So we blew off the blog between Halloween and Hanukkah – it got busy … (’scuse us! You try maintaining the daily 9-to-5, family life, and writing a collaborative book manuscript all at once and see how well you do.) No, really: between family stuff like one of our mom’s houses being broken into, losing not one but two of our video editors for the IGS film projects to new jobs, and trying to get the Lawndale film DVD out and publicized, the time just got away from us. Honest. And now it’s the holiday season, and we still have one-quarter of the book to finish. Yeah, good luck with that.
Well, to be fair, we did leave most of the difficult stuff for the end (no, we’re not doing this in order: it’s not a novel), so we had to expect that the last part would take the longest. But, thank heavens, it’s still fun – and sometimes the coolest things happen when you least expect them. Like yesterday.
Here’s an example: I got a phone call today first thing in the morning from one of our dearly appreciated sources, Ann Dralle. She’s out in the Romeoville–Lemont area and grew up near White Fence Farm. Ann’s also friends with Brent Hassert, whose folks owned the property just north of White Fence Farm and whose mom Pearl, bless her, is still alive and kicking. Pearl has stories to tell about living in the area near the Peabody horse farm, from which 12 acres were diverted by Stuyvesant ‘Jack’ Peabody during the early 1920s to open the restaurant. We still need to get to Pearl.
Anyway, Ann and Brent Hassert are pals, and it turns out that last weekend at a Christmas party, Brent ran into Joliet attorney John Reed, and they got to talking about growing up Bluff Road, the east-west road that intersects with Joliet Road right where White Fence Farm stands today. Now we’re interested in Bluff Road because it cut right through Arrow Brook Farm, the 450-acre Peabody horse farm right on Route 66. The Peabody weekend house, outbuildings and the pond were on the north side of Bluff Road, and the oval horse walking track and stables were on the south side. Except for the 12-acre parcel that comprised White Fence Farm, the Peabody property ran along the east side of Joliet Road between Davey Road on the north all the way to the curve of the Des Plaines River on the south and east just about up to where the Keepataw Forest Preserve is now. In short, the horse farm and the restaurant were there when Route 66 was first designated in 1926, though only the restaurant remains today (in fact, the restaurant was there because of the horse farm, but that’s a story for another day). In any case, they’re originals and part of the history of the road. So of course we’re interested.
It seems John Reed’s parents bought the Peabody farmhouse and property on the north side of Bluff Road and owned it before it was parceled off and sold to developers, among them Richard Barrie (most of the rest became Reed’s Crest of Hill subdivision … so now you know where that name came from). Barrie later converted the house and outbuildings to Hillcrest Park, a private picnic ground that was rented out for corporate and other organizational events before the property was sold again before the turn of the millennium; this time, it became an industrial park. The main house, driveway from Joliet Road, and most of the outbuildings are gone now, though a few ruins of a guest house or caretaker’s house remain in the field east of the industrial park; and the Peabody pond is still there. Ann took us out there last summer to show us what’s left. She knew about it because she still lives in the area: her own home isn’t far off Davey Road.
Back to Ann’s story: at the party over cocktails, John Reed lets drop to Brent Hassert that his (John’s) mom Helen is still alive, spry and sharp as a tack and 100 years old (!) and remembers the house – and she might still have photographs of the old Peabody property, too. Next thing you know, Ann’s calling me this morning at 9:15 am to tell me all this before I’ve even had my first cup of coffee. You can bet that woke me up fast. I even forgot to make the java (if you know how much I’m not a morning person, this is nothing short of astounding). Several phone numbers were exchanged and within the hour, I was speaking with John Reed. He thinks his mom would be willing to talk to me about the Peabody property, but it should be soon, like even this week, because she’s clear-headed and talkative but she is 100, and you never know. I agree and promptly get on the horn to my co-authors. This is just too much.
Long story short: we’ll probably get to interview Helen Reed, perhaps even this week; I’ll know more tomorrow. Do I still want to talk to Pearl Hassert? You bet. I also want to interview Virginia McMillan, a Western Springs retiree whose father knew Jack Peabody and supposedly played cards with him – but I figure the centenarian has to come first. Isn’t it wonderful that so many nice folks want to help us out with our research? I’m beside myself! By the time I have to write an acknowledgments page for the book (probably the next to last thing to be written), the list of people we have to thank will be a block long.
And by now, you’re asking yourself who the heck Jack Peabody was and why we keep talking about him. Okay, then: he’s the guy who founded White Fence Farm restaurant and Arrow Brook Farm, but he did a lot more than that (please note: I wrote a profile of him about a year ago for the newsletter of the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook; I’d give you a link, but the newsletter’s not online yet. Don’t get me started.).
Jack Peabody was the son of coal baron Francis S. Peabody (yes, founder of that Peabody Coal Company, the notorious one about which Chicago folk singer John Prine wrote his song “Paradise” and which is now known as Peabody Energy). F.S. Peabody’s last house, the Tudor mansion known as Mayslake, is now owned and preserved by the DuPage Forest Preserve District. Jack and his wife, Anita Healy Peabody (after whom a famous champion thoroughbred racing filly was named), lived for a few years in Hinsdale in a house his father had given them on Jack’s 30th birthday, before relocating to a home on State Parkway in Chicago’s near-north Gold Coast; but they also had the weekend house at the horse farm and spent a considerable amount of time there. The farmhouse and outbuildings were situated in a grove of trees next to an unnamed pond – too small to be considered a lake – which is still there today in the present industrial park.
In addition to being a socialite and the second president of his dad’s firm, Jack Peabody was a lot of other things – a horse racing fan and promoter, dog breeder, photographer, one of the several organizers and supporters of the Century of Progress exhibition, and one of the power elite in Chicago business as well as an inadvertent restaurateur. The very year that Route 66 was designated, Jack and Col. Matt Winn, founder and operator of Churchill Downs race track, together opened Lincoln Fields Race Track (now known as Balmoral Park) in Crete, IL on August 9, one day after Jack’s 38th birthday. The two men had built it in four months at what was then the astronomical cost of $2 million. For several years, Jack was president of the Illinois Turf Association, a director of Lincoln Fields Jockey Club, and a director of the American Turf Association, which at that point owned Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY and both Lincoln Fields and Washington Park racetracks in Illinois. He was a busy man.
From what we can tell, Jack Peabody owned Arrow Brook Farm from at least 1920 to the mid-1940s. The restaurant was opened some time during the early to mid-1920s; it had been open for a few years and was already popular by the time Route 66 appeared. In December 1943, Jack transferred title to the home and property north of Bluff Road to his son, Stuyvesant Jr. and Stuy’s wife Virginia. In March 1946, Jack retired and handed the reins of Peabody Coal to his son. According to Will County records, on April 1, less than a month later, Jack sold the White Fence Farm property, including the restaurant, to George Lee Morris and Harold Morris. However, the Morrises may never have really owned it (or else defaulted on it) because county records also show that there was still an unpaid balance due when Jack died on June 6, just two months shy of his 58th birthday. At that point, the farmland south of Bluff Road went up for sale and changed hands several times over the next 20 years. Stuy Jr. and Virginia, meanwhile, didn’t have the same taste for country life or horse breeding that Jack had had and eventually sold the weekend house and remaining 60 acres at Arrow Brook Farm to the Reed family.
After Jack’s death, there were a number of unsuccessful attempts to operate the restaurant as an eatery or bar of some kind. With Jack’s death and the Morrises’ unpaid balance, the restaurant was Stuy Jr.’s to sell or lease … and he nearly sold it to entrepreneur and restaurateur Dell Rhea in 1953, according to Dell’s son Patrick, the current operator of Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in Willowbrook. The deal fell through, of course, and the Hastert family bought the restaurant instead the following year from yet another failed operator. Many years later, Rhea bought the Chicken Basket, thus becoming a competitor of White Fence Farm. But that, too, is another story. You’ll just have to wait. [wink!]
Until next time,