There was, of course, no Park Forest then. Strictly speaking, the history of our town begins only in 1946. But there is an interesting history of this area before veterans and their families were attracted out here shortly after World War II.
Records in the Park Forest Local History Collection and Archive, old newspapers and other publications, early maps and legal documents, and information in area libraries and historical collections yield some intriguing stories.
This was Indian country well into the 19th century. The northern part of Illinois was well hunted, mostly by the Sauk, Fox, Potowatomi, Chippewa and Ottawa. It was, as a result, an important crossroads area of several significant Indian trails. For example, what we still call Sauk Trail connected the Detroit area to the Mississippi River. An intersection that was Hubbard's Trail, linking Chicago to Danville, and known by various names over the years, is now called Chicago Road.
Illinois became a state in 1818, but the important settled areas then were in the western and southern parts of the state. Some dramatic improvements in transportation, some new federal land laws, and the defeat of Black Hawk (pictured at the left) in 1832 brought a burst of speculation and white settlers to northeastern Illinois. Chicago, a sleepy hamlet by Fort Dearborn, was incorporated in 1833 and grew fast. The population shot up to 4,000 in 1837, to 30,000 by 1850, and to 100,000 by 1860. The Cook County population was about 43,000 in 1850 and ten years later the three south county townships of Bloom, Rich, and Thornton each contained more than 1,100 people.
The area's first permanent white settler was Adam Brown, who purchased land at the present corner of Sauk Trail and Chicago Road in 1833. In the next few years, Sauk Trail was further settled by John McCoy, just east of Western avenue, by J.H. Batcheldor and John Bell, on opposite corners of Sauk Trail and Western intersection, and by Henry Merker, about where Lakewood now meets Sauk Trail. Soon, such family names as Blattner, Weishaar, Scheidt, Stuenkel, Mahler, Mueller, Stelter, Klein, and others, all evident in what is now Park Forest by the mid-19th century, identify the area as a significant center of German immigrant settlement.
To all accounts, this was a prosperous farming area a hundred years ago. Richton, Bloom, Crete and other villages were well established, but the most important one was Matteson. Surveyed and platted in 1855, it was named after Governor Joel Matteson, and situated where the Illinois Central Railroad (coming through in 1852) intersected with a branch of the Michigan Central Railroad (1853). Some 500 people lived there by 1880; Bloom, by contrast, had a population then of 350. There were churches, public and private schools, two hotels, a grain elevator, and a number of stores and businesses in town. The "Dinky", a Joliet-to-Dyer streetcar line ran through Matteson. And by the turn of the century, thousands of people were coming out from Chicago and elsewhere to visit Elliott's Amusement Park where Olympia Way now meets Lincoln Highway.
Matteson clearly was the focal point for area farmers, but in the 1890's it began to be economically surpassed by the new Chicago Heights. In that decade, thousands of acres in Bloom Township were bought by the Chicago Heights Land Association. That group of investors was soon able to get Bloom to change its name, and announced the creation of a new manufacturing and industrial center. The population went from a few hundred in 1890 to about 4,000 in 1900. Chicago Heights became, at least for awhile, one of the most important new industrial towns in the Midwest.
In the booming, speculative 1920's golf courses and housing developments were mushrooming in the suburban Chicago area, though few made it much past 1929. Olympia Fields is one example; the town dates from 1927, fashioned around the earlier golf course. One such venture was planned in 1926 by Victor C. Carlson, an Evanston builder and developer. He envisioned a complete city--Indian Wood, he called it--centered on the old Batcheldor farm at Sauk Trail and Western. A sales office was constructed, and an 18-hole golf course laid out on the northwestern corner of that intersection; three more courses, he promised, would be added. That golf course today would be roughly bounded by Western, Orchard, Sauk Trail, and perhaps Lakewood. It was to be for the private use of the many new homeowners who would shortly be moving into the Indian Wood development.
The trouble was, they didn't. The idea didn't catch on. No new homes were built. Consequently, in the spring of 1929 the new Indian Wood Golf Course was changed to a public daily fee course, and it was quite successful that summer. A "Station Wagon" was provided to bring people from the Flossmoor IC station, greens fees were reasonable, and the food served in the old Batcheldor farmhouse, now the clubhouse, was good.
In October 1929, Carlson lost much of what he had. There are conflicting reports of the extent of his Great Depression losses and when they occurred, but the Indian Wood property was later taken by a syndicate of individual investors and eventually by Chicago's First National Bank. Carlson made what seems to have been his last substantial effort to make his property succeed in 1933. In the area just west of Western, between Sauk Trail and Monee Road, he built a camp-like resort, with small wooden cabins, a dining hall, and a recreation building, all renamed Beacon City. He advertised for Chicagoans and tourists to see the big city during the day and then come out to Beacon City to spend a lovely night in the country. It didn't last very long.
Finally, newspaper reports in the fall of 1944 indicate plans to build a middle-class black housing development, with golf course on the Indian Wood property. More than a thousand homes would be available, it was said, and a corporation called Village Developers was created. But the project was never realized. And it wasn't long thereafter that American Community Builders got the old Indian Wood land, along with adjacent farm properties, and started constructing the Park Forest that exists today.
Excerpted from a talk by Magne Olson to the Park Forest Rotary Club on July 20, 1989.
Portraits of Chief Black Hawk, Wapella and Tahcoloquoit by Charles King, c. 1837