents and manufacturing processes to the federal government for ammunition production. Now in service of the war effort, large gun shells were produced in the Western Steel factory, as well.
By October 1917, the Ryan Car Company, a car rebuilding company that had purchased and taken over the Northwestern Car & Locomotive Company works 1906, had begun hiring women to replace men lost to the military ranks. The initial group of 50 women included some native-born Americans, as well as Irish and Polish immigrants, and received a positive assessment from William M. Ryan, the company president. “They’re fine! Better than men!” he said.
As primary employers, Western Steel and Ryan Car were both opportunities for stable work, as these two members of the Bokowy family, Jakel and Stanislaw, who came from Tymbark in Austrian Poland. These jobs could help provide them with a stable life and possibly business opportunities for subsequent generations.
The passage of the Immigration Act of 1917 just a few months earlier had placed literacy requirements on new immigrants, and substantially reduced the numbers of people entering the United States from Europe. Still, men from numerous countries in Europe had already entered the country prior to the restrictions and were employed in the Western Steel factory. With them, they brought different languages, religions, and customs.
Despite this diversity, American loyalty was demanded during the war. As the sign notes in the center of the photograph–“Un-Americans are Hun-Americans”–many immigrants were placed under intense scrutiny regarding their nationalistic loyalties.
Tensions were high as anti-German through the country. Batting Nelson, having survived a bout with influenza and nearing the end of his fighting career, looked for new paths to relevancy and financial reward, trying unsuccessfully to sell his Nelson Dummy, a punching bag meant to look like the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, to the American military.
Even Adolph Hegewisch’s nephew, Adolfo Ernesto Hegewisch, a shipping agent based in New Orleans from Vera Cruz, Mexico, came under suspicion.
An anonymous telegram suggested that Hegewisch and his family were secretly German sympathizers.
Though the details remain unclear to us, the document even suggests he had some sort of connection to individuals behind the Zimmermann Telegram!
A.E. Hegewisch, however, had defenders that vouched for his loyalty to the Allied cause, and the investigation into his affairs had few negative effects. As his uncle faded from public recognition–due in part the early financial troubles experienced by the U.S. Rolling Stock Co.–the related Hegewisch later rose to prominence promoting trade with Mexico.
Once the war was over in late 1918, demonstrated loyalty could prove important, particularly for immigrant factory workers with few, if any, business or favorable political connections.
Successive laws restricted immigration more and more, stopping the flow of new members of the labor force to and from their home countries. Companies responded in part by sponsoring efforts to assimilate their workers to the American way of life. In one instance, about 100 men, most of which worked at Ryan Car Co., applied for citizenship under the direction of a local Methodist minister, including these men. The caption noted that many of the men “acquired the desire for citizenship while attending the Henry Clay school and the Fegber night school in Hegewisch,” perhaps due in part to the literacy requirements enacted in 1917. Further restrictions made into law in 1921 made meeting the requirements increasingly important, and, in particular, the Immigration Act of 1924, which would severely limit immigration from Eastern and Southern European countries, would make coming to the United States even harder.
The Ryan Car Co. and Western Steel provided stable employment for many people in Hegewisch during and following the war, and even during the brief depression of 1920-21. Ryan employed fewer workers than Western, and the company’s regularly-run classified ad required a higher bar to reach for employment there: prior experience and one’s own tools. Western also looked for skilled workers, but working for the company could be a “good opportunity for men without experience to learn [the] foundry business.” Thus, at places like Western Steel and Ryan Car, a good job could be earned with some or no experience at all. And with hard work, one could possibly earn ticket to a better life for oneself and one’s family. That little American house–in Hegewisch–could get paid off.
But the price of stability could often go beyond hard work and long hours. Work in the car factories could be physically demanding and at times quite dangerous. Injuries were common. Newspapers routinely reported on accidents at the plants, including crushed hands, arms, and feet, resulting in amputations and even death. The Southeast Chicago steel mills, in particular, were so dangerous that different undertaking establishments fought for the lucrative business, locating their structures as close as possible to the mills to outmaneuver competing undertakers. Valley Mould & Iron, a company located 108th & the Calumet River that produced moulds for ingots used in steel production, was known as “Death Valley” because of the foundry’s dirty, smokey, and extremely dangerous working conditions.
The local steel mills provided grueling, though consistent, blue-collar work for residents for the next full century.
Mills across the Calumet Region in East Chicago, Gary, Chicago Heights, and Riverdale did so, as well.
They all helped define a local culture of hard physical labor, often in twelve-hour shifts, constantly surrounded by the industry’s by-products. Pollution ensured that everywhere one turned, they were reminded of steel. The rivers were increasingly dirty, the air often had a foul smell or was visibly polluted, and slag, a steel waste product, was heaped across the landscape.
At the same time, one’s modest, yet comfortable house, yard, and street existed because industries like steel provided workers with the money to pay for them, as did numerous businesses, especially taverns, where workers could find some relief and build upon the social connections first forged by the mutually-shared stress and dangers of the mills. Accordingly, social and religious organizations thrived.
The steel mills, in total, employed several thousands workers in any given year. By 1912, Western employed about 2,000 workers, Ryan employed 200, and General Chemical employed about 400 people. (Lake County Times, April 17, 1912) These numbers would fluxuate over the following decades, often reflecting nationwide economic trends, but all the while continuing to define Hegewisch as an industrial community where hard work stood at center of daily life. With few amenities and amusements outside of homegrown celebrations and ubiquitous taverns, workplaces like General Chemical Co., which became a division of Allied Chemical & Dye in the 1920s after a stock takeover, helped define local society and culture.
Street car lines finally connected Hegewisch to South Chicago–and the rest of Chicago–in 1918, making Hegewisch just a little less isolated. However, one technological advancement seen in the photo–the automobile–would eventually supplant the street lines as the most important mode of transportation in the neighborhood and across the country (and help Ernie and me get to Hegewisch).
Another notable industry long-located in Hegewisch is the Ford Motor Company’s Torrence Avenue Assembly plant. The plant, more commonly known as the Chicago Assembly Plant, occupies a large tract in the northwest corner of Hegewisch, north of 130th Street and west of Torrence Avenue. Model Ts and Model As were produced there in the factory’s earliest days. Today it’s the Taurus and the Explorer. It has been a major employer in the region since it opened in 1924.
Right away, Ford had a strong presence in Hegewisch, bordering one large corner of the neighborhood. Hegewisch was surrounded by river, lakes, and marshes, but it was also flanked by industries.
Tied to larger economic trends, industries in Southeast Chicago expanded as the American economy boomed. In 1925, Wisconsin Steel constructed a new merchant mill. To meet the demand, the car shops, the steel mills, and the Ford plant brought workers from all over the world, including various states in America. Census listings in 1930 from one hotel located at 13531 Baltimore Avenue showed a lot of men, all white, mostly in their 30s and single, from several states in the union, with a few men from other countries. Almost all listed “Car Shops” as place of employment, with some listing “Steel Mills,” “Automobile Plant,” and the railroad, while a few others were employed in the service industry or at General Chemical.
Hegewisch felt the effects of larger political trends as well. Joseph Moll opened a tavern here at 13358 Houston in 1911, but with the passage of the Volstead Act, Battling Nelson got his wish as the production and sale of alcohol was banned. Workers from places like Pressed Steel and the steel mills would have to find refreshment from something other than beer or liquor.
During Prohibition, tavern operators in Hegewisch either evolved or risked losing their businesses altogether. Many evolved into confectioneries or grocery stores. Moll’s replaced alcohol with soft drinks and cigars and later operated as a restaurant run by George Moll.
As pillars of local culture, taverns came back after Prohibition, but the industries that helped support them across the country were hit hard by the Great Depression and Hegewisch felt the effects. With growing competition from automobiles, Pressed Steel ceased rail car production in 1937. Labor tensions mounted, with the Little Steel Strike and the resulting violence at Republic Steel that same year. Ryan Car idled by the end of the decade. As many in the neighborhood searched elsewhere for work. South Deering actually grew by 1,764 residents, a gain of 18%, possibly due in part to Wisconsin Steel’s plans to expand in 1936. Furthermore, workers at Wisconsin Steel did not participate in the major strikes (they were represented not by the SWOC/USWA, but by the Progressive Steelworkers Union (PSWU)), and were often rewarded with same concessions gained by strikes at other plants. The other three Southeast Side neighborhoods, however, posted declines: the East Side lost 326 residents, or about 2% of its population, while the much larger South Chicago lost 1,593 people, or 2.8%. Hegewisch earned the distinction of losing the largest percentage of residents among Southeast Side neighborhoods with a net loss 381 people, or about 4.8%.
Government agencies such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs to a number of people Hegewisch not employed by industries during the Depression. In fact, long-neglected local roads were finally improved (to varying degrees of quality) by the WPA, including 130th and 134th streets, each an access point to the neighborhood. Streets north of 132nd Street such as Escanaba, Muskegon, and possibly Burley were also paved by the WPA, as were the lettered Avenues in the western section of Hegewisch, including Avenue O. According to one local historian, the roads were comprised of slabs of asphalt with gravel along the edges instead of curbs. Without the federal government providing temporary employment for local residents, population losses may have been greater during the decade.
Even the beloved local real estate mogul Battling Nelson–“still the king of the people of Hegewisch”–felt the effects of the economic downturn. In 1938, at age 54, Nelson had 12 properties remaining of the 30 he once owned in Hegewisch and across the region, but now his renters had a hard time paying him. “I needed a break when the going got tough,” likely referring to his financial difficulties following the decline of his career and his bout with influenza during the 1918 pandemic, “and I have a feeling for others,” he said of his tenants. “They can pay me when times are better.” (Hammond Times, Feb. 4, 1938) According to sociologists from the University of Chicago, between 12 and 20% over residents in Hegewisch and all of Southeast Chicago were on relief as early as 1933, a few years before the closure of Pressed Steel.
Meanwhile, similar to other communities near the city limits, homeownership rates in Hegewisch were higher than many parts of Chicago. Consistent wages from the steel mills likely contributed to higher homeownership rates, though the idling of Pressed Steel and Ryan Car later in the decade likely dented these numbers. By design and execution, rates of homeownership were higher than rates in Pullman and much of West Pullman
High homeownership rates helped result in a population density that was quite low compared to many areas in the central city. Many houses were two-family flats, but the community’s remoteness also contributed to its low population density. Multi-unit apartment buildings were uncommon in Hegewisch, unlike, as the map shows, areas surrounding Chicago’s central business district.
But Hegewisch and Southeast Chicago remained major industrial areas in the 1930s.
Industry played a defining role in defining daily life–substantially directing its ups and downs. If the nationwide industrial economy suffered, so did the local economy, but if America thrived economically, so did Hegewisch. As reporter Phil Lamar Anderson put it at the tail end of the Depression when economic conditions were improving, “The prosperity and contentment of its inhabitants vary with the ever-changing economic conditions affecting the nation at large because Hegewisch industries are all so closely identified with the American movement–forward.” (Hammond Times, Jan. 5, 1940)
Around the same time–and just a couple of years after the Memorial Day Massacre–Republic Steel constructed a new alloy steel works, an investment that showed the economic viability of the larger industry as well as the corporate commitment to its assets in the community.
Despite the area’s decline in population from 7,890 residents in 1930 down to 7,509 in 1940 (though officials reportedly estimated that 10,000 people lived there), Hegewisch was rebounding. Census records show a diversification of both jobs held by residents of the community and the places they worked. The car shops and the Ford plant were still big employers, with the steel mills appearing to take in a larger percentage of the area’s workers. Workers listed other blue-collar workplaces that included foundry, railroad, oil refinery, soap factory, chain factory, furniture factory, the General Mills plant, canning factory, and even toy factory. Workers from Hegewisch were identified by different jobs within a mill or factory, or by an more specialized trade: machinist, crane operator, pipe fitter, riveter, millwright, car painter, packer, cabinet maker, blacksmith, welder, chipper, chemist, loader, and electrician, to name just a few. Services such as saloons and hotels provided jobs, as did city hall and professional careers. A number of people identified themselves a hotel maid, waitress, cook, tavern owner, housekeeper, nurse, commercial artist, railroad patrolman and firemen, file clerks, and one listed as an investigator employed by city hall. A number of citizens were listed simply as “Relief,” some finding work for the WPA or CCC.
It was also developing its quintessential American small town image. Hegewisch, Anderson wrote, appeared to be “a community of nice homes; a fine social center and playground for the youths; elegant and impressive parochial and public schools; a half dozen churches; a live-wire chamber of commerce; unofficial ‘mayors’ of Chicago’s great tenth ward; and having a name frequently both mispronounced and misspelled.” Over a dozen nice new homes had been constructed in the last year, and things were looking up, making it the best year since the stock market crash of 1929. The prosperity of the community “is seen today with smiles on the faces of its laboring men; business better than in years; new homes recently occupied; and an outlook for the new year that is optimistic.”
Hegewisch was becoming a community with institutions and a history that could be cited as part of its identity. It had long-respected citizens (Alderman William A. Rowan, who served the 10th ward from 1927 to 1942, for instance, as well as a few other longtime residents); a busy business district (Baltimore Avenue); schools (Henry Clay, which about two and a half decades before had replaced the Daniel Webster School, built in 1886); older buildings (such as the original St. Columba); and new ones resembling tracts out in Chicago’s other growing, suburban-like neighborhoods.
It is also likely Hegewisch was beginning to develop its image as a “cop neighborhood,” as the home in the bottom right was built at a cost of $8,000 for a police sergeant. Once seen as punishment to be stuck in sleepy Hegewisch, it was now a desirable place for officers to build a nice new house.
And check out Hegewisch’s oldest resident at the time, 84-year-old James Hopkinson, accompanied by his “pet police dog.” Hopkinson, an English immigrant, had run a grocery at 13312 Baltimore Avenue with his wife as late as 1920. According to the 1940 census, James lived as a “roomer” with a Polish family and another Polish boarder in a house on the now-extinct Avenue D in the far eastern section of the neighborhood near the state line. He apparently was a widower, as Maria no longer lived with him. No doubt the companionship of the dog was a sustaining force for him. We wonder if they ever went looking for pizza.
There was good evidence that area industries were taking off. Ford employed about 4,500 workers, some of which, though certainly not all, lived in Hegewisch. Though the Ryan Car Co. closed in or before 1940, General American Aerocoach Company, a subsidiary of Pressed Steel’s then-parent company, General American Transportation, produced buses in Hegewisch Pressed Steel facilities in the 1940s. General Chemical Company and the Iron and Steel Products Co., a scrap business, still provided jobs, as did Republic Steel, Wisconsin Steel, and other mills. By the next year world events would force local industries to refocus production to aid the war effort.
As the nation mobilized for World War II, many young men and women from the neighborhood enlisted or were drafted into military service. Lists of local workers now serving in the armed forces were published in the company magazines.
American men registered for the draft, including Battling Nelson, who still insisted he was from Hegewisch.
Hegewisch responded industrially, too, with its factories shifting production to war materials. According to historian Charles K. Hyde in Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II, workers at the Torrence plant produced 2,127 M8s and 3,790 M20s, numbers so significant that the Ford Motor Co. became the country’s top manufacturer of light armored vehicles. General Chemical produced oleum, a form the sulfuric acid used in explosives, and several different materials were produced at the Pressed Steel factory. In particular, workers built medium tanks during the war and in the next decade, employing a number of women.
The local steel mills such as Wisconsin Steel hired women for jobs on the shop floor, too, a practice generally unusual prior to the war, and rarely seen since World War I.
According to Charles K. Hyde, Pressed Steel produced a total of 8,648 medium-sized tanks during the war alone, what the company described as “a solid trainload of M-4 tanks every day.”
In September 1942, photographer Ann Rosener, working for the United States Office of War Information, captured images from Pressed Steel’s wartime production lines. The images, available online through the Library of Congress, provide insight into how the world came came to Hegewisch to work. Descriptions make much of the “old country” origins of the workers and their families–coming from Ireland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, Holland, even Germany–but their work to beat the Axis confirmed their loyalties, making them as “American as pork and beans.” An Apache Indian and African Americans were photographed (the latter with a bizarrely ironic caption), as well. Despite the entry of large numbers of women into the workforce during the war, the collection contains no photographs of women working at Pressed Steel.
Rosener’s collection also contains scenes from the homefront, with some Pressed Steel workers at home after their working hours. This man, the son of Polish immigrants, relaxed at home in “his own personal attic sanctum [that] is solid Americana” that was likely located, though unconfirmed, in Hegewisch.
At the Pressed Steel facility, Michael Kassalo ran heavy machinery producing as many tanks as possible before sending them to the war front. While his immigrant grandparents reportedly clung to their traditional Slavic language and customs, Michael and his siblings were described as “American as the Smiths and Joneses.” Working to the defeat the country’s enemies, workers were like Kassalo were “Americans all.”
Despite the war, labor disputes occurred, and unions defended workers’ rights. Local 166 of the UAW represented workers at Pressed Steel.
But by early 1945, the mills were already looking beyond the war. The mills have been dark and dirty, but the world they would help create was slick and exciting.
Southeast Chicago, though, paid a high price to reach that moment of optimism. Republic Steel lost at least 14 former workers, while Wisconsin Steel alone lost 63. Numerous others from the neighborhoods were killed or injured.
After the war, the mills adjusted to peacetime production, and searched for workers to meet new goals.
Having a new-found leverage, unions like the United Steelworkers continued to fight for better wages and benefits, participating in steel strikes in 1946 and 1949. That union also became increasingly involved in politics, particularly on the municipal level, most often supporting Richard M. Daley’s Democratic machine.
Still, Hegewisch did not quickly reverse the population decline it had experienced since the beginning of the Depression. By 1950, the neighborhood lost 367 residents, nearly a 5% drop from 1940 numbers, to a total of 7,142. At the same time, South Deering added over 7,800 residents, the East Side added over 5,100, and the already urbanized South Chicago added 625 residents. Nearby community areas such as Riverdale, Roseland, Pullman, and West Pullman all posted increases in population between 1940 and 1950. Hegewisch was the only neighborhood on the Southeast Side that posted a population decline between 1940 and 1950. Furthermore, Calumet City, Burnham, Dolton, and Riverdale, Illinois all posted population increases, as did nearby cities in Indiana such as Hammond and Gary. (Only nearby Whiting joined Hegewisch in losing a similar percentage of residents, 6.2%; East Chicago, Indiana posted a loss but only of 0.7%.) Because of the centrality of industry in Hegewisch’s history and society, the population losses likely reflect a decline in work opportunities within the neighborhood boundaries, and the availability of work and housing opportunities in other nearby neighborhoods and cities. Australian sociologist Jean Craig (later Jean Martin) conducted field research in Hegewisch in the 1940s, but we haven’t managed to track down any of the writings. It would be interesting to see if these changes are noted in her work.
But following two decades of population losses, the postwar era saw Hegewisch grow–a growth that mirrored American suburbia–but it was not a direct path upward. Heavy industries helped build Hegewisch and make it a desirable place to live for thousands of working-class residents, but they also helped create some uncertainty. Pressed Steel had previously diversified its production lines to meet growing consumer demand, adding electric ranges to its list of products. While maintaining its car business, the company produced 50,000 of its signature Presteline electric ranges in 1947. That same year, sold its electric range manufacturing line and leased the facilities in Hegewisch to Admiral the following year. General American Aerocoach also moved its main production facilities to East Chicago in the late 1940s. By the mid 1950s, Pressed Steel closed its Hegewisch plant.
At the same time, the American economy was experiencing robust growth overall, and relief from the loss of jobs came quickly. In the 1950s, U.S. Steel, whose South Works and Gary Works already were a source of jobs for many people on the Southeast Side, purchased and reopened the old Pressed Steel site as a warehouse, providing a new source of employment for locals for many years. Hegewisch may have lost its founding industry, but the neighborhood persisted and continued to grow for the next two and half decades.
A.E. Hegewisch withstood investigations into his loyalties during World War I and became involved in foreign trade and civic beautification projects in New Orleans for decades. In 1952, he even visited the factory his uncle built. Little is known, however, about what happened to his uncle.
Along the with the effective disappearance of Pressed Steel, the successor to U.S. Rolling Stock Co., another event quietly signaled a change in eras of Hegewisch’s history. In 1954, living in near poverty in a North Side hotel, Battling Nelson, seen here with his dog, Taffy, and once the pride of Hegewisch, passed away at the age of 71.
Hegewisch in the 1950s could be described as a growing, but still insulated small town. The community added nearly 1,800 new total residents to reach a population of 8,936 residents by 1960, a 25% increase over the 1950 total. While the numbers do not suggest the same explosive growth witnessed by some neighborhoods and suburbs such as Oak Lawn (which grew by nearly 215 percent between 1950 and 1960), they are significant considering the Hegewisch’s relative isolation. That isolation helped ensure that Hegewisch was far removed the widespread racial tensions gripping parts of Chicago and other American cities. Still, the nearby and also-isolated South Deering experienced turmoil when white residents reacted violently to a black family moving into the community’s publicly-funded Trumbull Park Homes in the mid 1950s. South Deering, unlike Hegewisch, had grown in the 1940s, and continued to grow at slower pace in the 1950s. The incidents occurred just few miles away from Hegewisch, and no matter how isolated the community may have felt, the events certainly occupied a place in the cultural consciousness. And with the positioning of a Nike missile site near Wolf Lake, Cold War anxieties certainly did as well.
Industry and the supporting services thrived in the 1950s. Businesses lined Baltimore and Brandon Avenues, as well as numerous corners at intersections throughout the neighborhood. Industries such as Valley Mould & Iron continued to provided jobs.
The Ford plant helped meet the increased demand for automobiles coming from across the country as millions of Americans left the central cities for the car-focused suburbs. Republic Steel constructed a seamless tube mill early in the decade, and in 1959 Wisconsin Steel began construction on a new rolling mill.
These expansions spurred by strong demand for steel helped ensured that the mills remained stable places of employment for thousands of Southeast Siders. Favorable economic conditions also allowed workers to hold out for better pay and benefits. Accordingly, the United Steelworkers union participated in strikes in 1952, 1955, and 1956, and 1959., the last of which the Tribune noted for its relative calm compared to the violent strikes in past decades.
At the same, General Chemical was doing well.
All those people working–and aspiring to attain a middle-class lifestyle–meant there was more money for consumer goods like new cars. As a caption reads from “The Story of R.U.B.” in Republic Reports from June 1955, “A busy plant means jobs, pay, and prosperity for employees. Scene showing cars on the Chicago plant parking lot is duplicated in few places outside the U.S.” (Perhaps, the writer’s positive words were an attempt quiet moves toward the strike that would occur in the very next month.) With good growing incomes, many steel mill employees did not need to ride the street car to work; they could instead that their own automobiles.
There was even more money available for eating outside the home or church. At this time, pizza also started to make its mark on America, including in Hegewisch. In the 1950s, Mama D’s Pizza became a treat for local families and a staple of the business community.
One could have pizza during a night out at the bowling alley, or with the family after the kids’ baseball game. Hegewisch had transitioned from its early rail- and factory-focused days to one of families, beautiful automobiles, and fun, as seen in footage of the Hegewisch Little League Parade in 1965, uploaded by YouTube user Gerard Dupczak. The American flag, a symbol strengthened by the difficult years of the Depression, World War II, and Korea, flies proudly. The film, taken on a 8mm movie camera, is one of four reels from the 1960s recently uploaded.
Baseball had been a tradition in Hegewisch, going back to at least the town’s first decade, as tracked down by Tony Margis of the Southeast Chicago Historical Society.
The Hegewisch Grays played teams from a number of nearby cities.
Softball games were played throughout the region, too.
In Hegewisch, the beginning of the baseball season was a big deal the children in the community. We would later meet someone who sponsors the league and rides in these parades today. No doubt he was part of these parades as a kid, too. did so as a kid, too.
Dress up day around 1964 brought children and their parents out to the local park, Mann Park, for some family fun. There was likely little attempt to accurately honor Potawatomi history and culture, but the 8mm footage uploaded by Gerard Dupczak is nonetheless a beautiful reflection of the era’s pop culture.
More than anything, it shows a typical American small town of the era, not a gritty urban neighborhood or toxic industrial wasteland. While most in the film likely had a home cooked meal that night, surely at least one family wanted to keep the fun going and made a trip to Mama D’s for some pizza.
But by the mid 1960s, world events called again, and Hegewisch sent many young men to fight in Vietnam. Some didn’t make it home. Carmel B. Harvey, Jr., a 1965 graduate of Washington High School whose family lived at the far southern corner of Hegewisch (right by the lumber yard and across from the depot), posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his heroism.
Over the next few years, Hegewisch would send many more young men to the other side of the world. Like Battling Nelson, many of them would not forget the little community on the edge of Chicago. Just like this guy.
He seems like he’d be into pizza, too.
More on him later.
By 1970, the community’s population grew to 11,345 residents, a 27 percent increase over the previous decade. All of this occurred as some neighborhoods in Chicago began to witness huge population losses. While the Second City made its slide to number three in the country in total number of residents in 1980, Hegewisch witnessed some of its most active days, even peaking in population at 11,572 residents. Concurrently, the community’s percentage of foreign-born residents hit an all-time low: 8.3%, significantly lower than the percentage in 1930, which stood at 32.3% of the neighborhood’s population. Hegewisch changed a lot in nearly 100 years.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Today, when you cross those railroad tracks on 133rd Street, you still get that feeling of a classic American small town: single-family homes, and a few two-family ones, with lawns and fences; compact architectural development; a main street (or two) with mom and pop shops, banks, taverns, churches, and restaurants. Despite picking up for a couple of hours around quitting time, the streets have a noticeable quiet. You get the feeling, as many observers have noted, that it is a sleepy community in somewhere in nearby Indiana rather the crowded, bustling city of Chicago . It may have had suburban-like growth in the ’50s, ’60s, and 70’s, but its geographic isolation helped to continue to defining the community as an independent town, rather than an appendage of larger city, just as it had for decades.
In other ways, it doesn’t feel like a small town at all. For instance, there wasn’t just a tavern or two. South Chicago, Slag Valley, and the East Side all have a number of bars, but the proportion seems even greater in Hegewisch. Hegewisch only has about seven or so now, but that’s still high number for a small town, and there are remnants of taverns all over the neighborhood. Was this what the rest of Chicago used to be like?
Furthermore, in this older part of the neighborhood, you can find older two-flat frame houses similar to those in many other parts of Chicago, most located quite close the street. Hegewisch, after all, has two streets lined with businesses, along with corner businesses spaced throughout the neighborhood, just like many other parts of Chicago. Furthermore, some businesses are adorned with Polish surnames like Aniol, Sadowski, and Opyt, while a few newer businesses have names spelled out fully in Spanish.
This dynamic, noticed by other observers, can make outsiders like us very curious. What is this place anyway? Maybe it’s not really strange at all that Hegewisch was also the home of Eugene Izzi, a former steelworker turned crime fiction writer who painted a picture of his upbringing as one full of danger and dread, while also a place where others openly disputed such characterizations, suggesting that growing up in Hegewisch was purely idyllic. Mystery writer Sara Paretsky found somewhat of a middle ground when she gave the heroine of novels, private investigator V.I. Warshawski, a background of growing up in Hegewisch that helped shape her identity. Izzi, however, held on to his negative opinion of the neighborhood (somewhat justified, as his father, who had mob connections and served time in jail, left young Eugene, his mother, and his sisters to be ostracized by some residents) until his mysterious death in 1996.
One of the main commercial streets in Hegewisch is Brandon Avenue. It is narrower than the primary commercial street, Baltimore Avenue, and today has fewer storefront businesses and quite a few more houses. A street car ran along Brandon from South Chicago, which likely contributed to the business development there. Street car lines connected Hegewisch to essential workplaces such as Republic Steel to the north and Pressed Steel just to the southwest. Here’s a great photograph from the 1940s of the Brandon-Brainard line as it passes the original Lebanon Lutheran Church, now demolished, at the corner of 132nd and Brandon.
A block south at the corner of 133rd and South Brandon Avenue, we passed the first of several taverns in the neighborhood. The Beacon has been around since at least the 1940s, and the location has been home to a tavern for even longer. As recently as 2012, it opened at 7 a.m. every morning for customers who had just finished work on the overnight shift.
This intersection around 1900, looking west on 133rd, with a few police officers standing in front of today’s Beacon Tavern at left.
Just across 133rd Street from the Beacon Tavern, the former Hegewisch Pharmacy stands with what remains of its beautiful Vitrolite tiles. The community’s name is displayed in a dreamy typeface that looks like it could be spread across the front of a favorite local baseball team’s jersey. Pure Americana.
Heading south on Brandon Avenue, Taqueria El Taquin reflects the growing Hispanic community in Hegewisch. Another Mexican restaurant, Los Cantaritos, is located on Baltimore Avenue.
Mexicans lived in Hegewisch for decades, however, though for many years in small numbers. Mexicans and other Latin American countries faced little and if any legal restrictions from immigration acts of the 1920s, which severely curtailed immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. During the Steel Strike of 1919, Mexicans and African Americans were recruited by steel companies to fill the resulting demand for labor. Most Mexicans settled in parts of the Southeast Side nearest to the steel mills, such as the Bush next to South Works in South Chicago and the Irondale section next to Wisconsin Steel in South Deering. Some, though fewer, Mexicans settled in Hegewisch and traveled from there to the mills, as did this group of boarders at 13511 Avenue K in 1930. Most of them did not speak any English, but almost all were listed as “Yes” to the question of whether or not they were able to read and write in their own language, which was Spanish. Two Polish men also lived at the residence. One worked in a car factory, while the other worked at the grain elevators located north of Hegewisch near Republic Steel.
Continuing south on Brandon, the aqua blue painted brick of 7 Seas Pet Care Center sticks out gloriously on a street full of muted colors. In business since 1970, 7 Seas started as fish store, then expanded to a wider range of services.
Right next to the 7 Seas building, at 13315 South Brandon, once stood the original home Hegewisch Records, the famed, and now-defunct local music chain. Joseph G. Sotiros started the business as Hegewisch Discount in 1967.
In 1974, the business moved to Calumet City and by then it was known as Hegewisch Discount Records & Tapes.
By the late 1970s, Hegewisch Records & Tapes had multiple suburban Chicago and Northwest Indiana locations, but the namesake store in Hegewisch was gone.
Nevertheless, Hegewisch Records introduced countless suburbanites to the newest and best rock music for decades.
Most buildings in neighborhood are one or two stories tall, with a few at two-and-a-half stories. The Hegewisch State Bank building stands at the corner of Brandon and 134th Street. Apparently constructed in 1923, despite the “Founded A.D. 1919” inscription, the Hegewisch State Bank failed in 1931 during the Depression.
After the bank’s closure, a building and loan association that operated there, providing home loans for residents of Hegewisch.
By the 1950s, the impressive building housed Blondie’s Lounge, another one of Hegewisch’s many taverns. According one guy who knew Blondie well–we’ll meet him later–the bank’s counter was used as the bar. Blondie’s advertised menu went beyond steak and chicken to include pierogi, which reflected the large Eastern European (particularly Polish) population of Hegewisch, and frog legs, which reflected the wetlands surrounding Hegwisch. The location served as a tavern under a different name up until just a few years ago, as well. And we believe Bat Nelson’s house still stands right across 134th Street.
And Blondie and Ace must have been a little miffed at the newspaper ad men: they got the address wrong! It should have been listed as 13358 Brandon Ave. But we won’t challenge the Hegewisch (and not Chicago), Ill. designation.
A few doors down and across the street, Hegewisch Cycle & Hobby at 13403 South Brandon Avenue. There are still model old cars in the window, but we’ve noticed the sign falling from neglect over the last few years.
Another visible reminder of the Hegewisch’s big city connection is the official Chicago flag that flies proudly outside of the firehouse for Engine 97 at 13359 South Burley Avenue, a block east of Brandon. In 1888, the newspaper reported that a new “engine house and police station” had been constructed, and it was “neat-looking brick structure of two stories,” likely referring to this building. (Chicago Tribune, Aug. 19, 1888)
Further highlighting the neighborhood’s disconnection from the rest of Chicago, the Hegewisch fire department apparently was the last in the city to use horse-drawn wagons.
This storefront at 13248 South Houston Avenue appears, based on its design, to have originally used as a residence, though we can’t be sure. Today, its Robert L. Ray’s Hair Salon, a barbershop located in the middle of the neighborhood.
Across Chicago and, in particular, on the North Side, redevelopment increasingly threatens worker cottages, a defining housing type of the city, with extinction. Many remain in Hegewisch, like this one that displays a “Proud Union Home” sign. Despite their widespread decline across the United States, unions, if front yard signs are to be believed, are still alive in Hegewisch.
This two-half and a half story home boasts gray asphalt siding, something that is not uncommon in Chicago.
In the early twentieth century, lots were still being filled in. That said, Hegewisch looks fairly similar to this photograph today.
The intersection of Brandon and 135th Street, looking north, today.
On Brainard, we are reminded that the railroads helped build Hegewisch, making it an ideal place for the location of the U.S. Rolling Stock Company. It has also provided a connection to downtown Chicago, which connects to the rest of the country. The cars produced there were sent on the rail lines that surrounded the community to destinations across the continent. Without railroads, Hegewisch as it is today would likely not exist.
The South Shore Line has served the Hegewisch community for decades, connecting the community to the Loop, as well as parts of Northwest Indiana as far away as South Bend.
The station stands in the shadows of the old Pressed Steel site. The Hegewisch commuter train station located on Brainard Avenue includes a large lot where workers from Hegewisch and surrounding communities park their cars then ride to their jobs in other parts of the city and region.
One can still take the train north to the Hawks game, too.
Since the town’s founding, the blue collar heritage of Hegewisch has contributed to the widespread of integration of taverns in the community. Many others have closed in recent decades, but taverns such as South Shore Inn, run by the Ubik family since 1921, remain in business. It makes sense that it is located on Brainard Avenue very near the old Pressed Steel site, where workers could effectively walk across the street before or after a shift. Apparently, Eugene Izzi used to be a regular, stating that the South Shore Inn was where “I did 80 percent of my drinking.”
Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, located at 13631 South Brainard, highlights the ethnic and religious diversity of Hegewisch since the community’s founding. The church was founded in 1926.
One of the more curious businesses in Hegewisch is the Calumet Harbor Lumber Company. Located on Brainard Avenue at the southern end of the neighborhood, just steps from the site of the old Ryan Car Company works, Calumet Harbor Lumber operates as the only remaining sawmill in the city of Chicago. Opened in 1922 by northern Indiana “pioneer” John Beckman as Hegewisch Lumber and Supply, a company focusing on lumber cut locally in Northwest Indiana and areas south of Chicago, it has been run by the Beckmann family, now on its fourth generation, ever since. The Chicago Tribune stated that the business was a “Loner” and the “Last of 50 of Once in Chicago”. . .in 1964!
In many ways, Chicago’s former place as the lumber capital of America has been forgotten. Standardized lumber dimensions such as the two-by-four grew immensely popular in the early decades of the twentieth century as the balloon frame house, a Chicago-based invention, became a dominant housing construction in Chicago and in many cities across the country. (See William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West for great info on how Chicago merchants harnessed the environment–including trees–to build the city and country we know today.)
Today, Calumet Harbor Lumber thrives as specialized business, and serves as yet another unique facet of Hegewisch’s culture.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Like many areas of Chicago with a historically-industrialized workforce, Hegewisch had a large number of foreign-born residents or were first-generation Americans. In 1930, 2,552, or 32.3 percent, of Hegewisch’s 7,890 residents, were foreign-born. While other, larger neighborhoods boasted higher raw numbers, only six of the 76 other community areas had higher foreign-born percentages. And like industrial communities such as the stockyards area around Bridgeport and Back of the Yards, Hegewisch was once populated by many people who either came from or possessed Eastern European heritage, and in particular, Polish heritage.
Overall, Chicago has historically housed a huge Polish American community. Poles came to Hegewisch not long after it was founded, but settled there in larger numbers in the first decades of the twentieth century. While not as huge in numbers as Polish communities in other parts of the city such as neighborhoods on the near Northwest and Southwest Sides, the percentage of residents in Hegewisch claiming Polish heritage was substantial.
It was not uncommon to see census listings such as this, as from part of the 13500 block of Brandon in 1930, where most residents are immigrants from Poland or children of Polish immigrants, while living near residents who came from other countries.
This was common even on the other side of town, as for instance on this section of Avenue M. Is this St. Columba parish?
St. Columba was the first Catholic church in Hegewisch in 1884, as a mission of South Deering parish St. Kevin’s. But as the Polish community grew, it looked for a place of its own to worship. Under the direction of St. Columba pastor Father Florian Chodniewicz, St. Florian Catholic Church, opened in its original frame structure in 1905. For many years, a tavern, at one time named Kurnik’s, run by Stanley and Walter Kurnik, stood across the street.
Chodniewicz led St. Florian’s for 22 years until his death after being shot by a burglar.
A much-larger brick structure, the current St. Florian building, replaced the original church in 1927 under the direction of Father Vincent Nowicki. One parishioner claimed that it was the “only church in the world where you don’t have to step up or step down. There’s no steps. You just wheel the coffins straight. Let me tell you that’s good when you’re a pall bearer.” We’re pretty sure that assessment isn’t quite accurate, but if you lived in small a community like Hegewisch all your life, no doubt that type of lore becomes believable and something to be proud of. Showing the diversity of the Polish settlement in Hegewisch, the much smaller St. Hedwig Polish Catholic National Church was founded in 1940 serving that denomination.
St. Florian today takes up a whole city block. The size of the complex was typical of Catholic parishes in Polish communities across Chicago.
Almost all had elementary schools, and some had secondary schools. Schools reinforced not only religious identity, but also Polish ethnic identity within a world that encouraged assimilation, particularly after the quota-based immigration acts of early 1920s. The original elementary school building, constructed in 1907, is known as Konsowski Hall, named after Father Chester Konsowski. As a report for the National Historic Register stated, “Each parish sponsored hundreds of parish fraternal groups and societies ranging from choirs, and literary and dramatic circles to athletic teams.”
“The Polish clergy and religious orders of women ran hospitals, orphanages, residences for the elderly, and various social welfare agencies. With four Polish cemeteries just outside the city limits, it was said that Chicago Poles were provided with services from ‘cradle to grave.'” (See Ethnic (European) Historic Settlement in the City of Chicago (1860-1930))
Father Francis A. Kulinski served as pastor of St. Florian from 1934 to 1963. Kulinski, the longest serving leader in parish history, was one of only nine total pastors at St. Florian throughout its history. Most In a 1978 profile of Hegewisch in the Tribune, a local resident said of Kulinski, “I’m telling you, during Prohibition he used to hit the gin mills–he knew them all–and he’d break down doors, whip off the collar, and beat the hell out of anyone in there. Used to say you had to be in church.” We’re not sure if this occurred around Hegewisch (Prohibition ended in 1933, and Kulinski didn’t become pastor until 1934), or if its even true. Still, the point was made: you had better listen to Father Kulinski.
Home movie footage taken just months before his death captured his “golden jubilee,” which may have been for his 30 years a the parish’s pastor, or his 50th year as a priest. Kulinski, who served as an chaplain in the Army during World War I, organized food and clothing drives for American soldiers and Polish refugees during the Second World War. He also oversaw the construction of the parish gymnasium, which was completed in 1954.
The anniversary celebration was attended by Chicago Archbishop Albert Meyer.
The beautiful footage, uploaded by Gerard Dupczak, includes many members of the community, as well as the St. Florian buildings in the background.
Sadowski Funeral Home, formerly Joseph’s Memorial Chapel, and later Lesniak Funeral Home, at the corner of 133rd and South Houston Avenue, is located about a block and a half south of St. Florian.
Directly across 133rd Street stand a building that was once a tavern, and across Houston there’s a building that, based on its design, was likely a tavern. It makes sense, because in between the cradle and the grave you had to have some fun.
You could even have a good time on church grounds. (And we’re pretty sure there used a be a tavern across the street from the auditorium if you needed to step out for a drink or two.) Mickey Isley and his band played throughout Northwest Indiana and across the state line in Illinois. Like many people in the region, he was also a steelworker, spending thirty years at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works, so he knew his audience well.
A contemporary account highlighted the prominence of celebration in daily life in Hegewisch. The Hammond Times profile of Hegewisch in 1940 described Hegewisch as “a community comprised mainly of foreign-born individuals, about 50 per cent of whom are of Polish descent, wherein sociability and friendliness go merrily hand in hand; wherein dancing is their joyous pastime, and gay wedding parties, stork showers, and birthday celebrations are every-week occurrences with the attendance figures invariably large.”
Houses across the street from St. Florian’s are mostly modest one-and-a-half story worker cottages and bungalows. Many parishioners lived nearby.
There were good memories for one woman on this street, the same street as her parish, St. Florian. She lived about a block south, and her father owned Ted’s Tavern on 13200 block (another tavern roughly across the street from Sadowski Funeral Home) from the 1940s to the 1970s. Ted’s was known for its fried fish. She remembered attending mass for Christmas, and later dinner included Polish sausage, pierogi, and mashed potatoes. This is just one story, but there are no doubt similar memories held by many people in the community.
These were, after all, common customs for a neighborhood with one of the highest percentages of Polish-born residents, not to mention their American-born children and grandchildren.
Music was an essential part of the fun. If you really wanted to have a good time, polka was it!
And Hegewisch was a polka-loving neighborhood. While it did not sport the density of taverns, clubs, restaurants, and recording studios that a few other neighborhoods–South Side neighborhoods such South Lawndale, Archer Heights, and Brighton Park, as well as the traditional Polish Downtown on North Side in the West Town area–there were a number places one could go polka dancing on a regular basis. One polka club in Hegewisch was Joe and Jean’s Lounge, founded by Jean Salomon and her husband. Jean, whose parents had immigrated from Poland to Wisconsin then moved to Hegewisch to work in the steel mills, had been studying to be a nun when she met her future husband, Joe, a local steelworker (the 1940 census lists him as a trimmer in an auto factory; his brother was a laborer for the WPA, his sister a hotel maid, and his father a riveter at one of the car shops). They opened there lounge featuring live polka shows in 1949, later moving it first to Burnham then to Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood.
Jean would later co-found the International Polka Association and serve as the first chairwoman of the Polka Hall of Fall and Museum.
Again, the neighborhood had at one of the highest percentages of Polish residents in the city. South Chicago itself was a Polish colony beginning in the 1880s and boasted four Polish Catholic churches by 1928 (Ernie and I had passed one, St. Michael the Archangel, on our way to Hegewisch). As that community grew larger, Polish residents moved to areas such as West Pullman and Hegewisch. The smaller Hegewisch, almost a satellite of South Chicago, soon developed a large Polish community of its own, in part to due to the industrial jobs available there. Just as the neighborhood’s physical distance from the other Polish and Eastern European communities in Chicago promoted the creation local social and religious institutions such as churches, that distance no doubt encouraged the creation of a locally-supported polka “scene.” Isolation, too, encouraged residents to look inward, and likely helped the culture thrive on its own within the borders of the community. All the while residents of Hegewisch were connected south- and eastward to other polka-loving communities just over the city limits like Calumet City and Burnham, across the state line in Northwest Indiana, in places like Hammond, where one could get their polka fix. At places like Eddie’s Crystal Tap, young folks from nearby places like Hegewisch and South Chicago meet their lifelong polka dancing partners, which included a wedding at St. Florian’s, of course.
To get to the real party place in Hegewisch, we had to head a few blocks south from St. Florian’s to Brainard Avenue. Club 505 , located between Baltimore and Brainard avenues, was the long-running of polka capital of Hegewisch, and one of the longest running polka clubs in the city of Chicago.
A tavern for several decades prior (owned at one time by Albert Sowa), Club 505 opened in 1946 by Walter and Josephine Mlynarczyk, who with a new addition to the building began hosting live polka shows in 1957.
Typical for the area, Club 505 served fried fish. Cocktails, too!
Chicago’s king of polka, and one of the first inductees into the Polka Hall of Fame, Li’l Wally, played there on occasion, as did all-time greats such as Eddie Zima, Li’l Richard, Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones, Marion Lush, and many more.
For 31 years, a weekly show was broadcast from the club via Hammond, Indiana radio station WJOB.
Ernie and I love polka, and it’s such a shame that we never got experience this place.
There are another reminders that Hegewisch, despite its strong case for its own identity, is located in Chicago. The old Hot Dog Joe’s was one, which was located next to Club 505 for many years.
Today, the building shows the evolution of an American community in the twenty-first century.
Club 505 closed in 2011, further highlighting Chicago’s slowly disappearing polka heritage. Still, the Polish imprint is still evident Hegewisch. Even today, over 23% of its residents claim Polish heritage, the fifth highest neighborhood percentage in the entire city. That number is higher than any group within the neighborhood other than Mexican (42%), reflecting a significant demographic change in Hegewisch in the last two decades. But as the neighborhood’s population percentage becomes more and more Latino–the percentage of foreign-born residents increased from 8.3% in 1980 to 9.1% in 1990, 13.5% in 2000, with a slight drop to 12.7% in 2010–it’s interesting to remember that one variant of polka is Norteno, which can be roughly translated as. . .Mexican polka. Na zdrowie to the possibility that festive music could one day soon flow through Club 505 again.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Doubling back to the northern part of central Hegewisch, sometimes called Old Hegewisch, Ernie and I needed some fresh air. So, we took a stroll to enjoy the cool, cloudy day with a walk around Mann Park.
It took some work for this park to appear in its current form. About two decades after the founding of Hegewisch, residents continued pushing for amenities already enjoyed by other Chicago neighborhoods. The tract of land was acquired in 1898, and reportedly as early as 1900 a campaign began to make a park on the site. (Hammond Times, January 5, 1940) So, in 1907, local civic groups lobbied the South Park Commission for a local park. One year later, the commission purchased a 20 acre site between 130th and 132nd streets bounded by Carondolet and Exchange Avenues. The park was known officially as Park Number Nine (though one map from the era listed it as “Park 17”) and more commonly as Hegewisch Park for about a decade and half. In its earliest days, the park hosted football games with opponents coming from across the region.
In 1922, the park received its current name in honor U.S. Representative James R. Mann. Mann, who died in office after serving about 25 years, had previously served as an attorney for the park commission, and is most famous for sponsoring the Mann Act in Congress. The park’s 20 acres include several baseball fields, a football/soccer field, tennis courts, a playground, a harvest garden, and a field house and natatorium.
It had been a nice walk, but it was time to get to Pudgy’s!
And to get there, we had to travel just a few blocks down Baltimore Avenue.
While Brandon Avenue has a number of storefronts with active and closed businesses, the wider Baltimore Avenue is home to the primary business district in Hegewisch. Here one can find banks, grocery stores, restaurants, civic organizations, a funeral home, taverns, and more. Starting at 132nd Street heading south, Doreen’s Pizzeria, one of the longstanding pizza options in Hegewisch, is located at 13201 South Baltimore Avenue. Founded by Bob Wisz in 1986, Doreen’s menu states “Voted 1 Pizza on The South Side of chicago.” It is also known by many Chicago supermarket shoppers for their frozen pizza line, which along with Home Run Inn and Connie’s–and don’t forget Gino’s, Vito and Nick’s II, Reggio’s, and Savy’s (the brand named for Blackhawk hockey great Denis Savard), and more helps make a case for Chicago being an amazing frozen pizza market. We had eaten Doreen’s Frozen Pizza several times and enjoyed it, though Home Run Inn was the usual pick. Wisz sold the Doreen’s store in Hegewisch to Bill Delis, who runs it today. There’s also a second location in Dyer, Indiana, and a large part of the customer base is former Hegewisch and East Side residents. It’s a pretty common story in Southeast Chicago for businesses to follow their customers as they move to Northwest Indiana.
First Savings Bank of Hegewisch is visible down the street, on a large lot that part of which was home to Frank’s in the mid 1960s.
Behind our camera, just across 132nd Street and out of view, there used to be a tavern. Steve’s Lounge, however, is still open for business right across the street.
Hegewisch Fruit Market, formerly Hart’s Food Center, boasts a quaint, mid-century modern design, with some sales advertisements written partially in Spanish.
The local post office may list Chicago, but it mentions Hegewisch twice. And emphasis on the Hegewisch name is important. It makes a point that Hegewisch is a distinct place. Before this location was built around 1960, the Hegewisch post office was housed down the street in a building that was the centerpiece of the commercial district.
The post office was once located in the turreted, two-plus story building on the left in this undated view of looking south on Erie Avenue, now Baltimore, just north of 133rd Street.
A bowling and billiard hall was located in the far left of the photograph, barely visible, in 1912. Billiard halls could be found all over Chicago, and Hegewisch had several well into the 1920s.
Today, Old Hegewisch is interspersed with a few vacant lots on which buildings that stood for many years have since been demolished. One notable large lot, located at the southeast corner of Baltimore and 133rd Street, was once the site of the Hegewisch Opera House.
Reportedly built, as the a marker atop the building stated, in 1888 (though one source says 1895), one year before Hegewisch was annexed by the city of Chicago, the opera house served as a community meeting space and performance center. Buildings with similar functions were built in small towns and satellite urban neighborhoods across the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Battling Nelson had at least one fight at the opera house (he fought Hegewisch resident and car shop worker Pudden Burns. . .not surprisingly, Pudden lost). The Hegewisch Station post office was located in the building, as was the Opera House Buffet, one of many restaurants and taverns that would eventually occupy the space.
The Panayotoviches then opened a restaurant and pizzeria in the Vet’s Park and Merrionette/Jeffrey Manor section of South Deering. Milan himself would often perform Serbo-Croatian tamburitza music as a vocalist.
In the 2006, a fire that started in Cousins Restaurant consumed much of the building, which was subsequently demolished. Today, there is a noticeable large vacant lot stretches an entire half-block. It appears to be mowed and taken care of, awaiting the hope of redevelopment.
Despite the region’s historical focus on heavy industry that produced dirty environmental factors–including rates of cancer significantly historically and currently higher than most of Chicago and huge number of landfills and dumps–many people in Southeast Chicago are working to make it a cleaner, healthier place to live. This move, in part, coincided with decline of the steel mill industry in the 1980s and 1990s when citizens recognized a future where the lingering quality of life threats caused by those must be reckoned with. In 1992, the Washington Post reported that the “toxic wasteland” of Hegewisch spurred the actions of concerned residents made up from different backgrounds and occupations in a form of “blue-collar environmentalism.” One group actively confront these environmental issues is the Southeast Environmental Task Force, which in recent years has taken on the Koch Brothers Petcoke storage in the area. Part of the Calumet Stewardship Initiative, an coalition of environmentally-focused groups, the task force has an office on Baltimore Avenue at 133rd Street. Hegewisch Marsh, the largest wetland in the city limits, is located just a few blocks to the west across Brainard and Torrence. It’s a beautiful reminder of the region’s natural history; one that also shows the remnants of the area’s heavy industrialization. Pieces of slag, a waste product of steel production, can still be found throughout the marsh.
This building for many years was Klucker’s Pharmacy from at least 1920 until at least the early 1980s. Harold Klucker, ran the business for 43 years until 1983.
Albert C. Klucker, grandfather of Harold, opened the drugstore just down the block at 13332 Erie Avenue, at what is today a vacant lot next to the Hegewisch Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber’s current building was later home to the Flower Box, operated by Robert Panayotovich, Milan’s brother. Later, the business moved to 13308-10.
American Legion Fred Schweitzer Post 272 on this block, too, for veterans to enjoy a drink and some comradery. The post was likely named after the Hegewisch resident who lived at 13336 Buffalo Avenue and was killed in action at the slaughter known as the Battle of Verdun in 1918. According to Rod Sellers and Dominic Pacyga’s Chicago’s Southeast Side, numerous veterans organizations were based in the region by the end of World War II, including the Hegewisch Polish Legion of American Veterans Post 44, in the early ’60s met at the Hegewisch Community Center at 13454 Baltimore. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was a Legion Tap on Brainard. Was it related to either of these groups?
The American Legion post’s current building, located at 13304 South Baltimore Avenue, at one time was the site of the Inter-State National Bank, founded in 1906. Apparently, the bank constructed a new building at 13310 Baltimore around World War I. One announcement for the building contributed to Hegewisch’s identity crisis.
Inter-State consolidated with the Hegewisch State Bank, located at 134th and Brandon, in 1927. Arcade Hall likely had meeting spaces for local community groups. Apparently, American Legion South Shore Post 388 also currently meets there. We might need someone from Hegewisch to explain the two different posts to us, and why one is named “South Shore.”
Serbian immigrant Sam Panayotovich, father of Milan Panayotovich, operated a confectionery two doors down at 13308 South Baltimore as early as the 1920s. By 1940, the business was listed on the census as a “pool room,” while his World War II draft card lists the business “Hegewisch Bowling Alley.” The birthplace of his wife, Ella, is listed as Austria, though it is just as likely that this refers the Austrian partition of Poland. According to the census both sons in their 20s were employed in a steel mill: Robert was a chipper and Milan, prior to entering the hospitality business, worked as an oiler.
Robert Panayotovich, Sam’s oldest son, later moved his flower and gift shop to the building, where he operated it with his wife, Helen. The Flower Box closed sometime in the early 2000s.
James Hopkinson–the man who was Hegewisch’s oldest resident in 1940–ran a grocery with his wife Maria at 13312 Baltimore, which is today a vacant lot. A few doors down, the Hegewisch Theatre once presented vaudeville shows, and later motion pictures. Though according to the ad, the theater was once located at 13326 Erie Avenue.
A reviewer noted that it was a suburban theater in a town several miles from Chicago. It got high marks, too. Good job, Jack Wolfberg!
By 1917, a grocer was listed at that address, and by the late 1920s, the theater had moved a couple of storefronts north, listed at 13320 Baltimore Avenue, site the well-known white building that bears the theater’s name.The theater operated for decades, and later the building was used for a local organization. Most recently, Monnie D’s Pizza occupied the space adding to Hegewisch’s pizza legacy. We never got a chance to try it, as it closed just recently.
Just next door, Baltimore Foods occupies two connected storefronts at 13322 South Baltimore Avenue. A small market where you buy groceries, wine, and beer, Baltimore Foods also boasts delicious shish-kabobs! (Hey, what’s that thick orange sauce on the counter in containers of various sizes. Sixty-nine cents? Sure, we’ll take some.)
Way back in 1912, the two adjoining buildings were home to The Scandinavian Fair, a name that likely the reflected Hegewisch’s Swedish population during the era.
In 1983, the store was purchased by husband and wife Drago and Zorica Protega, Croatian immigrants. Drago’s, or DragoBob’s, a very popular recipe that has fiercely loyal customers. DragoBob’s at this location is gone now, but the family keeps it alive for events, now based out of Northwest Indiana. You can also DragoBob’s recipe on the menu at Doreen’s and at Chicago Pita Kitchen located at 13227 South Brainard Avenue.
The original beacon, namesake for the tavern, was located to the left of the funeral home for many years. Constructed in the early 1930s, the beacon was intended by its builder, John Serafin, to serve as a tower for a planned radio station. Serafin was apparently injured during its construction and the station never materialized. Nevertheless, the beacon stood as a local landmark for decades at the northwest corner of Baltimore Avenue at 134th Street–site of the old Hegewisch police station–and was later demolished for a parking lot serving Opyt Funeral Home.
Aniol’s Hardware, a True Value store, has been in Hegewisch for decades, opened by veterans Stanley and Helen Aniol. The Aniol family has been involved in business in Hegewisch for well over a century, with Aniol and Hasiak Butcher Shop an early-twentieth century venture. Around the same time, Andrew Aniol owned a tavern at 13448 Baltimore Avenue, a few doors south of today’s hardware store, and later at 13447 Houston. Today, the business is run by Stanley and Helen’s son, Mike Aniol.
Helen helped build tanks at Pressed Steel during World War II before enlisting. That’s her, third from left, on top of the tank. We wish we had gotten a chance to talk to the Aniols because we’re sure they could tell us a lot about Hegewisch.
In the community’s early days, citizens of Hegewisch had to fight hard to be recognized by the city of Chicago and get public streetcars lines routed to the neighborhood. In many ways, they still have difficult time getting noticed by city hall. That said, civic commitments for public transportation are currently honored.
Things are slowly changing in Hegewisch, but some things persist. One of those things that just keeps going there, we would learn, is pizza. Places like Mama D’s helped make pizza a staple in the predominantly Polish neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, but many more pizzerias would follow. One of those places, located just north of the intersection of Baltimore and Brainard, also happens to be one of the best pizza shops in all of Chicagoland.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Our first trip to Pudgy’s was probably our favorite pizza trip ever. We had visited a lot of places already, and we have tried vastly more since that first visit. But through them all, Pudgy’s has stuck with us. Our previous trips to Hegewisch had set the stage, and some online research (hegewisch.net was essential for our planning, and remains an excellent resource to learn about the community) really got things moving. All we needed was a few hours to make it work. When the opportunity arose, we made our first official Pizza Hound run to visit these folks. I mean, come on, look at those smiling faces.
The Pudgy’s All Stars wall told us that it was community-minded place, which went a long way with us. We like pizzerias that are geared toward families rather than “fancy” ones. Pictures of local residents and sports teams–some new, some faded and old–are a good gauge of pizzeria’s place in community life. Pudgy’s apparently had a lot of them. Plus, Pudgy’s had a pizza clock, too!
So, our curiosity borne out our first pizza-less trips to Hegewisch and just a bit of honest advertising made Pudgy’s a place we really wanted to visit. We made that long slow trip from the North Side–down Lake Shore Drive, through South Chicago and the East Side, under the Skyway, then down Avenue O, and then crossing the railroad tracks–to find what we hoped was an amazing pizza. So when we weren’t too far away, we made a call to put in an order for our typical extra large all-pepperoni, half-sausage pizza. Thin crust, of course.
All indications pointed to this being a fantastic pizza experience. First, off the aroma inside the two-and-a-half story building with light blue siding was incredible. Immediately, I saw the man I knew as Bob from the picture online working in the kitchen, and the woman named Donna took my order on the phone and helped me in person. One kitchen worker was rolling dough and several others were constructing pizzas with sauce, cheese, and toppings. You could see they were putting a significant amount of work and care into the product.
The interior of the building was, thankfully, not overly updated. The original tin ceiling tiles were there, and wood paneling that came along sometime after adorned the walls. There were two well-used stainless steel Blodgett deck ovens.The atmosphere was very relaxed; no fuss at all. There weren’t even any matching company t-shirts, either. It was incredibly affordable, which really needed at the moment. Around this time we were pretty broke (but still needed pizza), so we had to sell an LP to fund the Saturday trip. It was worth it, though. Far and away the best trade we’ve ever made.
Pudgy’s had some pretty unique quirks, too. When you call Pudgy’s, you are given an estimate of when your order will be done (usually the classic Chicago “15 to 20”. . . minutes, that is), but they don’t ask for your name. Instead, they give you a ticket number. Remember this! Don’t walk in a say, “I was number, um,. . .” as I did once. . .or twice. They would not be impressed. (Or would it really be a problem at all? Stay tuned.)
I remembered the smiling faces from the picture, but I think the moment I forgot my number shook my confidence. I don’t recall getting a smile; only a look of slight annoyance. Hearing the cheerful hellos given to regulars who walked through the door–“Hey, Kip!” for instance, as they looked past me–coupled with the casual “Who are you?” looks I got from those regulars, I wondered if the that friendliness wasn’t intended for everybody. We were indeed far from home. To put things in perspective, despite living on the North Side, our apartment was closer to Sox Park, one of the quintessential landmarks of the South Side, than Pudgy’s was. But when we left and headed back north that night, we would were so happy. Hegewisch dominated our thoughts the entire rest of the night as we attempted to scour the internet for as much information as we could get. We found out that there’s not really enough of that out there.
We were so hungry by the time we got home. Normally, we would wait until we were settled, but we could not wait this time. We quickly opened the box on the kitchen table and grabbed an edge piece. Wow. We will never forget that first bite. One of the greatest bites of pizza of our lives. I shook my head side to side in disbelief as I chewed. It was our reward after such a long trip. So perfect, so delicious.
Like most neighborhood pizzerias in Chicago, thin crust is the standard style and appeared to be the most popular. Pudgy’s thin crust is very thin, not thicker like places such a Capri’s in South Chicago or even Pucci’s (from the open location on the East Side). Ernie loved it, too. He got a few delicious pieces of crust. Is this what pizza is like in all the corners of Chicago, we wondered? We had been living in the city for years, but why had we previously limited ourselves to such a small section of the city and region so far? Would the Pizza Hound be able to settle for anything but great, neighborhood-style pizza?
But somehow, such a momentous day for us resides mostly only in our memories. Because we were so caught up in the moment that we didn’t take any pictures of the pizza. In this day and age, where photos are taken of everything (including a dog and his favorite pizzas), it’s almost like it never happened. . .like we really didn’t find the passage to Hegewisch. We know we were there, we just don’t have a lot of evidence to prove it. That’s okay because we went back a few times.
We treasured that first coupon. It was like a free ticket to go on our favorite ride.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
We’ll get back that in a bit. We promise.
In Hegewisch, an outsider is confronted with competing small town and big city impressions. But there are also the steps in between: reminders its different periods of growth. That previously highlighted Hammond Times article notes that A.R. Harris, local historian and son of John Harris, said the area originally, was divided into three subdivisions: the car shops site, the Hegewisch subdivision, and the Canal and Dock Company property. Harris’s status as an early resident of Hegewisch helped make him an authority, and his many years of business in the community surely helped, as well.
Sorting this out on a map is somewhat difficult based on sources, but it appears that there were at least three other sections platted outside of Hegewisch proper. One is to the west of Pressed Steel, and to the west of the Grand Calumet River. Another was an eight block section between 126th and 128th along Torrence. And the last borders Wolf Lake, comprised about about five or six total blocks between 131st and 134th. Waterside Avenue ran diagonally along the lake. Some of this must have been the work of speculators, but we can’t say for sure we have this mystery figured out.
A section located east of Avenue O comprised of some homes constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, though there are many older ones, some constructed as early as the 1910s. This area is commonly known as Arizona, no doubt due to the sandy marshes once located there that resembled the desert found out west. Or at least the deserted marshes of the Calumet Region, where there is a feeling of open space that resembles the west. You especially feel this on the eastern edge of the The Avenues at Club 81 Too, a neighborhood bar and restaurant known for its fried chicken and fish located at 13157 South Avenue M. Opened by Chester Dombrowski in 1945, the original Club 81 was located in South Chicago, a fact that may point to the current location as being an expression of suburbanization within the city limits. As standards of living increased and many people could afford to move to newer subdivisions outside of the old crowded neighborhood. Like many business owners who saw opportunities to make money in growing areas, the proprietors of Club 81 (still run by the Dombrowski family) likely followed their customer base the wide-open spaces of Arizona, a move that certainly shows the connection between Hegewisch and the arguable motherland of the Southeast Side, South Chicago.
Not far from today’s Club 81 was the Delaware House, a large building constructed by the state of Delaware for the 1893 Worlds Fair that was later moved to at Wolf Lake around present-day 130th and Avenue O. Sellers and Pacyga note that the house was the source of local legends. In 1904, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a rare front page story about Hegewisch, however, it was one of high drama: an armed standoff occurring at the Delaware House. It all started when, at the behest of the Knickerbocker Ice Company, which used Wolf Lake for its operations, police tried to evict “Old Man” Ellis Bennett and his family from the property. Ellis, who had lived in the area since 1869, reportedly owned 100 acres of land on Wolf Lake, including his “castle.”
Despite a court order, the 58-year-old Bennett, well-know to local hunters, refused to leave. Bennett’s eldest son spoke to police and reportedly asked, “Are you armed? ‘Cause you’ll need your guns to take him.” Apparently this was confirmed by Bennett, who yelled through a door, “You’ll have to kill me to get to me, and, the Lord willin’, I’ll take a few of you along to heaven with me.” And he made good on the promise the next day, exchanging fire with a deputy sheriff. But after 36 hours, an exhausted Bennett surrendered. He was taken into custody and charged with resisting an officer and attempted murder. Bennett’s mansion was demolished in the 1950s, and the newer homes built in the area around the same time express a more mid-twentieth century suburban design. The Southeast Sportsman’s Club is over here, too, along Wolf Lake, in a building dedicated in 1955.
Some of the earliest non-native settlers in this area were the Neubeisers, who arrived in the mid-1800s. They lived a rural experience for many decades, surviving by fishing and hunting. They evolved with the times, though. According to historians Rod Sellers and Dominic A. Pacyga, two authorities on Southeast Chicago, the Neubeiser family later, as the population of Hegewisch grew and automobile transportation became more widespread, ran an auto repair shop at 13058 Avenue O (See Chicago’s Southeast Side).
When they moved to the area a century and a half ago, the Neubeisers likely could not have imagined that Nike missiles would be stationed nearby, as they were for a few decades in the mid twentieth century.
While drives through other Southeast Side neighborhoods set the tone, it continued to be clear to us that taverns were a big deal in Hegewisch. Taverns are all over Chicago, of course, but Hegewisch has an impressive number for its size. Georgie’s, a perfect neighborhood tavern with an old wooden bar, comfortable worn stools, twinkly strands of lights, a pool table in the back, and friendly staff is one of those taverns located in Arizona at 134th and Avenue M. This place is worth a visit for a laid back drink.
At one time, this establishment was known as Krupa’s Tavern, run by John Krupa. If Krupa’s didn’t do it for you, you used to be able to walk around the corner and go half a block south on Avenue N to One Way Lounge.
Probably one of the most confounding bars in all of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana, the Green Olive can be found in Arizona at Avenue N and 135th Street. Apparently this place is or was at one time run by a family member of the long-serving, though recently deposed, alderman John Pope, who grew up in the neighborhood. Sometimes they have fundraisers youth sports teams, birthday parties, and classes there, and they have a full menu of food with some pretty delicious-looking burgers. They sponsor the Hegewisch Bulldogs junior football team, too. That said, the one time I went there–yes, it was only once, two years ago–it was late, it was crowded, and the music was loud, and I couldn’t help but get the distinct feeling that I might get punched in the face if I looked at somebody the wrong way.
But, hey, it’s always been a party place. Maybe I need to give it another try.
Over the years, there have been several options for fun in Arizona.
The beloved Mike Royko wrote an entertaining column listing all kinds of things one could do to get oneself into trouble across Chicago. One suggestion involved a steelworker and the local bowling alley.
Hegewisch Lanes closed years ago and the building was demolished. You can see a picture of it on this fun bowling history blog, a great site examining urban America’s peculiar obsession with sport. Penguin Lanes, which was in the older part of Hegewisch, on Brandon, can be found on the site, too.
Aloma Gardens on Avenue N provided live music, too. Florian Bolsega, son of Polish immigrants (his father worked in an oil refinery) and who grew up in the Indiana Harbor section of nearby East Chicago, Indiana, is still out there playing. Call him up and schedule some lessons!
At the western edge of Arizona–back at our entry into the neighborhood–a small five or six square block section stretches for a width of just one city block between Avenue O and the railroad tracks by Green Bay Avenue. A train depot stood at 133rd and Green Bay for many years, showing up on late-19th century maps of Hegewisch.
This area includes the old Pucci’s. The signs are still there, and it almost looks like it is just closed for the day. For many years, this was the location of Larry’s Pizza, which also was located in Hammond.
Just a block or so away from Pucci’s, at 134th and Green Bay, we noticed St. Columba Catholic Church, the first spiritual home of Catholics within Hegewisch boundaries. The church opened in 1884 as mission of St. Kevin Catholic Church, which was located several blocks north in South Deering. While St. Florian’s was formed as a Polish parish, it certainly wasn’t the only place Polish Catholics attended mass. Many were members of St. Columba, and today the Knights of Columbus chapter based there is named after Casimir Pulsaki, Polish-born hero of the American Revolution. The original structure at 13305 South Green Bay Avenue was replaced in 1951 with the current building, a block south, mid-century modern in construction, along with a new elementary school. The school closed in 2001.
The church includes beautiful stained glass windows.
Rows of bungalows that look like they could be in Norwood Park or Garfield Ridge, line the streets adjacent to the railroad tracks. That house is listed at $189,000, in case you are interested. (Update: This one sold pretty quickly.)
In addition to Arizona and Old Hegewisch, the neighborhood has another distinct area. North of 130th Street between Avenue O and Torrence, to the east of the Ford plant, you can find a section many attractive single-family bungalows and as well as a number of yellow brick ranch houses. This subdivision, Avalon Trails, was developed in the early 1960s, with a handful of homes there dating to the 1950s. The residential architecture of Avalon Trails is notably different than that of Old Hegewisch.
Maps from the late 19th and early 20th centuries show tract of land patted within this section, and though none of the homes there today look to be that old. This map from the U.S. Geological Survey in 1953 shows the area largely undeveloped, without most streets platted. The map also effectively shows the marshland surrounding Hegewisch.
The area may have been surrounded by marshes–and rivers, lakes, railroads, slag heaps, and polluting industries (not to mention a now-aging “uptown”)–but Avalon Trails was constructed and promoted as ideal working- to middle-class suburban living perfect for police officers, firefighters, and other civil servants. Required by law to live within the city limits, many government workers and civil servants such as firefighters and police officers lived in Hegewisch. Just they did in many edge neighborhoods such as Edison Park on the Northwest Side, and Garfield Ridge, Clearing, Beverly, and Mt. Greenwood on the Southwest Side, Hegewisch provided near-suburban living within the city limits, seemingly removed from the problems of the larger metropolis. Among ads for new developments in suburban Cook County, the Tribune published glowing pieces promoting new single- and two-family homes in Hegewisch’s newest subdivision.
And despite the role played by the railways in the founding and development of Hegewisch, community leaders in Avalon Trails–more or less an automobile suburb– found themselves at odds with those same railroads almost immediately after the new subdivision’s construction. With the assistance of 10th ward alderman John Buchanan, the Avalon Trails Improvement Association fought a proposed railroad embankment that would transverse part of the northernmost section of the neighborhood. As proposed, it would require the removal of twelve recently-built homes, while isolating four others that would be located north of the embankment. After two years of wrangling the association won a compromise that would move the embankment route about 125 feet north of the original proposal, with the plan that only four houses–in fact the four that under the original plan would have been spared but cut off from the rest of Avalon Trails–would be demolished. However, by the time the plan was carried out, a total of ten homeowners were bought out and their homes sold for scrap.
The improvement association was also very active in working to reduce congestion at the meeting of 130th Street and the railroad tracks that crossed it at Brainard Avenue. The crossing served as a particular thorn in the side of Hegewisch commuters for decades. Long waits and congestion at the railroad crossing were a normal part of driving through the area. Small changes over the years improved the wait times somewhat, but they never fully alleviated the problem and occasionally pitted the association against the local alderman. A proper overpass was not constructed until 2012, when the new Torrence Avenue Bridge finally brought congestion relief.
The streets of Avalon Trials are lined with rows and rows of brick single-family homes, mostly one story, that would not be out of place on the southwest or northwest sides of Chicago.
But despite the suburbia-like environs of the streets of the Avalon Trails subdivision, there’s an industrial world beyond that wall.
The Chicago Assembly Plant still roars. A planned residential development north of the Ford plant in the 1920s never materialized and today the tract of land remains vacant. But Avalon Trails is located instead to the east of the factory.
The plant undoubtedly employs many people from Hegewisch, but it has also long been a draw for employment across Southeast Chicago and Northwest Indiana. The profile of Hegewisch in the Hammond Times from 1940, noted that “Oddly enough, townsfolks commented, the majority of Ford’s employees are not Hegewisch residents, but rather skilled automobile tradesmen whose places of abode are elsewhere in Chicago or Indiana cities in the Calumet area.” The plant produced over 150,000 automobiles in 1950. After a large reduction of numbers during the Korean War, the plant produced over 100,000 a year by 1953, employing 2,367 workers. In fact, producing over 40,000 more vehicles than the year before. In 1965, the plant produced 204,734 vehicles, a 36.8 percent increase over the 1964’s numbers. The plant’s one millionth car, a gold Galaxie 500 with white interior, “rolled off the line” in early 1972. (My dad would have loved that; his cream 1970 Galaxie was probably assembled in Hegewisch.)
Automated robots were added to the assembly line in the mid-1980s, reflecting a changing economy that threatened some jobs.
Despite the decline of industry and union membership across the country and in Chicago, the nearby manufacturing plant helps ensure the strength of unions in the area.
Like members of the United Steelworkers, local members of the United Auto Workers participated in nationwide strikes over the years. Sometimes workers at Chicago Assembly held out longer than fellow union members and Ford manufacturing employees across the country.
Today, UAW Local 551 represents the interests of local workers in the same labor tradition of steelworkers at Republic Steel in 1937, albeit under changed economic and political circumstances.
And the plant has earned awards over the years.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
With a new subdivision and a generally healthy national economy, Hegewisch continued to grow. For those who weren’t police officers or firefighters, and for those who didn’t have a job somehow connected to city hall or downtown skyscrapers, the Ford plant, the chemical plant, and, most importantly, the steel mills provided opportunities for steady employment.
But, suddenly, in 1980–a year in which Hegewisch posted likely its peak population, that of 11,572–Wisconsin Steel, after operating at losses and being jostled around by alleged corporate shenanigans, went bankrupt and abruptly closed for good, a disheartening and convoluted incident thoroughly examined and made sense by David Bensman and Roberta Lynch in Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community. 3,300 workers lost their jobs, and it took eight years before a pension settlement was reached. In the next few years the Southeast Side’s several other steel mills followed suit, devastating a large portion of the local workforce. Related businesses closed, and other services had a hard time meeting the bottom line. Many businesses along Torrence Avenue in nearby South Deering closed up shop.
Many families that depended on the mills for financial security were rocked by the sudden loss, and many emerged from the time period altered or emotionally damaged, as documented in Christine J. Walley’s Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago., and in Chris Boebel’s accompanying documentary. Facing unemployment for the first time in their adult lives, many former workers never fully recovered, often suffering from depression and alcoholism. Families who once viewed themselves as middle class had to find their way in a new–and very different–economic reality. The mills were beginning to leave Southeast Chicago, and the class stability that they provided the people of the region for so many years was beginning to disappear, as well.
Sometimes these changes are not always visible on the surface. Home video footage taken by a couple of teenagers in 1981 (credited to Rich Betczynski) shows a sleepy version of Hegewisch, from Baltimore Avenue all the way to community’s trailer park. There wasn’t much going on, so they found a way to entertain themselves.
By Hegewisch’s centennial in 1983, the community still appeared to be classic, care-free American small town. Documentary filmmakers captured a parade and festival with veterans organizations, children’s dance groups, and a queen.
Where in the hell is Rhinelander, Wisconsin? As someone from Hegewisch, I’m sure he could enjoy the sentiment.
No doubt, including these cool guys.
Amid flying American flags and “God Bless America,” Polish pride was still evident, by now among mostly the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Poland.
There was lingering turmoil, however, as documented in Jim Martin’s fantastic documentary produced for PBS, Wrapped In Steel. Released in 1984, as part of the larger, crucial Southeast Chicago Historical Project, the film examines the unforeseen decline of the steel industry and its devastating effects on the beautifully diverse communities of the Southeast Side. You can feel the tension throughout its short 90 minutes that’s still unsettling over 30 years later. To get a snapshot of Southeast Chicago during this time period, it is essential viewing.
If there was a star of the Southeast Side, it had to be powerful 10th ward Alderman Ed Vrdolyak. Still, though, he may have given Southeast Chicago a voice in city hall, during these hard times after the closure of Wisconsin Steel, many were not convinced he was looking out for them. The crowd was not exactly thrilled when Fast Eddie drove by, or were, at most, indifferent.
Residents could take out their frustrations on other local politicians such as canditate (and eventual) state representative Sam Panayotovich, a Hegewisch native and son of the owners of Milan’s, who sat in the dunk tank. This Sam Panayotovich also co-owned Milan’s Pub at 108th Street and Ewing Avenue on the East Side with his brother Michael.
Faced with economic challenges and, despite loyalties to the neighborhood, the lure of the suburbs, Hegewisch’s population slowly dropped over the years. Between 1980 and 1990, the community lost about 1,500 residents, posting a population of 10,136 in 1990. Even if the lure of newer places with more jobs was strong, many vowed to never leave. A few years earlier, the Tribune reported on the pull of Chicago’s “old neighborhoods”–as Hegewisch was now–felt by many who grew up in them. Those that left often missed it. One man who had moved from Hawaii returned each year to visit. And despite Hegewisch’s disadvantages, some chose to stay. “Face it,” stated his friend, who instead chose to stay in the neighborhood, “this is the armpit of Chicago. But me, I’ll never move away. I don’t think my lungs could deal with all that clean fresh air they tell me is out there.”
While nineteenth century technological advancements such as the railroads helped create Hegewisch, twentieth century advancement threatened to destroy it. In 1990, residents were met with plans to wipe Hegewisch and much of South Deering (as well as Burnham and part of Calumet City) off the map entirely. Mayor Richard M. Daley eyed the communities as sites of new runways and terminals for his proposed for a third Chicago airport, dubbed the Lake Calumet Airport.
Industry had brought people from across the world to Hegewisch and Southeast Chicago, but Daley suggested that looking to it to solve the area’s decline was backward thinking. “I think what we have to do is to go out into Hegewisch, go out to South Deering, go out to the city, go out in the suburban area, Northwest Indiana and tell them what this airport, economic development, would do,” Daley said. “Is steel mills coming back? I don’t see anybody building steel mills? Is factories coming back? You see no one building factories. So, we’re talking about economic opportunities and jobs.” The lure of local jobs was strong. A larger number of people in South Deering and South Chicago (and some in Hegewisch) supported the airport for the precisely that reason. According to supporters, the accompanying environmental cleanup would actually benefit there area, while detractors pointed out that it would actually destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands.
The plan was drawn-up beautifully, making the airport rival the Loop for importance.
The plan, treated by the Daley administration as a foregone conclusion, gravely upset many in the neighborhood. It was suggested that residents who wanted to stay in the area could move to a “New Hegewisch,” as if that would somehow replace the community that had built over decades.
The decline of industry and substantial pollution may not have been the only factors deciding Hegewisch’s fate, or at least that’s not all that was discussed. A couple of points of discussion came up now and then when trying to understand why the airport was planned for Hegewisch and not the mayor’s beloved Bridgeport. Hegewisch had long a part of Alderman and East Side resident Ed Vrdolyak’s 10th ward realm, a fact could have helped their cause. . .or not. Vrdolyak’s tough style of politics brought significant loyalty, and created substantial enemies. Writer Eugene Izzi suggested that Vrdolyak was the main reason Daley wanted to level the neighborhood. True or not, Hegewisch had a tradition of feeling isolated and ignored to its detriment by the larger Chicago political structure. Vrdolyak for a while gave the area a sense a power it never had before, but his kingdom had withered by 1990. The press also made much of the odd coincidence that the last act of Richard J. Daley, the then-current mayor’s father, as the city’s highest official was the dedication of the Mann Park Fieldhouse, dying later that day.
So, the answer had to come from within: local residents organized and helped stopped the plan. The shared connection to the neighborhood proved to stronger than big political power directed from the mayor’s office. As former state representative and Hegewisch native Sam Panayotovich was quoted in 1990, “People here know that if you leave town for a couple of days, neighbors will watch over your place, pick up your mail, water your tomatoes for you.” To many (though, of course, not all) it really was a tight-knit community that stood together. It was also tough as nails. As reported in 1992, one local handmade sign seen in town stated: “Born here. Live here. Will die here. Go to hell ‘Dick’ Daley. No airport!” Even Eugene Izzi softened (if that’s the right word) his stance on a drive through the neighborhood, stating that “This is the last of the great, tough neighborhoods. The mills have shut down, but people have kept their respect. There’s a lot spirit and heart here.”
People in Hegewisch just wanted to be left alone and do what had for decades: go to work, go home, and enjoy the little community they had built.
But they had to do it with fewer and fewer opportunities to work.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
But people in Southeast Chicago still go to work. A lot of different people. The communities of the Southeast Side, including Hegewisch, are evolving. Still, the traditions of hard work and hearty celebration continue.
All that hard work throughout the community’s history made the need for recreation almost a pressing necessitiy. Work took up so much of one’s life that finding time to express oneself artistically was difficult. Often, just like the many company and club sports teams and social organizations, musical groups formed in the shop were great ways for workers to cross boundaries with coworkers and find some relief. The Western Steel Car & Foundry Co. Band provided workers an opportunity to have fun.