Saturday, July 29, 2017

On the trail of Gangsters

Recently my helper Little Nick went up to Chicago and had occasion to go on the Mob land museum tour.  Normally I keep Nick around to talk to me while I'm driving, navigate, carry all the equipment, go into snake infested brush, etc. but once in a while i let him out on his own to see how much trouble he can get into AND to bring me back photo's from his own adventures.

Chicago is rife with stories of mobs and mobsters, of shootouts and gangland slayings. Of crime bosses and G-men trying to take them down. Fortunately for us the hey day of the gangster has (mostly) passed. But there are still a few reminders of that former life if one knows where to look for them.

Al (Alphonse) Capone is THE name everyone thinks about when you think about Chicago and gangsters. Born in New York in 1899 he quickly fell into the lifestyle of crime and in his early 20's had relocated to Chicago where he was a lieutenant of a major boss who retired when a bullet came too close for comfort and turned over his operation to Capone. During the 1930's and Prohibition Capone used his close association with Mayor William Thompson to enjoy a relatively safe life. It was only after the St. Valentines Day massacre that his reputation became  tarnished and led influential citizens to brand him as 'Public Enemy #1'.  Pursued by the equally famous Elliot Ness he was finally convicted
for tax evasion and sent off to prison.  Two spots on the tour he was known to frequent were the Uptown theater  which had tunnels underneath the street that allowed him to enter and leave unseen to other destinations including the Green Mill  cocktail lounge which Capone's gang had part ownership of. There was a special booth reserved just for him that gave him clear line of sight for anyone entering the building.

John Dillinger was a notorious gangster whose crime spree through the midwest lasted until 1934. Styling himself as a modern day Robin Hood, he robbed banks seemingly at will, was chased by many a lawman and was imprisoned twice. But he escaped both times. He's only known to have committed one killing in his career, Between himself and a police man in East Chicago, Indiana.  His reign finally ended on July 22nd in 1934 when federal agents cornered him outside the Biograph Theater, betrayed by the infamous Woman in Red.

Earl (Hymie) Weiss was an early Chicago gangster who was a rival of Capone and reputedly was the only man that he ever feared.  Born in Poland and growing up in Chicago he and a friend, Dean O'Banion along with 'Bugs' Moran started the North Side gang and competed with Capone for its share of illegal booze, prostitution and other activities.  He was gunned down outside Holy Name cathedral  on October 11th, 1926 by two men with a sub machine gun and a shotgun. In a bit of irony, he's buried in Mount Carmel cemetery, the same place as his bitter rival, Al Capone.  

While a lot of our history is enriching and pleasant to reflect upon, other parts of it are not.  Many thanks to Nick Bouslog for this special edition of Off the Beaten Path.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The trains at the station

Illinois has a rich railroading history that began in 1842 with a fifty nine mile track that ran from Springfield to Meredosia. From that humble beginning the next 40 years would see that original trackage grow to an astounding Eight THOUSAND miles! By 1856 That one small railroad had been joined by Nine others as well.

One of those railroads was the Chicago & Aurora that came to Mendota in 1853 along with the Illinois Central. The Illinois Central was a 'land grant' railroad, the first of its kind. The term meant that the right of way for the trains to run on had been granted by the government rather than purchased by the railroad itself. The land grant was made possible thru the actions of Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, who was working as an attorney for the Illinois Central at the time.

Mendota soon become a major rail roading town with hundreds of passengers and freight cars moving through every week and in 1854 a large brick freight house was built which still stands today. The advent of the Civil war saw rail traffic increase dramatically and by 1870 a total of thirty nine trains a Day were stopping in Mendota.

There's reminders of that glorious past everywhere in town. The old freight depot is today called the Whistle Stop cafe (Currently up for sale). The current depot  houses the railroad museum and Amtrak waiting room. Even Lake Mendota was once known as the railroad pond because water from there was brought in to service the old steam locomotives.

On a recent drive I went up to Mendota, IL. where they have a nifty railroad museum both inside and outside.  Inside they have artifacts of the towns long association with railroading as well as a scale model layout of how the rail yard would have looked in the 1930's.  Outside they are fortunate to have several actual pieces of rolling stock including:

*A locomotive & tender of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy built in 1923

*A caboose built in 1911

*A Milwaukee Road passenger car built in 1938

*And a Golden State dining car built in 1949

They even have a motorized car used to inspect the tracks

So if you ever find yourself in need of something to do, consider driving up to Mendota one weekend and soak in a little of Illinois railroad past. The museum is open Sat and Sun from 12-4. Admission is a suggested donation of $3.00 for adults and 2.00 for students.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Who was Lorado Taft?

Born in Elmwood, Illinois in 1860, a distant relation to President William Howard Taft,  Lorado Taft earned a bachelors and then masters degree at the university before leaving for Paris in 1880 to study sculpting with some of the leading French masters of his day.  Upon returning to America in 1886 he settled in Chicago and was soon teaching at the Art Institute as well as lecturing at Northern Illinois university and the University of Chicago.

In 1892 he was tasked with finishing the sculptures and adornments for the upcoming Columbian Exposition and was given permission to use women students to speed up the work. This was pioneering as up to that point only men were allowed to work on major pieces. He hired several women to help him and they became known as the 'White Rabbits', many of whom became renowned in their own right.

Today there are dozens of his sculptures dotting the landscape of the country, adorning buildings, city parks, even statuary in cemeteries. We are fortunate that many of these famous works are right here in Illinois.  Last week I wrote about the Eagles Nest, his artist's colony overlooking the Rock River. Today let me tell you about the sculpted monument in courthouse square.

In 1916 Taft was commissioned to produce a monument to the heroics of  the boys of Ogle county for their sacrifices in the Civil war and the Spanish-American war.  He produced three sculptures, one in bronze and two in marble and today it is on the National Register of Historic Places. So if you ever find yourself in need of a day trip to satisfy bored children or you want to dive into history, consider a trip up to Oregon.