Chapter I: Heritage in Maple Park, Illinois

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James & Theresa Fitzgerald

James & Theresa Fitzgerald

I was born on September 21, 1904, in the very small town of Maple Park, Illinois (originally called Lodi), eight miles east of DeKalb, on the western boundary of Kane County, and on the main line of the Galena Division of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. The fact that the town was on a railroad and a mainline was very important in those days.

My father was James Fitzgerald, the son of Joseph Fitzgerald, who was born in County Clare, Ireland, in 1828.

My mother was Teresa McGirr, daughter of John and Mary Powers McGirr, who lived on a farm south of DeKalb, Illinois.
My grandfathers, for whom I was named, had died before I was born.

My grandmother, on my father’s side, Ellen Burke Fitzgerald, lived in Maple Park from 1865 until the time of her death in 1919. She was also born in County Clare, Ireland, the daughter of Richard Burke. When she was sixteen years of age, she came to this country with her parents and brother and settled near Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Ellen Burke Fitzgerald and my grandfather were married at Branch, Wisconsin,[1] and later came to Maple Park in 1865 where my father was born in 1867.

St. Boniface in Manitowoc, where Joseph Fitzgerald and Ellen Burke were married

St. Boniface in Manitowoc, where Joseph Fitzgerald and Ellen Burke were married.

My father went to school at Maple Park and later at Geneva, Illinois. Later, he worked in Chicago in the office of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad, and then went to Hutchinson, Kansas (reached by stagecoach—no railroad) where he worked as a clerk in John Clyne’s store. His sister, Mary, had married John Clyne, who operated two stores in Kansas. My father contracted typhoid fever while in Kansas and, as he said, nearly “came home in a box.” After his return to Maple Park, he formed a partnership with Frank Austin, and operated a general store under the name of Fitzgerald & Austin.

At the time of my birth, he had his own wonderful, wonderful, general store in Maple Park. It was truly a general merchandise store—never anything quite like it, before or since—selling everything the farmers or their wives needed. It was a long, narrow-frame building, and our family—consisting of my mother & father, and sister Nellie (baptized Ellen)[2]—lived very comfortably above our store. My grandmother, Ellen Burke Fitzgerald, lived close by in a white frame house on the opposite corner from the store. We had sort of a library, parlor, living room, dining room, kitchen, four bedrooms and (later) bath.

In those days my father was proud to say that Maple Park was on the main line of the Galena Division of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Towns not on a Railroad mainline did not amount to much, according to my father.

Nellie and Joe Fitzgerald

Nellie and Joe Fitzgerald

Babies were born at home in 1904 and, anyway, the little town had no hospital or ever dreamed of having one. The nearest hospital, if one existed at that time, would have been in Aurora, some 20 miles away to be reached by horse and buggy over dirt roads. No one was ever born in a hospital in 1904—at least, no one who lived in the country. Indeed, most people had a very poor opinion of hospitals. It was only a place to go as a last resort, when all hope had long since gone! When you were taken to a hospital, it was understood by all that your days were numbered, and that your chances of returning alive were indeed remote.

While the little town of 400 hardy souls had no hospital, it was a thriving trading center for the farmers living within driving distance with a horse and buggy. To me, at least, it seemed that I was growing up in a wonderful, wonderful busy place, with my father’s store the center of everything right on Main Street.

It was the day of the horse, the buggy, the carriage, the Studebaker wagon,[3] traveling over dirt and gravel roads, with the sled and the sleigh in the wintertime. So the town, in those early days, had a harness shop, two blacksmith shops where a horse and buggy and a team and carriage could be rented out by the day or the week. Long before Hertz was ever heard of, a livery stable could “put you in the driver’s seat.” You needed no driver’s license or insurance of any kind. And, of course, there were hitching posts along the side of my father’s store, where at least ten teams of horses could be hitched.

One of the livery stables had a bowling alley along the length of the building. Only two lanes, of course, and no automatic pin setter, the pins were set by boys by hand.

The town had no playground as such. We had fields where baseball was played. Games were played in the streets. The kids amused themselves swinging around the iron pipes, which served as a place for the farmer to hitch his team.

Our main street had a variety of stores to serve the farmers’ needs: a grain elevator; a lumberyard; two grocery stores, a combination hardware, plumbing and heating store; a harness shop; a combination candy store-restaurant and, in the summertime, ice cream parlor; a farm implement store; The First State Bank; Delle Harter’s combined undertaker, furniture and books; Harry Gerlach’s drugstore, magazine store, and jewelry repair shop; Pat Malone and Sy Stowe’s Saloons; Frank Snyder’s grocery store; another general store operated by LC Clyne; and Martin Loftus and Ablins’ barbershops, one of which at various times was also a pool and billiard establishment which had bathing facilities—tub and hot water—in the back. Of course, we had a post office, and at one time a lady operated a kind of millinery and dressmaking establishment. We had at least one doctor and, sometimes, two—but for the most part the town was lucky to have one. The town had no dentist, and in an emergency the doctor would pull a tooth or two. At the end of town was a cider mill.

There were three churches, a Catholic Church, a Methodist Church and a Baptist Church. Grade school and two years of high school were in the one building. For many years there was trapshooting (Clay pigeons thrown into the air to be shot at) west of town on the suburban railroad line. There was a telephone center over the hardware store and Chicago Northwestern depot.

The town also had a creamery—or what we used to call “a milk factory.” The farmers brought their milk to town where it was bottled and shipped to Chicago. The farmers also brought their livestock to town where it was loaded into cattle cars and taken by train in Chicago. In those days—1904—there were no hard roads in the country and few automobiles. Accordingly the farmers drove their wagons to the closest town where their needs could be served. As a consequence, while the town had a small population, it was really a thriving business community. In today’s world there can be no such town as Maple Park as it existed from 1904 to 1918.

In the days leading up to the enactment of the Prohibition laws, there were many towns that were dry—no saloons—but Maple Park was not one of them—not by a jug full. It was wet, and it brought people into town to trade and quench their thirst. People came from miles around.

The L.C. Clyne General Store operated a block from my father’s wonderful store, and occupied a unique place in our family history. My father’s sister, Mary Fitzgerald, had married John Clyne, a brother of LC Clyne. (The Clynes had also come from Ireland.) As I mentioned, my father had worked in the Clyne store in Hutchinson, Kansas which, he said, was some 15 miles from a railroad, which meant a godforsaken place in those days of the stagecoach.

John and Mary Clyne were not a happily married couple and later separated for life. From the Fitzgerald point of view, it was all John’s fault—he was unfaithful to her. I never heard Clyne’s side (if there was one). L.C. Clyne’s family and the Fitzgerald family had no time for each other and neither recognized the other when they met in the streets of the little town.

John Clyne had two children, Charles F. and Joseph A. After the separation, Mary Clyne, who we called Aunt Mame, lived with Grandmother Fitzgerald in Maple Park, along with her son Charles. Later, Mary Clyne moved with her son Charles to Elgin, and then to Aurora in 1912 when Charles was appointed US District Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

Joseph Clyne went to St. Beade’s College and later became cashier and president of our only bank, The First State Bank. Joseph Clyne was a great friend of mine. In the summer time I worked in the bank when his assistant was on vacation.

The town’s two barbershops had two barber chairs and a bathtub in the back room where a man could really get cleaned up on a Saturday night. Bathtubs were a rarity and the barbershops did a land-office business on Saturday nights. Women were not permitted in barbershops, so they were unable to use these fine bathing facilities. The barbers were busy shaving in those days as the Gillette and Little Gem safety razors were practically unheard of.

Theresa McGirr Fitzgerald (1869-1916)

Theresa McGirr Fitzgerald (1869-1916)

My mother, Teresa McGirr, was the daughter of John and Mary Powers McGirr who were both born in Ireland, and owned & lived on a farm some six or seven miles south of DeKalb. Our mother was never in good health and eventually died in the summer of 1916. It had been a very hot summer, and Mother was in bed most of the month of July. I had just finished sixth grade at the Sisters’ School in DeKalb. It was hard to get a housekeeper, and the first one was a girl from the St. Charles Reformatory School for Girls. She did not turn out very well (she took my mother’s clothes) and it was a long time before we got an older woman, Mrs. Miller, and later Mrs. Clark. It was not an easy task for my father to raise two children, one in seventh grade—and my sister Nellie, two years older (whose real name was Ellen, named after my father’s mother).

July Fourth was celebrated in Maple Park—baseball game (Maple Park versus Elburn), parade, games, band concert, dance in the town hall. The Dobson’s (Margaret Dobson, my father’s sister, was married to Alfred Dobson. They had three children: Helen, Francis & George)—all came to Maple Park for the big celebration. I remember them talking to Mother, who was very sick.

To make it easier for my mother, my sister Nellie entered a boarding school for girls—St. Mary’s Convent at St. Charles, Illinois. She later finished eighth grade at St. Mary’s Parochial School (Sisters’ School) at DeKalb. She then went back to St. Charles for two years in high school. She transferred to DeKalb Township High School for her junior and senior year.

In those days we did not have x-rays (or at least they were not in common usage, and all the other medical help so common today) and I am sure that my mother never had an x-ray or other diagnostic helps used today, so I do not know exactly what was the cause of death.[4] I remember the hot summer of 1916 when she was carried from our house to the streetcar and taken to an Aurora hospital where she was operated on and I believe died shortly after the operation. She was a beautiful woman but she had many days of suffering.

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[1] 10 June 1855 at St. Boniface Church in Manitowoc Rapids.

[2] Nellie was actually baptized “Helena,” which was not only her mother’s baptismal name, but that of her paternal grandmother.

[3] A type of horse-drawn wagon.

[4] Theresa’s death certificate noted the cause of death as a gastric ulcer.