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Old town on the block: Evergreen Park celebrating 120 years of incorporation

  • Written by Terrance Peacock

In December 1893, 51 of roughly 500 residents of the area known as Evergreen Park came to the polls and voted on whether to incorporate as a village.

Forty “yes” votes and 11 “no” votes later, the village of Evergreen Park was born.

This year marks the 120th anniversary of that incorporation, but the story of what eventually became known as the Village of Churches goes back further than that. Until the 1820s, what would be Evergreen Park was covered with trails and homes of a succession of Indian tribes. Nearly 200 years later, Evergreen is built to the hilt with homes, churches and other structures, and is experiencing something of an economic rebirth.

The history of the area that eventually incorporated as Evergreen Park started in 1828 when a man named Blasius Schwer and his wife built a farm house on a hill in what is present-day Evergreen Cemetery. The Schwer’s learned the land was fertile enough to grow hay, grain, potatoes, cabbages and onions.

Years later, families including the Hills, Graefens, Haas, Leppins, Seipps, Robbs and other pioneers joined the Schwer’s to form a new community.

Evergreen Inc.

In 1894, a year after the village was incorporated, John M. Foley was elected as its first mayor. Foley served in that capacity until 1896.

Small businesses did not come around until the early 20th century, when in 1907 establishments including Vogwill’s Coal and Ice, Fred Schultz Groceries and Provisions, Steens Grocery, and A. Wilson’s Meat Market occupied space between 95th Street, 92nd Street, Kedzie Avenue and St. Louis Avenue. Ten years later, a man by the name of Fred Haas owned the first automobile in Evergreen Park.

Evergreen Park’s population grew to 1,600 by 1930. That year marked the opening of one of the village’s longest-standing institutions --Little Company of Mary Hospital. Fifteen years later, with the rapid post-war birthrate boom, Little Company of Mary Hospital became known as “the baby hospital” because of the number of children born there. Then, on June 17, 1950, Little Company made medical history when surgeons there performed the world’s first known successful human organ transplant. The three-man team that successfully transplanted a human kidney consisted of Drs. Richard Lawler, James West and Raymond Murphy.

Growth

In 1952, The Evergreen Plaza, then the largest shopping mall in the Midwest, opened at 95th Street and Western Avenue. The Plaza was for years a revenue generator and has been a strong contributor to the village’s history of Evergreen Park. The mall fell on harder times during the 1980s when it became a hub of gang activity, and the shopping center’s movie theater closed as a result of worries about crime and violence. The Plaza is today slated for a major redevelopment project that would involve the demolition of most of its existing buildings.

In March 1953, the population of Evergreen Park increased to 15,746 residents, and the village’s first high school, Evergreen Park Community High School, opened in 1954. That first year student body consisted of freshman and sophomores, and the first 12 seniors graduated in 1957. Between 1955 and 1960,  Evergreen Park High’s enrollment jumped from 170 students to 981. Enrollment peaked during the 1973-74 school year when the student population surpassed 1,800. The school today serves fewer than 1,000 students.

In 1969, Anthony Vacco was elected mayor and served in that office until he chose not to run for re-election in 2001. Jim Sexton, who had served as a village trustee and clerk, was elected mayor and still holds that office today.

Evolution

The new century has been a period of change in Evergreen as old buildings are demolished to make room for new developments such as Chase Bank, Walgreens, Oberweis Dairy and Culver’s. The former Evergreen Country Club property, between 91st and 94th streets west of Western Avenue, is undergoing development that will add a huge retail complex anchored by Maijer and Menards stores. To the west of that development, the village is construction a aprk that will include a sled hill, dog park and other amenities formerly not available in the Evergreen Park.

The 21st century also marked the establishment of the Evergreen Park Historical Commission, and a building that was once a church has been designated as a senior center and home of the village’s first museum.