Winnetka Way: West of the Tracks

Gazette Article by: Dave Anderson
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1999

Winnetka Way articles are written by guest columnists who have been asked to share their memories of an aspect of Winnetka that they remember fondly. Winnetka Way articles debuted in 1994 and continue to the present.

Johnny Foukal. And Rosemary. We miss them. Twenty-six years ago we were a young couple with a baby to be born just six days after we moved into the Foukal’s rental house on Rosewood Avenue.

Johnny was a grizzled cherub of a man, smiling like St. Nick, round, stocky, red-faced and gimpy. Rosemary was his loving wife, companion and friend – warm and strong. Both came from another era, a time in Winnetka when people lived much differently than they do today. In his day, neighborhood kids used to play and swim in the deep drainage ditch that ran near Rosewood Avenue, they’d fish for bass, pike, and bluegills in the lakes just wets of Hibbard Road, and they’d build tree forts high up in the old cottonwoods in the swamp that became Duke Childs Field.

It was a very different world here in those days, Winnetka was rough around the edges. Not every yard was landscaped. Privacy fences were the exception, not the rule. Driveways weren’t paved. Sidewalks weren’t straight. There were no curbs. Our yard, the yard next door, the one across the alley and the one next to that were wide open. Clover was the lawn of choice, with honeybees gently buzzing here and there under the fruit trees. The land around our house and where it sat was once a farm, and people like the Foukals and their predecessors who built our place around 1910 enjoyed a sense of close community that most of us do not share today.

In 1974 ancient lilacs and honeysuckles surrounded our wood-shingled home. Pear trees were in the front yard, a plum tree in the back. Wooden “Ts”, strung with clothesline for washday, stood in the sunshine. Next to the garage was an old table, deeply scored by the knives of fishermen who cleaned their catch from Lake Michigan, laughed loud, and had to be shushed by the ladies. Every couple of weeks Johnny used to stop by with a huge trout or salmon he’d caught for us. Rosemary would bring tomatoes and zucchini from her garden. Pears and plums were so plentiful that we shared them with anyone who came by. And lots of people did.

Johnny died many years ago. He said his arthritis was killing him. He had worked as a butcher in a cold packing plant, carrying sides of beef on his shoulders. Crippled as he was, he would sit with me on the back steps and reminisce about the old days in Winnetka. He described how the men used to gather around the wood stove in our garage each winter and make wooden sleds and rocking horses for needy kids. Ladies gathered all the families in the area for summer potluck dinners. No one was left out, and everyone was slow to walk home.

He told me where ‘possums, raccoons, and skunks lived, and just which trees the orioles and cardinals nested in. He told of catching big perch off the Tower Road pier. And he told of the closeness of neighbors and friends who built our part of Winnetka west of the tracks. Reluctant to sell the house when Johnny was dying, Rosemary talked about how much they had loved the place. When we bought the house, she asked if she could dig up some of her precious irises, and of course there was no question about that or about anything else she might have wanted.

Times changed. We are now the oldest family on the block and have watched original houses cleared away and new ones go up. The clover and honeybees are long gone. Parched, weed-free lawns have replaced them. The fruit trees died. Wild and rough places are hard to find, and few homes exist for ‘possums, raccoons, and skunks. The orioles came back and then left for good after the last cottonwood was cut down.

Times changed, but some of us can remember a rural and rustic Winnetka with a lot going for it, with people who lived close and shared much of what they had. We miss them.

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