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The origins, growth, and challenges of Oak Glen, a town once next to Lansing, and now part of it

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The following article is the first of a two-part series on the history of Oak Glen, a town that was once distinct from Lansing, but is now a part of it. Part one focuses on the natural history, early layout, and first institutions of Oak Glen, while part two (publishing tomorrow) will focus on the early pioneers of the town.

LANSING, Ill. (March 28, 2024) – Not even 200 years ago, the Lansing landscape we know today looked almost completely unrecognizable. This historical feature explores a settlement in our area known as Sesser, Cummings Corners, and eventually Oak Glen until it was incorporated into Lansing in 1893.

Throughout its early decades, Oak Glen grew to become a strong, independent community with four grocery stores, a men’s furnishing store, post office, dairy, hardware store, blacksmith shops, a wagon maker, and restaurants. The business district was mostly built on Torrence Avenue between Indiana Avenue and Ridge Road.

Oak Glen’s eastern border was roughly in the area of School Street, and its western border was the town of Thornton. 186th Street was the southern border and 178th Street was the northern border. Pioneers helped to build the town of Oak Glen, which eventually became part of the Village of Lansing.

The natural beginnings

Imagine this: You’re standing at the corner of Indiana Avenue and Torrence Avenue in Lansing, Illinois. Indiana Avenue was the main east/west road until Ridge Road gets paved in 1915 and is extended to Torrence Avenue. The year is 1843. Look to the north and you see tall oak trees reaching up to some 40 feet. To the south and west you see wet prairie grasses reaching the height of a man on horseback. To the east you see a Native American trail amid overgrown swamp land. The trail follows the lake waters as it meanders eastward. There are numerous streams, ponds, and marshes.

Birds of many colors sing beautiful songs and wild flowers add beauty. You aren’t surprised to see a fox, wolf, deer, woodchuck, squirrel, or raccoon. Weasels and skunks cross your path. You’re likely to see a rattlesnake, bull snake, or water moccasin slithering through the tall blades of grass.

It’s hard to imagine just how wild the area we now know as Lansing was 181 years ago when only Native Americans and wildlife lived here. Eventually, settlers worked to clear the land to make it suitable for farming. The area became known as Oak Glen, but it wasn’t known by that name at first.

Thornton Junction / Cummings Corners / Seester

The area was first known as Thornton Junction. In 1851, Reverend Chris Cummings settled here wanting to open a college at Indiana and Torrence Avenue. When only four people enrolled, that idea was abandoned, but the area still took on the unofficial name of Cummings Corners.

Oak Glen
This plat map, which shows Cummings Corners and the Trunk Railroad, is dated 1886 and was found by Dan and Sue Bovino. (Provided)

Its first official name was Seester. The Seester Post Office was established on July 17, 1886, the same day that John M. Semmelhaack was appointed its first postmaster. Why it was called Seester and not Semmelhaack is unknown. At that time, it was customary to name a town or village after the postmaster.

The name was changed to Oak Glen on September 10, 1893. John Ton succeeded Semmelhaack as postmaster on September 10, 1895, while he also conducted his business as an insurance agent, and operated a men’s furnishing store.

Ton was followed by Walter Schultz who was appointed postmaster on February 21, 1924. The office was advanced to residential grade on July 1, 1928, but on July 1, 1934, was relegated to fourth class again. On July 1,1938, the office was once again advanced to residential grade and in November of 1943, the office became a contract branch of the Lansing Post Office and city delivery was established.

Life went on as usual in Oak Glen and residents continued to claim to live in Oak Glen even though it had been incorporated into Lansing in 1893. Lansing became the only town of its size in the U.S. to have two post offices. Although the two communities had separate business sections, they were governed as one by the same officials, police department, and fire service.

The first church and school

The first white settlers of Oak Glen were August Hildebrandt and his wife Christine, nee Wolters, and their son Henry who arrived in Oak Glen in 1843 immigrating from Hanover, Germany. Two more children were born to them in America, Christine and Louisa.

When the Hildebrants emigrated from Germany they brought their Lutheran leanings with them. Funded by locals, they built a small church on the southwest corner of Torrence and Indiana. It held only 10 people. That first tiny church was moved to the John Frank Farm on Thornton-Lansing Road in about 1939 and was used as a utility shed. The Franks grew tomatoes for Campbell Soup Company.

By 1867 the Hildebrandts built a larger frame church on grounds located at what we now know as Thornton-Lansing Road and the Oak Glen Cemetery. The steps of that church can still be seen in the cemetery.

Oak Glen
This screenshot from a Lansing Journal video shows the steps of the former church that can still be seen at Oak Glen Cemetery.

In 1883 members who lived east of Torrence Avenue left the Oak Glen Church to build St. John Church at Ridge and Wentworth. They shared a minister for several years.

In 1888, a larger church was built by Jacob Semmelhaack, Hellmuth Vierk, William Sass, George Erhard, Carl Liepke, and other carpenters hired through the Deutsche Gessellschaft trade union. The church was built on land bought from the Ton estate on the north side of Indiana Avenue and a little west across the street from the German School that had been built in 1873. The church was moved to the south side of Indiana in 1925. Today, Trinity Lutheran Church is located at 2505 Indiana Avenue in Lansing.

The cemetery

The Lutherans had been burying their loved ones in graves on the property we know as Thornton-Lansing Road since 1864. It was simply called Lutheran Cemetery. Later, it was known as St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran and Trinity Lutheran Cemetery. Today it’s known as Oak Glen Lutheran Cemetery and continues to be owned and managed by the Trinity Lutheran Church with priorities given to members of Trinity and St. John’s Lutheran Churches. All arrangements are made through Jim Jansen, a member of Trinity Church who has been in charge since 1977.

Oak Glen
Oak Glen Lutheran Cemetery today. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

When Erwin Henry Diekelman would have turned 100 years old in 2019, his ancestors celebrated with a family reunion picnic at his gravesite. Diekelman had been inducted into the Army in 1942 and by 1944 was involved in intelligence and was studying to be a spy. In July, 1944, he was sent into action in the Western Front in Germany and fought in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest where he was wounded and taken to a military hospital in France. He died there four days later. He was buried in an American military cemetery in Berlin. There years later, in October, 1947, he was one of 6,200 bodies returned home and recognized in a memorial service at Soldier Field in Chicago. His remains were re-buried with full military honors in Oak Glen Cemetery on November 13, 1947. Diekelman was posthumously presented with the Purple Heart and his name is inscribed on the Lansing Veterans Memorial at the Lansing Airport as well as on war monuments, plaques, and memorial bricks in both Thornton and Munster.

Oak Glen drainage problems

More and more settlers, mostly farmers, came to Oak Glen after hearing of its fertile ground. But the farmers had a problem — the area was waterlogged. There was no drainage and when the creeks and rivers overflowed the crops were under water. There were no outlets for the water to get away. The farmers knew more hard work had to be done.

In 1862, all the farmers living along the trail from Thornton to Hobart got together and dug a ditch at Highland or Wicker Park through the sand ridge south of Ridge Road. That would relieve the water from the K.D. Marsh to the Little Calumet River which flowed east and had an outlet into Lake Michigan.

The following year another ditch was dug from Dyer, IN, through the marsh in the Highland Big Ditch, known as Harts Ditch. Another was dug from Highland through the center of the marsh running east, known as Burns Ditch. The ditches brought some relief, but not until 1868, when Cook County connected the Grand Calumet River with the Illinois and Michigan canal, did real relief come. That lowered the water about ten feet in all the branch streams running through the region allowing the farmers to drain their farms and fully use them for cultivation.

Settlers continued to come. This migration, mostly from Holland and Germany, led to the end of the Native American population.

Red Hots Baseball Team

Oak Glen formed the first local baseball team in 1894 and named them the Oak Glen Red Hots. Later they were referred as the Lansing Red Hots. Not a lot is written about them, except that they were a big entertainment draw. This poem was written in The Times by historian/columnist Archibald McKinlay:

But what pioneer introduced bats and balls
To men in muddy overalls,
And started a team in ninety-four
That brought us together and made us roar.
With yells, yips, and roots
For Red Hots in red suits
That were padded in the hardball style of the day
Ready for the roughest play?
But how on earth did they do their tasks
Wearing pads but neither gloves or masks?

The stealthy installation of the Grand Trunk Railroad

The Grand Trunk Railroad was built through the part of Lansing known as Seester in 1881. When the Grand Trunk Railroad originally applied for the permit to lay the rails, it was denied. The owner of the land needed for the railroad refused to sell.

While Mr. Stewart, the property owner, was asleep, the construction crew came out on a flat car with all the equipment and in the dark of night put down the tracks. Once the tracks were down, it was illegal to remove them, and Mr. Stewart was forced to sell the land that held the tracks.

In 1907 lawyers informed the village that the Grand Trunk Railroad was liable for a depot. Lansing gave them 90 days to build it and they met the challenge. The depot agent was Mr. Bothwell.

Oak Glen
Grand Trunk railroad station in Oak Glen, IL. (Courtesy of the Lansing Historical Society)

Each weekday, settlers anxiously awaited the train that brought the daily mail at 10 a.m. sharp. When they heard the whistle, they’d congregate at the post office to await distribution. It became a social event catching up on the news of the day before they would get their mail.

Marcia Potter told of another benefit of the railroad. She said, “Berries abounded in the nearby prairie and forest. Wild mouth-watering strawberries grew along the Grand Trunk railroad, just waiting to be picked for jam or to pop in your mouth.”

Marcia became the daughter-in-law to the late Frederika “Bobby” Daehn-Potter when she married her son Wayne. Wayne and his family lived in the Daehn homestead on Thornton-Lansing Road. After reading last month’s Journal feature about the house, she provided copy of family history. She said the Daehns were a very close-knit family and described their family life as very loving.

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Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook is a Lansing resident who loves learning and writing about local history. A member of the Illinois Women's Press Association since 1973, she has won multiple IWPA awards. Her 2020 awards in the Mate E. Palmer Communications Contest included first place for columns and second place for nonfiction book in the history category.

1 COMMENT

  1. What an excellent feature story! I love learning about the history that was largely forgotten as I was growing up.

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