This blog entry is the start of Part I of an ongoing collaborative series relating to Neighborhoods & Their Residents. As described in the introductory blog for this collaborative series, we will be working with participating urban youth and other collaborators to develop comic collaborations relating to urban neighborhoods which we will ultimately include in our ongoing Back of the Yards comic series, starting with Issue 3.
With our introductory blog for this collaboration series, we took a closer look at the history of the neighborhood we based our comic narrative on, the real Back of the Yards neighborhood. With this blog, we will explore one of the more notarious neighborhood events in early Chicago history.
But first we start with just a little personal reflection of one of my own favorite Chicago neighborhoods, Old Town …
Over the course of the years, I’ve lived in a number of Chicago neighborhoods. North Side, South Side, the Loop, the West Loop, McKinley Park, Streeterville. The list goes on. But to this day, my favorite neighborhood living experience was a little Chicago neighborhood called Old Town.
Old Town is a small little quaint area just north of the center of Chicago. It’s home to many cool little bars and restaurants, some of which have stood the test of time, while many others are quite new and trendy. And with that, the neighborhood has certainly changed even since the time I was there. As neighborhoods do.
But nonetheless, I still hold many fond memories of Old Town. One of my favorite neighborhood restaurants still serves there, as successful as ever – Topo Gigio. I had many good times there (thanks for the drinks Rudy, Tony and Luke). And one of my favorite little watering holes is still there as well – Wells on Wells. Just one of those neighborhood bars without pretense that always feels comfortable to visit. Where you are just as likely to see residents from the neighborhood as you are those just passing through for the first time.
And sometimes as I would sit in Wells on Wells, or have a drink outside on their front patio, I’d wonder just how this little pocket of a neighborhood – almost like a peaceful oasis from the bustle of the massive city that surrounds it – ever came to exist?
The city is Chicago, less than two decades old at the time. The year is 1840ish. And unlike the Old Town of my time, nothing about Chicago of that time can be described as a peaceful oasis.
Cesspool maybe. Oasis, no.
In fact, much of what is now the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago today was just being converted from swamp land. Yes, literally, swamp land. And the rats probably outnumbered the humans on any given street.
Yet it was also in this context that people were coming to Chicago in relative droves. Yes, coming, not leaving.
And many of those new residents at that time were coming from two places in particular: Germany and Ireland.
Between 1850 and 1860, Chicago’s population grew from 28,000 to 109,000. Of that, the German population grew from 5000 to 22,000, while the Irish went from 6,000 to 20,000. Thus, combined, people of German or Irish roots would grow to represent roughly 40% of the Chicago population at that time.
And some people didn’t like that.
Indeed, as the Germans and the Irish starting populating Chicago neighborhoods, they were becoming increasingly noticed by the “native” Chicagoans at the time.
Apparently both the Germans and the Irish were noted by the native Chicagoans at the time as having too much fun, shall we say. The Germans and Irish cherished their customs from the old country. Customs that included just happened to include a little alcohol consumption here and there.
They also brought with them certain “high minded” ideas from Europe like, oh, slavery was bad and should be abolished, and that women should have the right to vote. Imagine that?
But try as they might, the “native” Chicagoans couldn’t discourage these new arrivals from Germany and Ireland, who began to quickly make their mark in the city and influencing the neighborhoods they resided.
And it was within one such neighborhood that the newly arrived Germans would start to make their mark in previously uninhabitable marshland just north of the center business district. It was there that they would convert swampland into cow pastures and started growing cabbage, earning that neighborhood’s early moniker as the “Cabbage Patch,” before it took on the name it has today in Chicago …
It was there in Old Town that in 1855, Klugel’s Lager Beer Saloon opened at 1623 North Wells Street. Like many such drinking establishments of those days, Klugel’s would serve as a social club of sorts for the new arrivals from Germany, Ireland and elsewhere.
In many instances, these establishments provided foreign newspapers for the patrons who couldn’t read English. And many of the local residents, fresh from Germany, Ireland and other parts of the world, would visit these new drinking establishments to network with others and learn about job opportunities, thus essentially acting as informal employment agencies.
But as more neighborhood establishments like Klugel’s Lager Beer Saloon began to emerge, Chicago’s native population would become even more increasingly concerned.
It was also during this time of our country’s history that the Temperance Movement was very much alive and well, i.e., there was a large portion of our country’s population that felt like drinking should be outlawed entirely. And so, in that context, when these new ethnic groups from Germany and Ireland began opening their new neighborhood drinking establishments and breweries, and started spouting off about their high ideals of a woman’s right to vote and the abolition of slavery; well it threatened the very core of what some of the “native” Chicagoans believed to be immoral and dangerous behavior.
And one such Chicagoan was a guy by the name of Levi Day Boone. And that is where our tale begins to take a turn.
Levi Day Boone. A true character. Grand-nephew of the legendary frontiersman, Danial Boone, ol’ Levi was a medical doctor by trade who would go on to serve as a mayor of Chicago in 1855.
So where to begin with Levi? First, it’s probably worth stating right up front that Levi was pro-slavery to the core. Oh, and as you might have also guessed, Levi didn’t like those new immigrants arriving in Chicago either – you know, the Germans and the Irish in particular. They drank too much and had too many “radical” thoughts about equality and what have you. They were, as he described it, “alien scum.”
But to his credit, Levi wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He built himself up from poverty as a youth in Kentucky, becoming a skilled doctor. So skilled, in fact, that he would ultimately become the head city doctor of Chicago.
And many credit ol’ Levi for his steady leadership as that head doctor in Chicago during multiple bouts with cholera throughout the city (which, conveniently enough, were often attributed to the immigrants of course). Establishing a reputation as a skilled doctor, devout Baptist, and respected lecturer.
And from this reputation, Levi would eventually enter local politics as part of the “Know Nothing Party.”
I shit you not, that’s what they were called. The Know Nothing Party.
And Levi, as a political outsider who bemoaned the evils that the immigrants were bringing to the city of Chicago, somehow won the mayoral election of Chicago in 1855 with 53% of the vote.
So it was, with this backdrop that the “native” Chicagoan populace largely responsible for voting ol’ Levi into office said “hey Doc, you’ve got to do something about these crazy Germans and Irish. With their beer and their saloons.”
So in response, Levi decided he’d try to hit those Germans and Irish where it hurt. He was going to take something away from them as sacred as any other custom they brought from the old world.
Levi and his cohorts decided to outlaw drinking on Sundays. And not only that, he was going to raise the liquor license fee six-fold, from $50 to $300. That’ll show ‘em!
And it did. Only, not in the way that Levi had maybe hoped. No sir.
Irate about the new liquor taxes, and the forced arrests for drinking on Sundays, the German and Irish immigrants took to the streets! Together, they marched up to the courthouse on the corner of Randolph and Clark Street, 500 strong, to protest with righteous indignation!
And once they got there, they were confronted by the newly minted Chicago police, who they themselves were now forced to enforce this edict from the powers that be. Powers that manifested through one conduit in human form, good ol’ Levi.
Violence then ensued. Punches thrown. Threats made. “Pick out the stars!” shouted by the immigrants to help single out the police officers. And finally, as the threat of even more violence would emerge, the city’s first draw bridges were raised. And with that, the violence was eventually quelled.
And by the following day, after 60 arrests, 19 injuries and 1 death, Chicago would grapple with the after-effects of the very first organized civil disturbance in its history. What would later become known as the “Lager Beer Riot” of 1855.
Almost seems unreal when you read it, right? All of that over beer?
Of course, it was about much more than beer. And of course, when you think about certain parallels that can be drawn here and there, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it? But whatever, that ain’t the purpose of this little tale.
No, you see, I guess what I take away more than anything from this little tale is the impact that people, with their life experiences and their ancestral journeys; how all of that in the collective can manifest so strongly within our urban neighborhoods. So strongly, in fact, that they can be perceived as threats to those who are always looking to justify their own sense of superiority.
But, as things turn out, the type of people that are threatened, like the Levi’s of the world, are just but footnotes in history. Sometimes demagogues, reflecting their times, only to be passed by the times. And like pimples on a teenager, you just hope they don’t leave too big of a scar.
After the dust settled, Chicago would reduce the liquor fees and ditch the Sunday closures. And voted in a new Mayor, Thomas Dyer, with German and Irish support. And all would move on, leaving ol’ Levi and his Know Nothings behind.
But what would remain thereafter is the impact of those early inhabitants. The Germans. The Irish. The Polish. The Mexicans. The African Americans. All races. All creeds. Just people and all that comes with them, their ideas and their customs, the glory and the imperfection. Their stamp never leaves, no matter how much the Levi’s of the world wish it weren’t so. Sort of like that old saloon that the newly arrived German immigrants opened in 1853, Klugel’s Lager Beer Saloon, which still stands as a bar today, only under a different name: Wells on Wells.
That favorite watering hole of mine in Old Town, where you can go have a drink without pretense, and are just as likely to see regular residents from the neighborhood as you are those just passing through for the first time.
Even on Sundays.
Written by Jimmy Briseno