Brookfield, IL looks back at its founders
Where were you on November 7th, 1893? Most likely, you weren’t around yet, but if you were Samuel Eberly Gross or one of his neighbors, you were voting to incorporate Grossdale, which would eventually become Brookfield, Illinois. More on the name change later. For now, let’s explore how Brookfield came to be.
From law to real estate–a town is born
Samuel Eberly Gross came out from Chicago and looked across the land covered in prairie grasses, forests, and farms and decided to leave his law practice behind to become a real estate investor with the goal of providing affordable housing for middle class families. Buying up land along the Chicago-to-Aurora railroad line, Gross plotted his village and began selling his lots in 1889. He also established the first two buildings in town–a train station where he greeted Chicago residents after their free train ride to the area with a band, a picnic lunch, and a sales pitch (boy, has real estate come a long way).
About four years later, Gross’s customers–ahem, residents of the area–voted to incorporate Grossdale. Unfortunately for him, the residents of Grossdale did not like the fact that he divorced his first wife, married a teenager, filed for bankruptcy, moved to Michigan, and began plans to produce a play he wrote that had been embroiled in a plagiarism suit. So, in 1905, residents voted to rename the town Brookfield. Gross died in 1913, and is remembered as “the most prolific home builder in Chicago history.” He is credited with building more than 10,000 houses in over 20 subdivisions, selling over 40,000 lots, and establishing over 15 towns or villages.
How Brookfield beat Grossdale
Although S.E. Gross gave Brookfield its start, the residents gave it its character. The name “Brookfield” is a nod to Salt Water Creek, which runs through town. And Salt Water Creek got its name as a result of a wagon accident. The same year the village was originally founded, a New York teamster who usually hauled lead between Chicago and Galena got caught in high water as he was crossing the creek. He happened to be hauling salt this time instead of lead and lost it all in the creek. The creek was filled with brine for quite some time, which earned it its name.
That train station where Gross used to receive his clients? It is still called the Grossdale Train Station, but residents moved it across the tracks, and it is now the home of the Brookfield Historical Society.
The residents paved their first road in 1920, providing automobile access between Brookfield and Chicago. We know it now as Ogden Avenue or US Highway 34. Residents opened the famous Brookfield Zoo in 1934.
In 1947, however, when the rest of the country was experiencing a post World War II boom, Brookfield was bust. They wanted to file bankruptcy, but the state of Illinois had a law forbidding it. So the residents put their heads together, rolled up their sleeves and fixed their leaks–literally. They cleaned up their real estate listings for proper tax assessments and repaired the hundreds of water leaks that were costing them dearly from Chicago’s water suppliers. They also hired a full-time city manager, a move that the state encouraged other villages to follow. Within five years, the village was solvent, and they joined ten other towns on the “All American City” list according to The National Municipal League and Look Magazine.
Since the founding of the village, Brookfield has become a thriving suburb of over 18,000 people (as of 2016). The downtown area is home to wonderful dining and shopping, including the preeminent Irish Times Pub (featured in Chicago’s Best) and one of the world’s largest video arcades, the Galloping Ghost (home to over 640 video games and pinball machines).
125 Year Anniversary Celebration
Residents have been celebrating the founding of their town all year long, starting back in May with their historical bike ride featuring vintage bikes and early 20th Century high-wheelers. In April, they collected volunteers for the historic events this year, and they starting building the excitement with their July 4th festivities. And you are just in time for the real celebration–Founders Day!
On Saturday, November 3rd from noon to 3:00, Brookfield residents will be celebrating their 125 year anniversary with a re-opening ribbon cutting for the Grossdale Station. Their will be tours, a slideshow of the pictorial history of the village, recordings from residents on the oral history of the village, and more fun (and snacks!) at Village Hall.
Whether you live in Brookfield or close by, it is a great place to be. With many of it historic buildings and homes on the National Registry of Historic Places, it is a beautiful town. And with rich history of people coming together to work through tough times and to celebrate good times, Brookfield is a town well worth exploring. So head over for their 125-year anniversary celebration, play some pinball, and toast them with a pint!