Cold Winters and Coal Trains
Winters brought abundant snows to our geographical area in the winter months, snows which made available sports such as sledding, ice-skating, snowball-throwing, igloo and cave-building, etc.
But what may not be considered a sport, produced one of the more fun things we did as the snow and ice melted in the spring. As the torrents of water flowed freely in paths of least resistance, we began building dikes to divert the waters in directions we chose. We imagined ourselves as being engineers, craftsmen, and laborers who had the power to manipulate those roaring waters when and where we pleased. We put floating objects atop the waters, watching as they speedily took flight.
Soon gullies, ditches, ridges and every imaginable topography took form on the roads and off them as well. I'd guess motorist later in the year may have cussed us out more than once when they tried to navigate over those ruts which, at least partially, we had created.
There was a more serious side to winter months, too, such as trying to survive in five to ten degrees below zero weather and having no money to purchase fuels such as coal, fuel oil, wood, etc. Heating became a great concern and captured the thoughts of most of us living out there.
Fortunately, there was a rail line which ran between the back of the brick yard and the drainage canal, paralleling the canal. In the winter months many of the rail cars carried coal toward the City of Chicago, large chunks of coal and smaller pieces called "coke," a processed coal which was much lighter in weight.
Since survival called for employment of drastic measures, many who lived there would board those cars as the train slowed to pass between the brick yard and the canal. The idea was to get on top of the piles of coal and push it toward the ground. The bigger pieces would roll for some distance from the tracks, while the coke stayed near the embankment. This same thing would be taking place on a number of cars at the same time.
Then when the train cleared the area, everyone who had been in hiding in the weeds would suddenly appear carrying bags or gunny sacks, and picking would feverishly begin. Once in a while there'd be confrontation about who kicked what coal off the cars, but this was not the norm. I think people were more tolerant and understanding of each others' needs in those days.
Hunting coal, even days after the "kickoff," always seemed like a fun thing for me, for finding those big chunks which had become hidden in weeds and ruts made a challenge of it. And we all found sufficient coal to last the winters out.
There were times when the railroad cops would signal the train's engineer from the caboose to slow down or stop so they could chase the kickers off, but it became part of the game and was expected now and then. I do think for the most part the engineers intentionally slowed in our area, and the cops turned their heads to avoid seeing what was taking place. They must have figured it wasn't that much loss compared with the need. It's also possible the cops were trying to keep people from being killed getting on and off the faster moving trains, as it could have ended in casualties very easily.
Stories of such close calls oftentimes became the subject matter of gatherings of those who had no jobs and a lot of time for conversation and story-telling.
Our spring diversion of waters, which I spoke of earlier, caused other problems as well. The ruts, ditches, gullies, ridges and holes formed an almost impassable obstacle for those brave enough to attempt making their way over those "roads." There were, of course, those who made the attempt, making our day for us kids as we'd watch the almost-humorous antics which would follow.
There may have been one or two who made it through unscathed, but most went the route of slowing down, then being unable to move. Eventually they'd begin "gunning their engines" and spinning their wheels as they tried to get out. It's a natural inclination, in mud or snow, to do this. We kids always hoped those who were stuck wouldn't know any better, for what fun would it be if they got out and went on their way? Eventually the average person would find his car resting on its frame, and the spinning wheels did nothing for them.
Then would begin the stuffing of various items in the ruts to try giving traction to the wheels. Things like boards, cinders, rags, stones and rocks, and everything imaginable were being either dug in deeper as the wheels spun, or the items would be spun right out of the ditch.
So a decision would be made to call for a tow truck (if one had the means to pay for one) or a team of horses. The tow trucks often ended up being the second victim at the scene, while the horses just plugged away and pulled the flivvers right out. Never a dull moment in our neck of the woods in those days!
Maybe you'd get the idea this never happened to us in our own cars, but you'd be wrong if you thought that. We spent many hours employing the same principles as those others, as we lived in it and had to face it daily in those rainy seasons. It took some time before we got the idea to leave the car up toward the school where there was only a quarter block of unpaved road to deal with. And even that portion was well-lined with stones and gravel.
Leaking boots were common, too, and once in a while the slits or holes got so bad, it'd be like having none on at all. Shoes, socks and the cuffs of trousers would get soaked, causing anguish and discomfort. Then when the shoes eventually did dry out, they became hardened and brittle, cracking easily when worn.
The time would always come each year when the mud and dirt dried thoroughly, and the spring and early summer problems ended. But before I get into some scenarios of those times, I'll tell you more about the spring months.
The spring rains along with the melting ice and snow gradually were absorbed by the sun and the ground. As the sun continued beaming down, little green shoots began appearing everywhere. The cold, frozen winter ground now became verdant patches of plants, flowers, saplings and grass and weeds, every shade of green in the spectrum.
The first growth which showed up in our area was the pussy willow. It thrived on early spring waters and sunlight, and soon it blossomed forth with puffs of white balls which looked like cotton. To many this plant wouldn't bring much recognition as a thing of beauty, but to me it was the most beautiful plant God had created! It was as though the dead of the winter had now become alive with pussy willows in the spring. Many were the times I picked bouquets and brought them home to Mom as a love offering. She may have thought of them as ugly, for all I know. But she always displayed them in a jar (no vases around) as though she had been thrilled at receiving them as my "gift." Maybe she was!
Much of what grew in our surroundings turned out to be weeds of unending varieties. Some grew tall and straight, while others grew into bushy forms. Among these would sprout sunflower plants which grew tall, eventually exploding into a big, round, beautiful flower. As the summer suns dried the flower, seeds filled the space where the flower had been. Sunflower seeds became a no-cost delicacy for us kids which actually tasted pretty good as one peeled away the shell to expose the softer, edible tidbit.
In the height of summer the high weeds became camps, homes, trails, forts, etc. We practically lived among them on summer vacations. Without them we'd have missed a lot of fun which brings back sweet memories of those days!
Trees (or kids often do the dumbest things)
As the warmer weather continued, trees began growing at very rapid rates, the most common to our area being the poplar. It grew to heights of thirty feet or more, having branches everywhere. This made for easier climbing for us boys and the few tomboys (girls who acted like boys).
Being a boy in every way, it was natural for me to try showing off for girls who appeared to rate boys by their daring fetes. In this way I must say I was not unique, for almost all the boys with whom I associated (there was an exception or two) tried to impress girls in the same way.
One day a bunch of kids, including that special variety called "girls," were gathered under a tall poplar tree. Soon I sensed an opportunity to reveal my identity as "super kid" who could climb the highest trees, daring to outdo any possible opponents. I climbed and climbed until the branches were no longer of sufficient strength to hold my weight, those near to the top.
One thing I neglected to mention about poplar trees is that the wood is not very dense or strong. Branches could easily be cut off or even torn off, as sap poured freely from the broken segment. This also meant when undue weights were put on certain of those branches, he who caused the undue weight would soon be descending quicker than he'd ascendedlaw of gravity. As I made just one step too high, reaching a branch unable to hold me, I felt myself falling and hitting branches on the way downward.
The fall came so quickly I didn't have time to think of what I might do, like trying to grasp for a branch to slow me down. I hit the somewhat pliable ground (due to recent rains) back first, maintaining consciousness, but unable to catch my breath. It was an agonizing time as I gasped to inhale oxygen which would not enter my lungs.
The moments which followed had me thinking I'd never be able to breathe again and my life would end. Thoughts rushed through my little mind that here I was dying and no one was doing anything for me, not even those sweet things for whom I'd performed!
In time normal bodily functions returned, and I was able to breathe. I didn't understand the physiological principle of what happened to me, but I do know I soon began thinking there just might be some limit I should place upon what I'd do to try impressing girls.
While on the subject of trees, growing in front of our house were two or three unusual trees. The leaves were broader and a lighter green than poplars, having long, skinny growths formed from them. In the hot summer months, these growths dried. We found that if one put a match to them, they would become a very long cigarette or cigar, gradually burning away. We puffed on them, trying to imitate the older folks who smoked. However, we found these things didn't taste or smell particularly good. What's more, they made us very sick! An adult would hardly have stooped to smoking them, though if he had, he might have given up on smoking.
Way back I told of Dad working at the brickyard. It was located at the dead end of Lombard Avenue (6200 West) to the south. I'm not certain if the property was considered to be in Stickney or if it, too, was part of [the land owned by] the Sanitary District of Chicago (probably the former). It did cover a large land area, however, which ran on the north side right up to a creek which bordered it, running east to west even beyond the brick yard property. On the east side was the Sanitary District's plant which processed raw sewage. To the south was the Sanitary District Drainage Canal, a rather broad and deep canal. The west side was bordered by both Stickney and Forest View.
The deepest part of the creek was probably no more than five or six feet in places, though generally shallower in most. The water may have collected from a combination of rainfall and some underground source. It was rusty colored water in which lived a variety of fish: bullheads, bluegills, carp and an occasional crappie. So many hours were spent there, that in later years when I married and had a family, we went to Wisconsin and Minnesota every summer to vacation on some lake with the purpose of fishing. It was a habit carried over into adulthood.
This same creek provided quite a lengthy; though narrow in some places, frozen body of ice in the winter for ice-skaters, sledders and plain "sliders." The sliding would usually be done from atop the hill which bordered the creek, being as much as ten to twelve feet above the water or ice line.
Just a short distance to the east of Lombard Avenue and the brickyard's east property line was a tunnel which ran from the creek all the way south to the Chicago Drainage Canal. It was possibly three-quarters of a mile or so long and about eight or nine feet high. It was a cement structure, almost egg-shaped, though closer to round.
The actual purpose of that tunnel was never made clear to me, though it must have had some connection with the canal and the creek. Not that it ever mattered to us kids who inhabited it in search of crabs and minnows which we'd then use as bait for fishing at the creek (or once in a while at the quarry).
Once inside the tunnel, a gaseous, almost putrid odor filled our nostrils. I can recall trying to breathe sparingly while in it, as did the others. But anyone who lived in the area knew what to expect when entering it, though few other than us kids did much of that!
The water was from a few inches to a couple feet deep in places, and it was filled with things like branches, rocks, dirt, woodall kinds of junk. So when inside looking for minnows and crabs, one had to step carefully from object to object to keep from going into the water.
There were times we'd traverse the tunnel from the creek all the way to the canal, a real fete when considering the fumes, darkness and hard-to-find places to step as the center part was reached, being the farthest from the light at either end of the tunnel. There were a few openings at the top here and there for air circulation, however.
If there was toxicity in those fumes, it at least never affected us very much, though staying in while going from one end to the other might have been overdoing it a bit. I surely would think twice (or more) before doing it at my present age. We never encountered actual raw sewage in the tunnel, though it's possible it was present in a decayed form of some sort, and something had to be causing the strong fumes!
The Brickyard Quarries
Bricks were made from clay, a commodity which was plentiful in that area. And deep, deep excavations took form as digging continued for years. Eventually the quality of clay desired for brick-making ended, and the constant pumping of water ceased. The equipment would be moved from the deep hole to be placed in the next location where clay was thought to be available and of acceptable quality.
The abandoned, gaping holes in the ground gradually filled with water, perhaps reaching depths of sixty feet or more in places. Soon there would be green and blue shades of water which were the result of depth changes. The banks were steep and treacherous for even an adult to manipulate.
Quarries with nothing more than water in them must have seemed useless to the owner of the brickyard, so he had them stocked with varieties of fish, mostly bass, as I recall. Some of the guys who worked there would also be given permission to swim there, though it was rather dangerous water because of the steep incline and the jutting portions under the waterline.
Kids always wanted to sneak into the quarries to either fish or to swim, knowing it was off limits to them. Even kids of employees of the brickyard could only be there with parental guidance, and that mostly for fishing off the banks where an occasional more gradual slope was located.
On one particularly hot and muggy summer day a bunch of us kids got together to fish and swim. No one in our family had ever learned to swim, so I took my kid brother Ed along with me to fish while the swimmers were there for that purpose. As sometimes happened, one of the brickyard employees came along to shag us off the property. I know now they did it for our safety and for their protection from law suits should a disaster have taken place.
The water being as clear as it was, and being able to see pretty far down into it, Ed and I could see the fish approaching our baitbut never touching itand we were enchanted to the point of not realizing what was taking place in the "chase." So the man got pretty close to us before we also began running for our lives.
In the confusion of collecting our fishing gear and deciding which way to go, Ed and I were separated. I didn't know if he had joined some of the other kids or if he had fallen into the quarry, the latter possibility causing me increasing concern as I ran for home.
When I reached home, I didn't know whether to admit to Mom that we'd violated a strict order to stay away from the quarry or if I should wait to see if Ed would eventually show up. Then I began thinking "What if he ended up in the water and could still have been saved, and I'm not telling what happened? That poor little kid is paying for my disobedience and fear of punishment!" Further, "It won't be long before Mom will ask me about Ed's whereabouts, so maybe I should confess and get it over with."
I'd no sooner thought that out when I heard kids' voices. I was hoping and praying they were headed for our house and that one of them would be my kid brother who I'd about given up as having possibly drowned.
"Thank you Lord," I breathed; for there in the midst of a group of kids was my brother Ed. They'd taken a more circular and distant route to avoid being caught by that brickyard employee, thus taking longer to reach home.
That particular disobedience and the possible consequences remained with me for all these years, and the happenings of that day are as clear in my mind today as if it'd happened yesterday!
This was just one in a series of unpleasant events of my life, things to which I almost always made some contribution. Maybe God causes or allows such things into our lives to teach us and to mold us into what He would have us to be, a way of strengthening usif we make the proper application and apply the principles to our lives at a later date.
1[Return to Text] The property on which the water treatment plant of the Sanitary District of Chicago (back then; MWRD of Chicago today) is located has always been within the boundary of the Village of Stickney (for example, see page 6 of the reference cited in Footnote 3 below; the Chicago Portage Ledger).
2[Return to Text] The author could not have been looking at a map when he originally typed: "...most likely bordered by both Stickney and Broadview." That village doesn't even touch Stickney, being west of Berwyn and northwest of Riverside. His sister lived in Broadview for many years, so perhaps she was on his mind when writing this.
3[Return to Text] It seems likely this would have been remnants of what was called the "Ogden Ditch". On page 14 of the Chicago Portage Ledger (a newsletter and guide for friends of the Chicago Portage National Historic Site), Vol. 5 No. 2 (May/Aug 2004), you will find: "In 1947 and 1948 permits were also authorized for the 'Brisch Brick Company' to destroy the Ditch from Lombard Avenue (6200 West) to Ridgeland Avenue (6400 West)." And on page 6, there's a drawing from page 105 of "Geo. C. Olcott & Co.'s 1930 edition of Chicago Zoning Ordinance ... and Paving Record." showing the "Ogden Ditch" in roughly the same location as our author's creek.