Some Chicago suburbs predate the great metropolis and were already established when the Windy City was basically a swamp. Elmhurst, Illinois, is a western suburb which began life in 1835 as an independent country town comprised of rural households, fields and pastures. More than a hundred years ago, what is today stylish York Road was sometimes used by drovers to herd cattle. Mooing, protesting animals would be unloaded from CN&W cars at the crossing and driven along to holding pens on their way to the stockyards in the new city.
Such events were scheduled for quiet Sunday afternoons to minimize logistical disruptions but look at your own street and try to imagine a herd of cattle thundering by and the risks involved. Not only did pets and children have to be protected but also domestic livestock – especially highly-strung horses unused to the racket and clamor of cattle drives. Local residents were warned ahead of time and the area would be deserted with everyone and their hostages to fortune securely inside as the ground began to shake and rumble. At the last minute, a lone rider and advance scout from the cattle drive would come thundering down the road on his own steed hollering a final warning … “HOLD your horses, HOLD your horses!”
Indeed, the precious value of horses ensured prominence and prosperity for the village blacksmith, a position filled in Elmhurst, Illinois, at that time by Frederick Rohmeyer who eventually raked in enough cash to buy a small farm in 1867 located on what today is the southwest corner of St. Charles and Spring Road. This must have been a charming property back then, contributing just enough corn, wheat and oats to sustain chickens, pigs and a single cow. It was a “gentleman’s farm” i.e. a bona fide rural patch not really crucial to the family’s income. As Mr. Rohmeyer branched out to other profitable pursuits, including that of insurance agent, managing the fledgling Elmhurst Electric Light & Power Company and serving as tax assessor for York Township, the money rolled in. The real cash crop for the Rohmeyer family was cash. They needed a Back 40 to plow as much as a fish needs a saddle!
They Raised a Family Too
Frederick and Bertha Rohmeyer brought up two sons, Walter and Alfred, who attended Elmhurst schools and also college. Walter majored in chemistry at the University of Chicago, belonged to Phi Beta Kappa and was employed as a chemist for Marquette Cement Company and the Columbus Medical Lab in Chicago. Alfred attended law school and passed the Illinois Bar examination. Farming did not loom large in the future of these intelligent young men but as time went by, their strong-minded Dad had developed into a right-wing rebel who would not cooperate with the city or pay special assessments and now insisted his sons return home and work on the farm. History sometimes guards its secrets jealously and we may never know why Walter and Alfred gave up promising futures to do as their father demanded and spend the rest of their lives in overalls.
Mr. Rohmeyer cashed in his chips on June 3, 1931, at age 93. Bertha appeared to be doing well at that point and was robust enough to celebrate her 84th birthday with a festive, well attended tea at the farm on May 8, 1936. At some point thereafter, she began to go downhill and spent her last days in a nursing home where legend has it that she was cooperative and blended in seamlessly except for rare occasions when she would rouse herself and startle those around her by saying “I have to go downstairs and see what the boys are doing!”
The reality was that – with the loss of their parents and especially that of Bertha and her “woman’s touch”, the boys had begun to slack off a tad as far as housekeeping was concerned. Hens nested under the kitchen sink, there was virtually no unsullied place to set anything down and instead of a cloth, the dining room table was covered with thick layers of old newspapers destined to be discarded when they became soiled. Personal grooming was also treated with nonchalance by Walter and Alfred who were nonetheless intelligent, well-read and astute investors. By this time, they were the second-richest family in Elmhurst as their home deteriorated around them.
Long after everyone had switched to “horseless carriages”, the little farm moldered away, a forlorn vestige of pioneer life now bounded by bright rivers of traffic. Across St. Charles Road was the rambling campus of the famous York High School which had been founded in 1918. In the afternoon, gaggles of bright-eyed and carefully groomed teen-agers waited for the westbound buses, chatting and idly eyeing the last farm in Elmhurst. Sometimes teen-aged boys would climb the fence at night and try to steal apples from the Rohmeyers’ small orchard.
When I was a little girl back in the 40’s, I loved Aesop’s fable about The City Mouse and the Country Mouse, so when Mama and I rode the bus past the old Rohmeyer place, she would look out the window and say softly: “That’s where the Country Mouse lives.” I am rather ashamed to admit how long I bought into that explanation but in fact there was little sign of life about the place. By this time, Alfred had died and even the solitary cow had achieved Biblical old age and gone on to its final reward.
One day the mailman happened to glance through a grimy window and noticed Walter lying unconscious on the floor, the victim of a stroke. He died in the hospital on February 22, 1954. After that York High School purchased the property to build its athletic field. Meanwhile, the barn burned down and the house was vandalized. Fortunately, members of the Elmhurst Historical Commission got permission to rescue some items from the house, including the black walnut antique cradle which had served as a bed for Walter and Alfred when they were infants.
Today, not a single vacant prairie lot or pasture survives in Elmhurst or its neighboring towns. Long ago the country mouse glanced through a grimy windowpane, saw the handwriting on the wall and moved on to another rural patch somewhere. I’ve moved on too but sometimes I still ride the 313 Pace bus along the route Mama and I used to travel years ago. It is strange to think there ever was a farm at the intersection of St. Charles and Spring Road but … sometimes when we have to wait for a red light there … I’ll look out the window at the York athletic field and can almost hear a beloved voice from my past saying softly “That’s where the country mouse lives.”