Susan Schwall Ellwanger

Susan Ellwanger describes her experiences growing up in Northbrook in the 1960s and 70s when children had considerable outdoor freedom and time for neighborhood play.

Recorded on March 8, 2013. Length: 31 Minutes.


DG: Good morning and welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project by the Northbrook Historical Society and the Northbrook Public Library.  My name is Donna Lee Gulley and I am pleased to welcome Susan Schwall Ellwanger who has lived and worked in Northbrook her entire life.  She is a part of the Schwall family that we all know in building and construction and has many stories to tell about growing up in our small town of Northbrook.  I am so glad to have you here, Susan.  Why don’t you begin by telling us some of those stories about growing up in Northbrook.

SE: Well, I am from a large family.  I am one of eight siblings.  I am the second oldest.  My earliest memories from my childhood – we lived on Penfold – and just the ability to go out the door after school and have the freedom to be outside the entire time until Mom called us in to dinner.  We had the ability to roam around outside.  I went to St. Norbert’s lst through 8th grades.  I remember riding my bike to and from school each day.  Nowadays that is not something you would think of but all of us did that.  You had no problems thinking about going uptown as children with a friend.  At that time Northbrook had Woolworths and Ben Franklin stores so that was very attractive.  We loved going there because they had your penny candy.  You got an allowance for doing your chores so you could go up there about once a week and rummage through the penny candy.  One store had a soda fountain so you could get ice cream or a shake.  I think my fondest memories of Northbrook are just as a child you had the freedom to be outside your entire childhood.

DG: What were some favorite games?

SE: When we were growing up my father started Charles E. Schwall, Inc., and had his office in our home.  Many times he would bring us pieces of dry wall.  Back then dry wall had a lot of chalk in it.  We would go out in the street and draw hopscotch and four square boards and play that.  It was just mixing business with the family.  At night we would catch the fireflies.  Being out at night sitting with your friends.  We could play jump rope in the street – cars were not as prevalent back then.  I make myself sound like I am so old but it was just the ability to be free. 

DG: I want our listeners to understand that you are talking about drawing these games on the street, not on sidewalks, you were playing in the street?

SE: That’s right.  In the neighborhood all the children were out.  You didn’t have to go to someone’s house and make play dates.  All the children were out after school so you never wanted for playmates.  Nowadays children don’t want to be outside the way we were.  When I was raising my family I really stressed the importance of playing outside.

DG: Did your children play outside?  When do you think things changed?

SE: My children are in their mid-twenties right now.  I did stress that they play outside but made certain they were in the backyard – in our fenced in backyard.  You provided your own big swing set with the climbing and apparatus.  When I was a child we would go to various backyards to play on a variety of equipment.  We were fortunate as my dad built us a little playhouse.  That was a hot area for the girls to play dolls in.  Then we had the little clubs. 

DG: Did he also build a treehouse for the boys?

SE: No, we didn’t have any trees in the backyard large enough for a treehouse.

DG: So, there was one house on the ground for all eight of you?

SE: Well, basically when we had that there were probably only six of us.  The playhouse wasn’t real small.   You could probably get six or eight sitting in it.  It had windows and doors and a shingled roof.  We enjoyed it a lot.  Other things in Northbrook I remember – we used to call it junk days.  The residents could put unwanted items and debris out on the parkway and the Village trucks would come by and take them away.  That provided a great opportunity for children to scavenge.  We would find such treasures.  The trash of others was a treasure for us.  I was sad to see that program go away.

DG: Can you recall any of the things you dragged home?

SE: Probably.  Old dolls, bric brac, a Snow White figurine for a watch which I kept on my shelf for 10 years; colored pens or markers and crayons; bikes were dragged home a time or two.  We all went out with our siblings or friends.

DG: Bicycles were pretty important to kids?

SE: Definitely.  It was our means of transportation.  Our parents didn’t drive you anywhere unless it was a distance or late at night.  Other than that you walked or rode your bike. 

DG: Twenty-seven speeds on that bike?

SE: Nope – it was just forward and brake.  You were happy to have it.  If you got a basket or bell on it you were ecstatic.  If you got a hand-me-down, you were happy to have it.  You didn’t get a Schwinn until you were in high school and you had your lawn cutting money or whatever and you were able to help buy it.

DG: Did you cut lawns?

SE: Not at that time.  I had an older brother and had some other brothers.  My chores were more like watching the younger siblings and helping Mom around the house.  We always had a chart on the refrigerator that had chores on it – who set the table, who cleaned the table, back then you had to wash dishes.  Every Saturday we had to clean our own bedroom and one other room in the house before we could go out and play.  So we didn’t have help in the house.  All of us had to chip in.  We were not allowed to keep our rooms like a tornado went through it.  I hear stories about children who take off their clothes and leave them in piles on the floor in their rooms.  Back then people had respect for what you had because you didn’t have as much.

DG: What do you think caused that change?

SE: Probably – Northbrook is much more affluent now than it was back then.  I think it has just become more and more.  People are more materialistic.  If you don’t have much money you respect your possessions more.  They aren’t thrown away as they are nowadays.  We had no problem getting clothes.  I remember there used to be a resale shop here in Northbrook for clothes.  My mom would go there all the time.  You felt like you had gone to N-M if you could go there and find something.  It was all second hand clothes.  You learned how to sew.  Girls in high school learned how to sew.  I remember when I first got married mending socks.  God forbid you wouldn’t think of doing that nowadays.  But those were some of the things we learned back then.  No, you don’t have to mend socks, but I think people need to be more respectful of what they have.

DG: You made reference to an allowance.

SE: Oh, yes.  Because we had our chores, our chore board.  We also got something for the grades on our report cards.  You got a nickel for a C, a dime for a B and I think we may have gotten a quarter for an A.  Back then we got report cards every quarter or couple of months.  I don’t remember what our allowances were but we were tickled pink to have that money.

DG: Do you remember what it cost to go to the movies?

SE:  No, I don’t.  I just remember that when I started babysitting it was like 25 to 50 cents an hour for babysitting.  We didn’t go to the movies that often.  That was a big thing.  We used to go bowling sometimes as a family.

DG: Where was the bowling alley?

SE: The theaters were on Skokie Blvd., Edens Theaters.  The bowling alley – I can’t remember the location.  I just remember going to the bowling alley with my Dad.  He belonged to a bowling league but I can’t tell you where it was.

DG: That’s OK.  I wasn’t trying to stump you.  So St. Norbert’s is where you went to school?

SE: Yes, I went there for 1st through 8th grade.  It was completely different than it is now.   I remember my 2nd grade classroom with 52 students with one teacher and no aides.  You didn’t have helpers in the classroom.  You were taught differently, pretty much sat at your desk and went through the subjects.  You didn’t change classrooms until about 7th grade.  At St. Norbert’s we only three classrooms per grade.  You just moved between those rooms.  You had your music and gym class.  You ate lunch at your desk, then went outside after lunch to play.  We had the entire parking lot but now half of it is used for the commuter parking lot.  You were taught by nuns and a couple of lay teachers.  I did not feel I was denied anything.  We respected our teachers.  We had to wear uniforms which my mother always said was a God send as you didn’t have to buy a variety of clothes.  There was no competition about clothes.

DG: Did you send your children to St. Norbert’s?

SE: I did not.  We lived on the other side of town and only two blocks from Westmoor so my children went to Westmoor.  I did look into St. Norbert’s but because of the convenience and the neighborhood, our children went to Westmoor.  But, my children did go to Loyola Academy and got their religious education that way.

DG: You did it the opposite way going to St. Norbert’s and then Glenbrook North?

SE: Yes, I did go to Glenbrook North.  I chose that over Marillac.  Marillac had just opened.  I chose GBN, my older brother was there and most of my friends were going there.  It is a phenomenal school. 

DG: Do I recall you telling me something about your Dad being involved with some of the classes at the high school?

SE: Yes, my Dad grew up here in Northbrook.  I remember him telling me stories about he lived on a farm called Baker Acres which was at the corner of Sanders and what is now Willow.  They raised thoroughbred horses there.  This was when he was in high school so he did go to Northbrook High School.  His family lived in the Techny Road area where we have our business now.  He has always been involved with building.  Glenbrook North had a building trades program at that time which was participated in by – they had curtail the number of students as so many wanted to take it.  The class was basically for the boys.  Dad has his own business at that time and he counseled the people running the building trades program.  My three older brothers went through it and right from that into the family business.  My father felt strongly that some children are not college material and we will always need tradesmen.  He loved Northbrook and was always heavily involved in the community.  He was involved in the building and grounds committee at St. Norbert’s.  They built the Gazebo at the Village Green and my brothers have taken over for my father who passed away in 1997.  We are second generation builders here in Northbrook which we take great pride in.  I left to go away to college but my husband is also from Northbrook. 

DG: Is your husband involved in Schwall?

SE: No, he is not.  My husband is an electrical contractor so was involved in Schwall as a subcontractor.   The business is run by the siblings.  My sisters and I have been involved in the secretarial aspects as soon as we learned how to type.  When it grew to be too much, they had to hire someone full time.  My father had the business in his home until Northbrook passed an ordinance that you couldn’t have businesses in the home if you had emplyees coming in.  Then the business moved to Techny Road.  We have always been very proud that we grew up in Northbrook and have been part of the life of the community.

DG: What would you say are some of the projects that lead to that sense of pride?

SE: Our father instilled in us that quality is more important than quantity.  We build a couple of homes a year and are always very conscientious of our men and how the work is done.  It is very easy to lose track of that to meet certain price points.  In the back of our minds we always keep in mind that our business is built on quality not quantity. 

DG: Since Northbrook Voices is co-sponsored by the Historical Society, tell us a little bit about what Schwall Builders has done with our building?

SE: Well, the Northbrook Historical Society when it moved to the Village Green needed some help with the remodeling.  Our company helped with some of the little steps to get things going and more recently worked on the front porch and stairs to improve safety for visitors to the building.  We pride ourselves in having long time customers.  Our work in Northbrook is probably 80% of our business.  We want to stay here and give back to the community.  We love Northbrook. 

DG: The community certainly appreciates it.  You left Northbrook for a while to go to school?

SE: Yes, I did.  I lived in Des Plaines when I first married and then moved out to St. Charles.  At that time I was still going to college.  That was for a period of four years.

DG: What brought you back?

SE: Family.  My husband is also from Northbrook.  His mother is an Anetsberger so he has long time ties to Northbrook.  Even though we lived in St. Charles, we never really left here.  Because we are the oldest in our families, we always came back for everything that was going on.  When we decided to buy a home, the education here – you couldn’t ask for better – and at that time the housing was very affordable here.  We just wanted to be near family.   All five of my brothers were involved in Schwall Builders.  Two of them have since left and moved to Colorado and as we are getting older we are all finding different places.  I will have two siblings in Tennessee.  We do seem to stay close even though we move away. 

DG: Are your children living here?

SE: My children do not live in Northbrook.  They just recently each bought homes.  My son is in Palatine and my daughter is in Arlington Heights.

DG: You don’t see them coming back here?

SE: It is not affordable for them as first time home buyers.  Also for work, another location was better.

DG: Let’s go back and talk about high school.  Did you ride your bike to high school?  Did you have to wear a uniform?

SE: Glenbrook North – I loved it.  I enjoyed school so I didn’t have a problem.  At that time they were experimenting with an individualized learning program which you could complete the course work at your own pace.  That worked for me.  I loved all the sports programs that they offered.  Coming from a Catholic grade school where we were very limited in the sports programs, Glenbrook North was great in offering a variety of team and intramural sports.  It was a little bit of a shock with the mixture of kids compared to the Catholic grade school.  I had an older brother who was two years ahead and kind of paved the way.  By the time I went to high school he was driving.  In those days if you had a car, you filled it up.  I remember that we had five people we had to pick up and drive to school.  At that time we were living on Orchard Lane which was my second home in Northbrook so we did not ride our bikes or walk to high school.

DG: Tell us the year you graduated to put things in perspective.

SE: I graduated in 1974.  It has been a long time and I think the school is still phenomenal.  I have been back to visit several times.

DG: What activities did you enjoy?

SE: I tried doing as much as I could.  I was on the archery team, played basketball and volleyball.  Whatever they had after school you would stay and do.  For me to earn money it was babysitting which I did on weekends.  In the summer you would hook up with a family and be their “summer girl” and work for a few hours each day to help a mom out.  I did have free time after school.  Nowadays a lot of students try to get a job at a local store or something like that.

DG: What was the fashion of the day?  What did you wear to school?  Did you wear slacks?

SE: Yes, I did wear slacks.  I assume I wore dresses and skirts too.  I remember hip huggers and bell bottoms were current in the early 70s.  We did have the short skirts but my parents would not allow me to wear them really short, just above the knees.  We did have “hot pants” but my physique didn’t allow me to wear them.

DG: As we conclude this interview, what are your hopes and dreams for Northbrook?

SE: I would like it to try to bring some stores back to downtown Northbrook.  There is not a place for children to gather anymore.  We have the library which is great.  Walgreens is now over on Waukegan Road.  When it was in downtown, I think it was more conducive to the kids riding bikes if they were allowed to – you used to see bikes outside occasionally.  They need more casual dining where kids can just come in.  You have Little Louie’s which is great.

DG: You want to see more places friendly to kids?

SE: Yes, they are the future of the community.  They will come back if they enjoyed it.  With jobs becoming more global, that is probably more difficult.  I would like to see kids have more freedom but that is probably not possible in this day and age.

DG: You enjoyed your childhood so much in Northbrook.

SE: Yes, and that’s why we came back here to raise our family.

DG: I want to thank you for taking time to add another perspective and describing your experiences growing up in Northbrook.

SE: Thank you.  I enjoyed it.