Recorded on January 13, 2012. Length: 30 Minutes.
DG: Good morning and welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project of the Northbrook Public Library and the Northbrook Historical Society. My name is Donna Gulley and I am pleased to welcome Gary Eberlein who has lived and worked in Northbrook his entire life which he says will soon be 70 years. Gary tells me his aunt has also done one of these interviews for Northbrook Voices so we are keeping it in the family.
GE: Thank you, Donna, I am happy to be here.
DG: The first question I want to ask you is about special memories you have of growing up in Northbrook.
GE: Well, I guess special memories might be how this town has grown since I was very small. I can remember when there were the main streets – Church, Shermer, Walters and a few homes and farms on the periphery. There were probably about 1,500 people when I was a very small boy.
DG: 1,500 – that is a very small village. I always find that Northbrook still behaves like a village but you have really seen it at its core.
GE: Yes, it was very small but it grew very quickly especially after WWII when the growth and building was just enormous.
DG: What do you think brought the huge explosion?
GE: I think at the time all of the suburbs were growing quickly including Northbrook. Northbrook was just a spot on the map and not even on some maps. It was always exciting when you heard it mentioned on the radio. The soldiers coming back from the war, the housing market was just burgeoning at that time. They had actually poured concrete streets in some parts of town which Culligan used to spread their zeolite to dry. After the war they no longer did that but small, affordable houses were built so the town grew rapidly after the war. Being right on the rail line it was convenient for commuting downtown.
DG: Were you involved with Culligan at all?
GE: My father was. To go back a bit in my family history, my grandfather had a farm where the Glen is, before the Navy Base was built there. My Dad used to tell how my grandfather sold the land to Curtis-Wright and they built an airstrip there. That airstrip eventually was taken over by the Navy.
My father was born in 1910 on that farm and they moved off the farm in 1920. They were then retired farmers. My grandfather worked for an ice company delivering ice for ice boxes. We had an ice box in the kitchen and an ice box on the back porch for the delivery by the ice man of a block of ice. The ice man would bring a block of ice which as it melted drained through the porch floor to a gravel area underneath. That was only when I was small. We would get chips of ice from the ice man which we would suck on. We lived on Church Street. I have done some history of the house which was built in the late 1800s. My daughter and her family live in it now.
DG: So that house has been in your family for several generations?
GE: My grandfather bought it in 1920; he died at the relatively young age of 56. My grandmother who I didn’t know very well died when I was a year old in 1943. Then I grew up in that house. My mother lived there until she died at the age of 93, about 3 years ago. It is an old house and needs lots of work but the kids are having fun with it.
DG: You started to tell me about your Dad being involved with Culligan.
GE: Emmet Culligan started the business in about 1936. My dad worked for Melzers some during the depression delivering groceries when there weren’t many jobs around. Then after the war he started working for Culligan. I was born about at the beginning of the war. My dad had a heart murmur so was not drafted but Culligan was making some kind of bomb fuses and my dad worked on them. He really liked trains so he decided he wanted to work for the Chicago, Milwaukee Road that ran through town. I can remember him in the room in our house that had the telephone in it, which we called the “telephone room,” practicing the Morse Code. That was the way they communicated from the Tower A20 by Techny Road, which is gone now, and the depots. For a couple of years he worked for the railroad from that tower. He used to take me up there as a kid – we climbed up to about 2nd floor level and you could look over the top as the trains went by. He was very interested when the Hiawatha came through because it was so fast. When it came roaring through the whole building would shake. Trains came by and some had to be switched off to different tracks, for example to send some to the Bensonville yards. He had to leave the office to go down to the basement where the switch levers were so the train could go in the right direction. I was just a little kid and found all of this quite fascinating.
DG: Of course you were fascinated. Did that make you decided you wanted to join the railroad industry?
GE: No, at that time it was all steam engines so when the trains came by there was lots of soot and smoke. They were very loud and impressed me as a little kid.
DG: So you didn’t work for the railroad and you didn’t become a farmer?
GE: Well, to this day, my wife and I manage the community garden at our church.
DG: Let’s talk about that for a minute.
GE: Well, St. Peter Church which is on Willow Road has a community garden started 5-6 years ago. It began when the kids in the confirmation class wanted to grow pumpkins. Kraft decided they needed a place to have an experimental garden for growing broccoli. One of our parishioners worked for Kraft so they were invited to use some of the adjacent area on our property. The broccoli was supposed to be more nutritious. So, Kraft was there for awhile growing their broccoli for a couple of years. Then we fenced the area, divided it into plots opened it up to the community and there are 27 plots. My wife and I have been managing it for 40 years now with the assistance of some of the gardeners.
DG: What else would you like us to know about St. Peter’s Church?
GE: St. Peter Church was organized in 1845. On Dundee Road across from the Sky Harbor area where there is now a cemetery they had a small log cabin church. I think my grandfather’s name is on the original documents. In 1863 they outgrew the small building and moved to Shermer Road, south of Willow. In that time it was in Northfield Township and Shermer Road connected Northbrook and Glenview, the two communities served by the church. They built a small white framed steepled church there – now you can see the St. Peter’s cemetery remains. I grew up in that church. The church was added onto – transepts were added to make it in the shape of a cross. There was no question about whether or not you wanted to go to church. On Sunday, you went to church. A lot of the kids I went to school with also went to church so we had little car pools to take everybody to Sunday School, etc.
DG: How many people were in the church?
GE: It was pretty good sized since it served Northbrook and Glenview and other smaller areas. The church only held between 125 and 135 in the sanctuary and the two side balconies and one in the back. So the church wasn’t that big but there was a time when we had two ministers. We had a big community house which was built in 1923.
DG: When did the congregation move to Willow Road?
GE: The church burned down in 1961. I was in school and I believe it was in January of 1961. I was in college at Northern Illinois. Apparently people say that it was arson, an earlier attempt had failed. They held services in the community house where there was a gymnasium and a stage, also a kitchen. On the first floor were four bowling lanes and Sunday school rooms. That was also on Shermer Road by the church and parsonage.
DG: All that is left there now is the cemetery?
GE: Yes, and they have a monument of the bell that came from the steeple with a little story about the church. Apparently one of the parishioners donated the property on Willow Road.
DG: Why do you think they moved to Willow Road instead of rebuilding on Shermer?
GE: I don’t know as I was away at school. By that time they probably felt that with the navy base, Shermer Road was cut off so the access to Glenview was cut off. They mostly served Northbrook although some people still came from Glenview. Perhaps they wanted to be nearer downtown Northbrook. They built the new church on Willow Road just east of Pfingsten. Wirkus Nursery was on the corner where the shopping center is now. There is seven acres of what used to be an orchard. They didn’t sell it all off. It was kind of funny. I was out at Northern Illinois working at the radio station when they were going to dedicate the organ and wanted someone to record the occasion. I was operating as the station manager so I used the opportunity to borrow the equipment. So we set it up with sensitive microphones. The organist started to play the dedication of the instrument, the church was full and when he got to a quiet sensitive point, all of a sudden we heard loud “bam, bam, bam.” There was some kind of gunshot going off in the orchard to scare the birds away. When we listed to that old recording, we can still hear the shots going off even though the orchard was south of the church property.
DG: What were you studying at Northern?
DG: Do I recall that you taught school?
GE: I taught first at the Park Ridge Military Academy in Park Ridge for a couple of years. Briefly worked for a division of Allstate when I decided I did not want to be in the business world. Then I found a job teaching in Glenview. At the time my wife who I met at Northern was teaching in Elmhurst and we were living in Addison in an apartment. I was interviewing for teaching jobs. I interviewed in Northbrook because Homer Harvey needed an Industrial Arts teacher. He was an interesting man and had been principal of Crestwood School when I was a student there. He became superintendent when I was in college. I hadn’t seen him for 8-10 years since I was in junior high. When I walked in he looked at me and could recall my name. That was amazing since I had not seen him since 8th grade. I told him I was looking for a job so he interviewed me and sent me over to talk to the teachers in the school. I turned him down because Glenview offered me a little more money. He never let me live that down and reminded me of it every time I saw him after that. He was good natured about it.
DG: So you taught industrial arts at the Glenview high school?
GE: No, I taught at the junior high. That was an experience. I did that for 25 years.
DG: I don’t think they have that course in junior high now. What do you think of that?
GE: I think it has left a big hole in most people’s lives. My wife says she doesn’t remember when we last called a repairman to our house. My son and I actually built the addition to our house.
DG: You mention your son – how many children do you and your wife have?
GE: We have two – a daughter Amy who is the younger of the two and our son Keith and his family live in Cary. I have seven grandchildren – four in Northbrook and three in Cary.
DG: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
GE: None – that’s another story. My mother died shortly after delivering twins in 1948. The twins both died and she died. I was six.
DG: That must have been very traumatic?
GE: It was for both my dad and myself. My aunt and her husband who didn’t have any kids came to live with us for a couple of years. My dad had actually married a Northbrook girl – Florence Moeller – in the late 1930s. Frank and Alma Moeller, my grandparents on my mother’s side. They lived close to downtown Northbrook – where Walters Avenue hits Shermer Road, they were a little bit south of there on the east side of Shermer in a white frame house.
My dad remarried Dorothy Detman, another gal from Northbrook, in 1950 when I was eight years old. She really became my mother for the rest of my life until she passed away. She worked in the library for a long, long time. They did not have any children.
DG: You had no brothers and sisters but lots of caring adults surrounded you.
GE: I certainly did. I can tell you lots of stories about growing up in this town.
DG: Tell us the special stories.
GE: Things that stick in your mind are what you did as a kid. In our house on Church Street my bedroom was on the 2nd floor and overlooked the park. Our lot was very deep all the way back to the creek and the park was on the other side of the creek. They flooded that part of the park that paralleled the creek so we could ice skate and I loved to ice skate as did my dad who taught me to ice skate. I would look out my window and watch for the lights to go on so I would know they were flooding that part of the park for ice skating. That was a really special part of winter – being able to skate and play hockey. The first warming house was a little shack on Walters until they built a building there.
DG: Was skating and hockey your sport all the way through high school?
GE: No, I never got into high school sports. In the winter we did skating and then in the spring and summer there would be softball games in the park. The Village had a softball team. We used to go and watch that. Also we would fly gas powered model airplanes on wires. A guy by the name of Frank Bestor had really cool planes. Then there was a new skating pond behind the current library building. We rode Wizzer motorbikes in the summertime around town with my buddies.
DG: How about your involvement in the community?
GE: Not really so much. I worked for the park district when I was in college. We had a sailing program. Northbrook had a yacht club, believe it or not. Carl Emmer was the Commodore and the sailboats were little penguins and he donated them. We sailed on the Skokie Lagoons. Tom Purliss, another fellow I grew up with in town and he and I ran the sailing program. Wes Cray with the park district superintendent, who put us in charge of the sailing program. We asked him what we would get paid and he said it would be whatever we collected from our students. So we had all kinds of sailing programs. We used to drag them to the Skokie Lagoons every morning and drag them back every evening. This was during the summers I was in college.
DG: What kinds of activities were your kids involved in? Were you a scout leader?
GE: I was. My wife worked with the Girl Scouts and I worked with the Cub Scouts and Webelos which my son was in. My wife did a lot volunteer work with the schools – the PT Post.
DG: You were born in Northbrook, then you went away to school, lived in Addison and then came back to Northbrook.
GE: I came back when we found a house in Northbrook we could afford and we are still there.
DG: Can you summarize what Northbrook has meant to your life?
GE: Well, it has been the town where I grew up. It is the town I identify with. When someone asks where I am from – that is Northbrook. If you are overseas you add that you are from the Chicago area. Northbrook is the town where I grew up and identify with.
DG: Thank you so much for spending a half hour with us and telling us your story. We will look forward to hearing from you again.
GE: You are welcome.