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Their Town

Dietrich and Lena Friedrich's Mount Prospect


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Dietrich and Lena Friedrichs married in 1905 and a year later moved into a new two-story, white frame house on the corner of what are now Busse and Maple streets in Mount Prospect. It was only the thirteenth house built in the town, but the community already had an interesting history, says Mount Prospect Historical Society director Gavin Kleespies. Standing in their lace-curtained parlor almost a century later, Kleespies explains that the Friedrichses were transitional figures in that history--one foot planted in the community's insular, Germanic past, the other stepping into its future.

Germanic? Totally, says Kleespies. At one time Mount Prospect was an entirely German, and German-speaking, community. But that was already a third wave: before the Germans there were Yankees, and before the Yankees there were Native Americans. The first white settlers didn't show up till the treaty of 1833 forced the Potawatomi out of the area, making it safe for loner farming families--land-hungry log-cabin Yankees who'd been crowded out of New England. These intense individualists, inspired by the do-it-yourself Christianity of the Second Great Awakening, were besotted with the ideal of freedom represented by the Wild West, which at the time extended all the way to Fort Dearborn. They built farms one at a time, dots on the landscape, not communities.

Within a decade they were feeling crowded again--this time by a wave of immigrants from places like Hanover, Bavaria, and Baden, who were also responding to the call of the American west. These people came looking for freedom, Kleespies says, "but they had a different definition of what freedom is." They were followers of a Lutheran tradition being pushed out by new strains in the church. While the Yankees wanted to leave institutionalized religion and tradition behind, the German immigrants wanted the freedom to reestablish institutions, to build new versions of the communities they had left. The two groups met briefly on the same land; then, with the city of Chicago developing, the frontier pushing farther west, and the gold rush beckoning, the original settlers sold their farms to the immigrants and moved on. "The transition was nearly seamless," Kleespies says. By 1850, all of the Yankees were gone.

For the next 20 years, the area that would become Mount Prospect was a German enclave. There was no town, just a conglomeration of farms divided between Wheeling and Elk Grove townships, but the new residents soon built a church (Saint John Lutheran) and a school. This pattern was repeated throughout northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, and eastern Iowa, with whole counties dominated by specific European nationalities--German, Swedish, Norwegian. In the years leading up to the Civil War, with the country in upheaval, these foreign-speaking communities became targets of suspicion. Nativists started "railing against the Germans," Kleespies says, which had the effect of drawing the community closer together, reinforcing its isolation. A rail line came through in 1854, but the area remained a German settlement until the 1870s.

Enter Ezra Eggleston. A Chicago businessman burned out by the Great Fire, Eggleston bought ten square blocks in what is now downtown Mount Prospect and built a railroad station, reasoning that if he had a station the train would stop. He named the town (Mount because it's on a glacial ridge, Prospect because of his hopes for it), laid out streets, and tried to sell lots, just as the financial panic of 1873 made its way to the midwest. He wound up in bankruptcy. After that, the train stopped only if someone flagged it down and the area grew at its own pace. In 1917, when the population was 299 with one pregnant woman, the whole town awaited the birth that gave it the 300 residents necessary for incorporation. It wasn't until the years after World War II, when development skyrocketed, that Mount Prospect took on the suburban character it has now.

The Friedrichs House is the museum of the Mount Prospect Historical Society and the first stop on its Christmas Housewalk this weekend. Kleespies will be there to talk about how Dietrich and Lena lived in a time when people gave up farming to start other kinds of businesses, traded large families for small, built bathrooms in anticipation of indoor plumbing, and broke with some of the traditions their parents had come here to preserve. He might start by pointing out their wedding picture on top of the piano, explaining that a traditional German bride of the period would have worn black. Lena looks out from her frame in radiant white.

Christmas Housewalk 2000 will be held from 3 to 9 Friday, December 1. It begins at the Dietrich Friedrichs House, 101 S. Maple, and visits seven additional homes built between 1895 and 1952, all within walking distance and all decorated for the holidays by local florists. Tickets are $18; proceeds benefit the historical society. Call 847-392-9006.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Mount Prospect Historical Society/Bruce Powell.

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