1950s: Playing in Peat & Prairie

1950s Clarendon Hills, Illinois

The north side of our village in the 1950s was still largely undeveloped. We moved into the third house down from Chicago Avenue on the east side of Woodstock St. (a much stolen sign after the 1969 Woodstock festival) in the spring of 1950. The next house after ours was a half block down the street. The weeds, grasses, and trees in between were called “the prairie”. Until the late 1950s, the other side of the street was largely prairie.

When I was still toddling around, my mother would tie me with a rope to the clothes pole while she hung washing to dry behind the garage. She didn’t want me disappearing into the prairie to the south of our yard. Eventually a picket fence hemmed me in and prevented my wandering. However the fence didn’t prevent visitors from the prairie. One, a huge (to three year old me) black snake angled across the yard terrifying me while my Mom was inside gathering another basket of laundry.

Mark & Gary with the Wenner girls in the prairie next to the house circa 1954

The prairie was a great playground for us growing up. In spots, tall ragweed grew and made it easy to hide. There were wildflowers everywhere, especially daisies which grew wild around the town: the heirs of a shipment of grass seed ordered by Mr Middaugh which turned out to be daisies instead of grass and which spread everywhere in the village’s north side!

Even more fun than the prairie spaces was the peat bog which lay between Oxford and Prospect Streets and between Norfolk and Chicago Avenues, a large area of the northside of the village. On the east side was the Prospect Elementary School, bounded on its west side by a swampy area of the bog, a great adventure to those of us walking to school and perilous to shoes and school clothes. The peat bog along Oxford street was more solid and drier and full of ragweed, which made for ‘forts’ for kids and adventurous ‘smoking’ of ragweed stalks when they dried out in the autumn.

An enterprising builder in the 1930s or 1940s had actually built houses on the peatbog, driving piles into the turf and constructing with lots of hope. In the 1950s, we would explore the peatbog and find bits of chimneys, sidewalks to nowhere, and cost off household items. Gilbert Street, south of Chicago Avenue, held three houses, bungalow style, which had survived the bog and seemed to be on solid ground. These are now gone, sacrificed to a new parking lot for the Middle School built on the firmer ground along Chicago Avenue.

We loved exploring the peatbog and in summer built our forts and hid in them pretending we were explorers or pioneers or just errant kids away from home. These forts were where we first smoked cigarettes and looked at pictures we weren’t supposed to see. One summer, running through the peatbog my brother Gary and I stumbled over a pile of bricks, perhaps part of a sunken house, that was firmly and defensively inhabited by a swarm of wasps! Our friend Georgie Pieler got badly stung.

The prairies and the peatbog were a fire hazard, especially in the pre-environmentally conscious days when every household had an incinerator basket in the back of the yard. Ours was out beyond the clothes lines up against the towering lilac bushes (which made great hiding places!). Several summers neighbors would be called out with brooms and blankets and buckets of water to help put out prairie fires along Woodstock street. Once all the lots were sold and houses built prairie fires disappeared from our consciousness and concern.

Clarendon Hills peat bog fire smoke, note the disappearing bit of sidewalk on the left
[from the Clarendon Hills historical society site]

The peatbog though was hit by lightning one year in the late 1950s and caught fire and, as is the nature of peat fires, smouldered on and on. It wasn’t really until the winter snows that the fire was finally put out.

Published by Mark Meinke

Married gay Quaker and historian, retired, and working more than ever.

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