Jul 13, 2013

Fort Sheridan

For the last 2.5 years, GABROEN have lived in the so-called tower barracks in the Town of Fort Sheridan. The fort was an actual army base for over 100 years, and was named after Philip Sheridan, a celebrated Union cavalry general during the American civil war. He was a colorful character to say the least, with a personal quest to get National Park protection to Yellowstone's buffalos, but at the same time he applauded white hunters trespassing on indian lands and killing 4 million bison. He is also known for being a 'great' indian fighter; supposedly, when told by the Comanche chief "me good injun", he responded "all good indians I know are dead". This made it into history as "the only good indian is a dead indian", which may not be exactly what Ol' Phil meant, but I think you get the picture of this guy.
He actually was in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire, and was put in charge when the mayor installed martial orders in the fire's aftermath. To thank him for his services, the newly installed fort was named after him, as well as the lakeside road from downtown Chicago to the fort. To this day, there's a bronze statue of Ol' Phil on his horse Rienzi along Sheridan Road in downtown Chicago, by the same sculptor that designed the four presidents' busts at Mount Rushmore, and another one on the fort's former parade ground - now our front yard.

Interestingly, Fort Sheridan was never close to a battlefield, nor to any border
with enemy nations or tribes to the West or North. The only reason for its creation was that a few guys that made it big in Chicago's industry where moving out of the stinking city to more comfortable mansions and villas on the Northshore, and they were getting a little nervous with the labor unrests of the 1880s. They requested a garrison from the federal government to protect their valuable estates, who initially refused - I'm sure it had more pressing things on its mind at the time. To get their way, the Chicago commerce club ended up donating the prime real estate along the lake to the army.

Most of the fort's 90 or so historic buildings were built in the 1880s and 90s, including the iconic tower which at the time was the tallest building in the Chicago area. Not for long, as competing architecture firms figured out a way to build skyscrapers on Chicago's marshy soil. The garrison was actually deployed to quench the 1894 Pullman strike, but within 10 years of its existence the fort became a major training and rehabilitation facility for the Spanish American War and in particular World War II, processing a staggering 500,000 soldiers for military service in the early 1940s. So again, the federal government had more pressing things to care about than the mansions in affluent neighbor towns Lake Forest and Highland Park.
Most of the fort was closed in 1993, but there still is an active reserve base to our South and to our North. Part of the lands were used for housing employees of the Great Lakes Naval Base further north, but all historical buildings, including barracks, officer homes, kitchens, jail, veterinary office, mess hall and fire station, were turned into residential area.


One of our neighbors, now 85, grew up in this area and returned to live in the fort 15 years ago. He vividly remembers the bustling activity during World War II, and told us about the encampments where German prisoners of war were held. This lot is once again designated as "prime lakefront property", but the housing market bust has not helped in finding interested buyers. In contrast to the German POWs, who were locked up in camps, the Italian POWs were put in apartments in the next door village of Highwood. They supposedly did not require incarceration, as they had no desire to return to their homeland, and to this day Highwood still is a very thriving Italian-American community.

Our 85-year old neighbor Narrin also recalled shooting practice in the indoor range on the top floor of the tower barracks, what is now our bedroom; you can still see the original opening in the exposed brick wall on Jeroen's side of the bed, now closed up with almost exactly matching masonry work. The historic bricks were all made locally out of the local bluffs, and they show over 100 years of wear and tear, but some holes in our bedroom wall seem to originate from a stray practice bullet. The history and character of this place makes it unique in the northern suburbs, and that's what was appealing to GABROEN. We visit friends who live in the old kitchen unit, had a christmas party in the old bakery, do an evening dog walk by the tower, officers' mess hall and fire station. We walk along the parade ground and beautiful officer homes, we hike on trails that used to be the airstrip but are now restored as original prairie land with abundant wildflowers, and we sleep in a former shooting range.

After so many years in the fort, Narrin is moving out next week. He's going to an assisted living home in Lake Forest - we heard it was his grand wish to one day call zip code 60045 home. It's a step up, numerically, from where we are at 60035. But I guess for him it's a big step up on the aristocratic ladder to finally move in with the truly affluent, the rich benefactors who created Fort Sheridan in the first place. We hope you enjoy it, Narrin

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