Today, if you were to stand on the corner of Harlem and Lawrence and take in all the sights and sounds of a modern day Village you would have a hard time envisioning what the area looked like when our country was founded in 1776. The immediate area was an open wilderness covered with prairie grass and wild flowers. Two ridges could be seen, one of which would play a major role in the development of Harwood Heights.
During this period the only people inhabiting this area were the Potawatomi Indians. These Native Americans lived their peaceful existence in an area along a river they called checagou which loosely translated means "where the strong-smelling onions grow." This name was very appropriate seeing that patches of wild onions grew in the swampy areas on the banks of what would be later known as the Chicago River and its North and South Branch. To the east lay Lake Michigan which they called mishigonong or "place of great water." To the west over the main ridge lay another river called Aux Plaines where the Potawatomi men spearfished. We recognize it as the Des Plaines River.
European trappers that passed through the area were greeted as friends and in the late 1770's a black man by the name of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable arrived with his family and became the first settler to the area. He built a log cabin near where the checagou flowed into the mishigonong and for many years he had a thriving trading business with the Potawatomi until the year 1800 when Du Sable sold all his holdings to another trader by the name of Jean La Lime.
All stayed well with the traders and the Potawatomi until the year 1803 when a large group of United States soldiers came to the area to build a fort called Fort Dearborn. The United States was expanding and this expansion was looked down upon by the British who tried to block the western growth of the county. British Agents began turning the Potawatomis against the troops in the fort and as the conditions worsened between them word was sent from Washington to the forts commander, Captain Nathan Heald to make the necessary preparations to abandoned the fort. The War of 1812 had begun and in August of that year Captain Heald had made the necessary preparations to abandoned the fort.
Word had leaked out that the fort would be abandoned and the hostile Potawatomis' saw a perfect opportunity to wreak their havoc on the soldiers and their families. On August 15th about 60 soldiers, nine women and eighteen children began to move south toward the safety of Fort Wayne. A band of Potawatomis posing as an escort moved in along side of the column and then without warning turned and attacked. When it was over 55 men, two women and twelve children had been slaughtered. Five women, five men and the remaining children were taken captive. That night the fort was burned to the ground and the 5 captive men were tortured to death. Luckily there were some survivors. Captain Heald, his wife and a few others were saved by some of the remaining friendly Potawatomis. This small group managed to make their way across Lake Michigan by canoe to Michigan and the home of a trader named William Burnett. Fearing that they would not even be safe their it was decided that they make their way to a totally safe area on Mackinac Island in upper Michigan. The man they hired to take them was destined to become one of the most famous inhabitants of the area that is now Norridge and Harwood Heights, Alexander Robinson.
Robinson lived with the Potawatomis in Michigan and was the son of an Ottawa mother and British father. The Ottawa's were friends with the Potawatomis and because of this Indians accepted Robinson and even gave him the name of Che Che Pin Qua which meant "the squinter," or "blinking eye." Robinson took the group by canoe to the U.S. Fort at Mackinac Island which had been captured by the British and Heard along with the rest were taken as prisoners of war but they were treated well and were now safe from the dangers of the hostile Indians. In 1814, Robinson decided to bring his Potawatomi wife Cynthia and their children across the lake and settled near what is now the corner of Kinzie and Dearborn streets.
The year 1815 brought the end of the War of 1812 and slowly more and more traders returned to the area as well as additional U.S. soldiers. They rebuilt Fort Dearborn and the Indians began to see that the land that once belonged to them was now growing smaller and smaller. The United States government had been buying up land from the Indians and in 1835 the final group of Potawatomis left the area for good. This opened the land for the new settlers who began moving to the area and one, Israel Smith became the first settler to make his home in the area that would become Harwood Heights.
The 22 year old Smith didn't like the appearance of the marshy land where Chicago was growing and traveled to the west and purchased a tract of land on the first high point he came to. The area that Smith settled on is where the present day Ridgemoor Country Club and St. Rosalie's Church are located. Soon after, the remainder of the Smith family moved to the ridge that would become Union Ridge and bought up land along the ridge to a point where Union Ridge Cemetery now sits on Higgins Road. So many Smith's lived on the ridge that it was soon known as "Smith's Ridge."
Alexander Robinson also moved to the area when he was presented with 1200 acres of land for the assistance he gave with negotiating treaties with the local Indians. The land he was given ran from about Irving Park Road north to Foster Ave with the Des Plaines River running through the middle of it. Much of this land remains untouched in the form of the Forest Preserves known as Che Che Pin Qua Woods, Robinson Woods, and Catherine Chevalier Woods (the name of his wife). Robinson lived there until April 27, 1872 when he died. Today you can still visit the family burial ground where Che Che Pin Qua and his family are buried. The burial area is at the northwest corner of East River Road and Lawrence Ave.
Another settler by the name of Charles Ball purchased a section of land between what is now Lawrence and Wilson Avenues. Through the middle of his land ran what is now Harlem Ave. Others began arriving and slowly a number of log cabin houses could be seen dotting the landscape. Roads began to appear, the main one being Township Line Road which is now Harlem Ave and a dirt road that ran between the property owned by Israel and Marcellus Smith called Smith's Road, now known as Gunnison Street.
What was once a wilderness was growing into a community. Cook County was formed in 1831, 1849 gave birth to the Townships of Jefferson and Leyden and in 1851 the Cook County government purchased 100 acres of land between what is now Irving Park Rd and Forest Preserve Drive just east of Harlem Avenue. This would serve as a home for the poor and destitute and also as a place to keep those people who had been described as "crazy" by county officials. When it was built it was called "Jefferson," but in years to come the name would change to "Dunning," after a resident by the name of Charles Dunning. The name would later be changed to the "Reed Mental Institution." The nation had lived through the Civil War and the city of Chicago rose from the destruction of The Great Chicago Fire. A portion of "Dunning" would serve as a burial ground to the many unidentified dead that had perished in the fire. 1873 saw the creation of yet another Township in the area. This was the brain child of George Dunlap and on April 1st the voters elected the first government of the newly formed Norwood Park Township.
With this growth also came the need for more schools and in 1875 a farmer, Charles Ball donated an acre of land for a new school. With the help of other local farmers who supplied material and elbow grease a one-room school house on what is now Oak Park Avenue was build in 1876.. The location of the school is very near where the present Union Ridge School is located and it was given the name of "Smith's Schoolhouse." There has been much discussion as to how it received this name. Many believe it was because it was located near Smith's Road (now Gunnison) and others believe that Israel Smith's daughter Emma "Kitty" Smith was the first teacher. The schools population when it first opened was 15.
The early part of the 20th century saw the passing of Harwood Heights' first settler. In 1904 Israel Smith died at the age of eighty-eight. The old was giving way to the new and farmhouses sprang up from the expanses of lush farm land. The few roads that were present were unpaved and most of the farmhouses did not have the luxury of indoor plumbing. Instead out behind the house the typical "outhouse" or "privy" was located. The homes were heated by wood or coal burning stoves and light was supplied by gas or kerosene lamps. 1913 saw the first electrical wires to supply the houses with electricity and 1916 brought in the first gas lines.
Everywhere you looked progress was creeping in as the once open lands began to take the shape of a growing community. In 1908 the land owned by Israel Smith was sold to the Irving Golf Club and a nine-hole golf course was put in its place. Smith's home became the clubhouse. It was the beginning of what in 1914 would become the Ridgemoor Country Club which saw the likes of Gene Sarazan, Ben Hogan, Walter Hagan and Tommy Armour play regularly.
The area was quickly growing. Harlem, Irving Park and Narragansett were paved in the early 1920's and in 1924 the growing population called for the addition of a two story school house next to the original school. Five years later in 1929 fire would destroy the original school house and a new 4 story building was put up in its place. That new school today stands at the corner of Oak Park and Carl Casatta Lane. (additions to the building have changed its appearance). That fire was a symbol of what was to come for in that same year the nation was plunged into the Great Depression. Farmers who had existed by moving their goods by truck into the markets of Chicago were forced to also set up road side produce stands in hopes of making a few extra dollars from the passing motorists.
The Depression lasted ten long years and in 1938 towards the end of this trying time a development company by the name of Durocraft Homes built a small sub-division of about seventy homes south of Foster and West of Harlem on what is now Oconto, Octavia and Odell streets. During that same year Michael Enright built a tavern now known as Landmark Pub and can still be seen to this day at 5135 N. Oriole.
On the horizon lay World War II and when the war finally came to an end in 1945 the area that would become Harwood Heights would begin its birth as a Village.
The Birth Of A Village
Little by little the land that began as prairie and then as farmland slowly gave way to a growth of residential homes and businesses. On the corner of Gunnison and Harlem sprang a peony farm owned by Judge Heckel. More businesses opened along Harlem Avenue and slowly the farms that once brought forth great bounty began to disappear. Many of the residents that moved here after the war were dissatisfied with the conditions of the area. Most of the streets turned into rivers of mud after a rain, there was no police protection and the water situation grew to the unbearable point. Citizen groups talked of trying to get the city of Chicago to annex the area. One of these citizens, Herbert Huening, a World War II Navy Veteran who moved to a home on Oconto Avenue after the war took up the challenge and began talking to City officials. After several trips to City Hall it became very evident that Chicago had no desire to take in a small cluster of homes just outside its border. It was then that Huening seriously began looking into the prospect of incorporating and starting its own Village.
In the fall of 1947 a vote was taken and 350 votes were cast for incorporation and the Village of Harwood Heights came to life. On March 4, 1948 the Village was awarded its official charter. It had a population of 400 and was bordered on the north by Foster Ave, the south by Lawrence, Harlem to the east and Oketo made its western most boundary. Herbert Huening, the man who brought about the Village's incorporation was elected its first Mayor.
No one really knows for sure how the Village came up with its name. Many believe that the word Harwood came from a combination of "Har" for Harlem Avenue and the "wood" came from Norwood Park Township in which the Village is located. Others believe that it was taken from a company that built many of the first homes, Harwood Builders. How the word "Heights" was added is even less clear. I have heard explanations that it was in reference to the heights of the ridge that Israel Smith settled, to the highest point in the Village which is located at Harlem and Foster Avenues. No one knows for sure and maybe it is best that it remain a mystery for it makes a great topic of conversation when discussing the history of the town.
Harwood Heights was about to see the the most rapid growth that it would ever see. The 1950's saw a major movement from city living to the peace and quiet of the suburbs. Those who had come back from World War II were now family men and looking for the best place to locate their new families. In 1951 the area south of Lawrence was annexed by the Village and 1956 and 1957 saw the addition of the remaining areas east of Harlem that stretched to Narragansett added to the Village. The citizens of this area tried twice to incorporate first as the Village of Ridgemoor and then as the Village of Union Ridge. When these attempts failed the necessary steps were taken to make the area a part of Harwood Heights.
This rapid growth caused a few growing pains for the Village. Union Ridge School was bursting at the seams and in 1953 new classrooms and a lunchroom were added. Five years later in 1958 the construction of the Village's first church was completed at 6700 Gunnison. At that time it was called The Church of The Open Door, today it is known as Bethany Baptist Church.
All along Harlem Avenue businesses sprouted up and the area west of Harlem saw the addition of more and more streets being cut into the farmland. New homes went up, new businesses and new industrial areas were added but the area was missing one very important thing-a High School. In 1958 the citizens of Harwood Heights and Norridge voted to establish a High School District and to build a school. A contest was created to name the school and the winning name came from a combination of the two Villages. The "Ridge" came from Norridge and Wood came from Harwood. A marshy area of land on Montrose Avenue was selected as the site and in 1960 Ridgewood High School opened its doors to become one of the ten best schools in the nation.
1960 also saw the opening of St. Rosalie's Church on Montrose and Oak Park. 1963 was the year that the first high rise apartment buildings were built in the Northwest suburbs with the completion of Parkway Towers. The following year the current Village Hall was built which was quite an improvement from the first Village Hall that was in the basement of the home of the first Mayor, Herbert Huening.
In 1968 the first steps were taken to start a drive that would raise money for the opening of the areas first library. It would take almost 4 long years before the Dwight D. Eisenhower would come to be. A contest was run to select a name for the library and James Scallion a 6th grade student at St. Rosalie's came up with the winning submission named after the 34th President of the United States. The library had a very simple beginning in a cramped room on the ground floor of Parkway Towers. It wouldn't be until 1974 that the library would be able to move to its current location at 4652 N. Olcott in an abandoned building that was once a sheet metal factory.
It was in the 1970's that saw some of the first businesses torn down and new ones put in their place. At 4701 N. Harlem the Goodman's Community Discount Store that was built in 1959 was demolished and the new Harwood Heights Square Shopping Center took its place. Just down the street at 4747 Harlem the Holiday Bowl bowling alley that also went up in 1959 was torn down and replaced by the new Holiday Plaza Mall in 1988.
The Village of Harwood Heights has come full circle from expanses of prairie grass to a prosperous modern community that supplies its residents and visitors the best that modern day can afford. Just about everything has changed except one area and it is very fitting that the area has retained most of its original flavor. That area is the spot where Israel Smith first settled on that high ridge. To this day you can still view that ridge and many of the trees that still remain. Even though it is now the home of a modern Country Club if you let your imagination wander you can almost see Mr. Smith walking over the ridge that he once called home.
Today And Beyond
Today the Village's 8297 residents have at their disposal 20 restaurants, 5 shopping centers, 3 parks, 1 grade school, 1 high school and 3 churches to serve their needs. There are also thriving business areas, industrial areas and just about everything needed to make a community complete and a desirable place to live and work.
What does the future hold? No one really knows for sure. We can only say that each and every one of the Village employees will strive to do their best to continue to make the Village of Harwood Heights one of the best communities to live and work.
To see a photo history of Harwood Heights please visit our Photo History page that was inspired by the Harwood Heights Historical Committee.
Village Population and Demographics Today
According to the most recent demographics data available from the US Census Bureau released in December of 2017, the population in Harwood Heights was 8,628. Of this number the ethnic breakdown is:
White - 89%
African American - 0.6%
Native American - 0.0%
Asian - 7.8%
Hispanic - 11.8%
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander - 0.00%
Multiple Race - 0.2%