Hasty Ruminations

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

My Great Grandparents

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My great grandparents, John and Kate, lived one-half mile south of the Union Stockyards in Chicago, after they were married in 1888. Kate came to America from Ireland first, in 1883; and John followed in 1888. He was a butcher.
I wrote about them here.

This was their first home, at 5238 South May Street, from about 1895 to about 1910. They probably lived with her parents from 1888 to 1895; that is a prevalent tradition in my family, I have found!


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They probably had the top floor, since the family was young; or even the basement. It is not likely that they could afford the main (or first) floor. The street was more crowded in the years from 1888 to 1920, with many Irish immigrants and landlords anxious to keep their tenements occupied. By 2006, the neighborhood looks like an old boxer missing half his teeth: there are many open lots where houses have burned and fallen down.

As the years passed, John continued in a good job at the stockyard and, through Kate's efforts, the family saved what money they could. By the census of 1920, they had moved one block west and two blocks south - an airier location a little distance more removed from the stench of the stockyard, on a wider street: Racine Avenue. Here is how the street appears today:


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(I was advised not to drive into this dangerous neighborhood, so this trip was made on a Sunday morning, at 10:30 am. At high speed.)

The picture below shows houses on the same block as John and Kate's, which is still standing at 5427 South Racine Avenue. These houses were built at the same time as theirs, between 1900 and 1910, I think. The lighter colored blocks in the brick face are not decorative; they cover the bolts on the iron tie rods which run from front wall to back under tension to prevent the walls from buckling under the load on the floors. Hence, cheaper beams could be used to hold up the floors.



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In the picture below, their house at 5427 is next to the large building, behind the blue sign. They bought this house while they lived there.



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Across the street is Sherman Park, built in 1905 by the city to give some breathing space to the crowded immigrant neighborhoods. It also provided public baths, a huge man-made moat and a good fire break between crowded neighborhoods - a lesson learned from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The moat provided a ready source of firefighting water, too. Here is the northeastern corner of the Park today:


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And, here is the Sherman Park field house and baths:


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The city erected four foot bridges to span the moat. One can cross these to get to the baseball fields and the tennis courts (and now the basketball courts) on the island:



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My last record of John and Kate is the 1920 census. By that time, their son James (my grandfather) was 19. He was born in the house at 5238 May, appearing at that address on the 1900 census. It's fun to imagine his christening party, and the various birthday parties for this large family in these houses. The houses have small back yards abutting an alley, where trash was collected and horse-drawn wagons delivered milk and packages. The older kids had to fend for themselves on the streets from 1888 until the wonderful park appeared in 1905. I found an old Catholic church four blocks to the west, but I can only guess where they went to school.

Imagine moving in to the May Street house as new immigrants, just starting a family, with all of the bustling industry 1/2 mile north at the stockyards; and then, all this commotion starts four miles to the east. By 1891, over 40,000 skilled laborers and workers are building the Chicago World's Fair and Columbian Exposition! I will write about that soon.

John and Kate surely took their six children on more than one outing to watch the construction. The older kids may even have had jobs there.

3 Comments:

  • At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Da Brudder said…

    Getchu nex time, honkey.

     
  • At 2:40 PM, Anonymous O'Leary from Dublin said…

    Tremendous pictures, and a faxcinating story!

     
  • At 2:41 PM, Anonymous Paddy Finnegan said…

    Your family will cherish these for years. How did you ever find them?

     

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