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The first pioneers of Oak Glen, a town once next to Lansing, and now part of it

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The following article is the second 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 focused on the natural history, early layout, and first institutions of Oak Glen, while this second part focuses on the early pioneers of the town.

LANSING, Ill. (March 29, 2024) – 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 — and all because of the bravery and innovation of its earliest settlers.

The Hildebrandts: the first white settlers of Oak Glen

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

They lost their first home in a fire and built a new home just west of Torrence and south of Ridge. Like most homes at the time, it was made of logs chinked with mud.  A crude fireplace barely kept them warm in the winter months.

One day while August and Henry were working in the field, soldiers came by looking for new recruits. Henry answered the call, dropped his pitchfork and followed them to fight in the Civil War. He spent four years in Tennessee with the Army’s Company A 113th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers. He returned home with no wounds, but with physical problems caused by suffering an attack of measles. He purchased a farm off Torrence at what is today in the area of 184th Street.

Oak Glen
Mr. and Mrs. Henry Hildebrandt. (Courtesy of the Lansing Historical Society)

Henry married twice. His first wife was Emma and they had two daughters, Emma and Corona. He married Mary Gertz in 1874 when she was just 16, two years after her family came from Germany and settled in Oak Glen. The married couple lived on the farm at 18336 Torrence Avenue for the rest of their lives. They had 12 children, five whom died at birth. The couple reared six daughters and one son who died in 1933. Henry died in May of 1925 and Mary died in 1943. Both are buried in Oak Glen cemetery.

When Fred Schrum, a veteran from Calumet City, discovered Henry’s grave was unmarked, he applied to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and found Henry to be qualified for a free tombstone. 80 years after his death, in March of 2007, am inscribed 250-pound granite headstone was delivered to Oak Glen Cemetery.

The Eeningenburgs: the second settlers

The second settlers in the district were Gerrit Eeningenburg, his wife Janetje, and their child. They had left Holland by sailboat in 1849 and lost three of their four children on the 60-day journey. They, along with 14 other families who traveled with them, first settled in what is now Roseland.

Gerrit’s son Harry wrote The History of the Calumet Region and The Early Settlers. In it, he said , “My father wanted a stock farm, so in 1853 he became the second family to settle in the district. He bought 160 acres of land next to the Hildebrandts for 93 cents per acre.”

According to Harry, Blue Island had the closest trading post. When Sandford Case came to the area around 1834 he built a little house with a front room that he furnished with sugar, coffee, soap, tobacco, whiskey, and few other things. The farmers loved having a “store” so near them. They gathered there to talk and stay warm and maybe share a drink or two.

The first general store didn’t open until 1864 when Henry Lansing settled here. His store was located farther east at approximately 3455 Ridge Road or what is now the parking lot of Ace Hardware. A historical marker identifies the spot.

Other Oak Glen pioneers

Fred Koppitz

Fred Koppitz celebrated his 50th anniversary as a barber in Oak Glen in July 1963 and was at that time considered to have the oldest continuous business in Lansing.

Koppitz left Germany in 1912 and settled in Chicago. He didn’t like the big city, and when a bartender friend told him he had a place in a little town called Oak Glen, and also had a job at a saloon on the corner of Indiana and Torrence, he took the opportunity. He came to Oak Glen on July 22, 1913.

He said, “I walked up to the shop from the (Grand Trunk) station with my suitcase. The shop had been closed for about 10 days because the previous owner decided to go to New York. I just got in the back way and somebody knocked at the front. It was a fellow with a week’s growth of beard. He said ‘My name is Henry Bock and I want a shave.’”

Koppitz told him he wanted some time to get ready, but more and more men came knocking. He worked until 8 p.m. on his first day in town. All he had at that time were hand clippers, and he said they were hard to run all day. He was tired. A shave was 10 cents and a haircut 25 cents. He paid $3 a week for room and board, and the shop was free.

In 1921 he married Wilhelmina Marie Henriette “Minnie” Barkow. They had three sons, Cpl. Erwin, U.S. Army, and later a car salesman; Pfc Kenneth, Army Air Corps, was chosen as a “model” Lansing police officer; and Sgt. Milton of the Lansing Police Dept. was an Air Force veteran.

After two years at the original shop, Koppitz moved into a new building that’s still on the southeast corner of Indiana and Torrence today. In 1919 he bought three houses for $2,900 and moved his shop into the center one. That house had been the first schoolhouse and had been moved from its original site and replaced by a brick building in 1885.

Koppitz died on December 16, 1975, at Tri-State Nursing home in Lansing at age 86. He had served as village trustee from 1935 to 1942. He worked hard to bring improved water to Lansing from Hammond. Real estate ventures had proved to be profitable for him. To feed his gardening hobby, he did landscaping at Lan-Oak Park. His wife Minnie died July 15, 1942, at age 42.

Charles Nufer

When Charles Nufer came to Oak Glen in 1909, it didn’t start out well. He was moving from 1749 Lincoln Avenue in Chicago with his belongings on a wagon pulled by two horses and managed by two employees of August H. Brettman Movers. Things were going fine until they reached the Bernice railroad crossing. That’s when a Pan Handle train struck the wagon load of furniture, reducing it to a worthless mass. The men had to jump from the wagon to save their lives. The driver received injuries consisting of bruises and sprains about his head and limbs. One of the horses was killed instantly and the other was injured.

Nufer was moving to Arthur C. Hottinger’s place In Oak Glen. (Hottinger was moving to Glenwood to operate Hottinger Gardens.) The loss of his furniture was a real blow. Nufer lost everything, including a piano. Nufer took up residence at 17 Indiana Avenue until 1926 when he and his wife, Bertha, and daughter, Elizabeth, moved into a new home at 704 Indiana.

Before it was Hottinger’s, the bar was known as Oak Glen Inn. When Nufer took over, it became the popular Nufer’s Tavern. Food was served and the Nufer Hall was the site of many a party. It also served as a polling place and magistrate’s office. Catholic families held services in the hall before St. Ann’s Church was built. Charles was one of the founding members of the parish.

Oak Glen
Charles Nufer’s Tavern (Courtesy of the Lansing Historical Society)

Charles died April 23, 1926. Bertha died January 17, 1941, at age 72. Their daughter Elizabeth married Leo Keller on September 18, 1926, nine months after her father died. The newlyweds moved in with the widowed mother.

Henry Bock

The largest building in Oak Glen was Henry Bock’s Implement and Hardware store that had been Seretsky’s blacksmith shop before Bock purchased it. In the 1930s it also housed the offices of Calumet Growers, Inc. (dealers in onion sets and seed), William Maurer Realty, and the First Federal Savings and Loan Association. Seven flats housed renters on the second floor. Today that building still stands adjoining Crescent Jewelers.

street names
The Bock family name can still be seen on the building that once housed their farm implements and hardware business. A new generation of business owners is now using the space. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Henry Bock was an influencer in his time. His name was attached to Bock’s Grove, between Indiana and Ridge Road on Torrence Avenue, and Bock Avenue was established in 1903.

Bock’s Grove was THE place to picnic, listen to Alfred Isaacson’s band, or roller skate on a wooden open-air rink with a canopy cover. It also had a very popular baseball field,

Bock owned 16-and-3/4 acres at Cummings Corner and 40 more nearby. He and William Bissert, his brother-in-law, built the first brick homes in Lansing. His obituary claimed Bock to be the wealthiest and best-known man in Lansing. He died March 19, 1911, at age 63.

He set up his sons, Henry Jr. and Gustav (Gus) with the Henry Bock and Sons Hardware and Supplies across the street. The Bock name continues to supply hardware to Lansing residents to this day at Gus Bock’s Ace Hardware, located at 3455 Ridge Road.

Michael Zust

Michael Zust was one of the few settlers that didn’t come from Holland or Germany, but instead from Switzerland. He landed in Connecticut first, prospered in business but suffered greatly from rheumatism. His doctor recommended he go west for relief. He came to Chicago, failed in business, and somehow ended up near Cummings Corner. His wife persuaded him to buy 88 acres of land at $25 per acre bounded on the north by Ridge Road, south by 186th Street, West by Torrence, and east by Oakley. He established a tobacco farm, cured the crop, and sold it to manufacturers in Chicago. He was considered a wealthy man when he retired. He lived to the ripe old age of 99.

Andrew Ward

Andrew Ward hired George Dekker to build his home on the southern end of the former Zust farm for the sum of $1,800. For a short time, he thought he’d get a lot more for his money. Landscapers were digging a slough when up came bubbling crude oil.

However, it turned out to be just a small pocket of oil in the rocks, not the gusher they thought it was. Ward went back to tending his 60 head of horses and mules he kept in a big red barn. The slough was dug deeper and resulted in “Ward’s Pond,’ where neighbors had fun ice skating in the winter and boating in the summer.

Ward was born in Weston, Canada, on March 25, 1860. He worked on the extension of the Grand Trunk Railroad from Chicago to Valparaiso before he became assistant superintendent of landscaping at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

He married Louisa in 1881 and they had five children, two daughters, Lulu and Cora and three sons, Arthur, Andrew, and William. Both girls became teachers at Lansing School where they had attended as children. The boys all joined the military and each became decorated officers. Later the sons established a road construction business and Andrew joined them. They built concrete roads in all parts of the Midwest. Andrew Ward Sr. died on December 21, 1936.

Andrew Jr. got to know Gordan Hubbard and wrote one of the most comprehensive books about his life. Hubbard was a young fur trader who established trading posts between Fort Vincennes on the Wabash River in Indiana, through Crete and Homewood to Chicago. He wore a path, known as Vincennes Trace, that in 1834 would become State Route 1, the first official state highway of Illinois that ran all the way into Chicago where it became State Street. He gave up fur trading and became a frontiersman, a meat packer, an insurance underwriter, a banker, a steamship magnate, and a state legislator.

Richard Skaff

Richard Skaff was the owner and operator of Skaff Grocery Store at 2551 Indiana Avenue. He ran it until his death on December 6, 1918. He was only 37 years old succumbing to pneumonia after a bout with Spanish influenza. He left his widow, Mabel, nee Maloof, with four children, a son Alfred and three daughters, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Hazel. Mable continued to run the business. As long as Richard was alive the business was advertised as a grocery store. After, it was referred to as a grocery and ice cream parlor. The business operated for 65 years. Mabel, who was Assyrian, and her children were socially active in St. Ann’s Church and community events.

Alfred married Catherine, nee Matza, and they had three daughters. After he retired from Ford Motor Company, he was a long-time employee of the Lan-Oak Park District. They continued to live in Oak Glen, first on Oak Street and later on School Street.

Elizabeth married Phillip Nador at St, Ann’s’ Church and moved to Detroit, Michigan. Margaret never married and died March, 11, 1997 at age 85.

Hazel was a member of the 10th graduating class of Thornton Fractional High School in June 1934. In 1941 she was one of the lucky ones to be randomly approached by Hormel Foods to give her opinion about SPAM and/or Hormel’s Chili Con Carne. She would be given $1 for one and $2 for both. She married John A. Cacioppo in Richmond, VA, and moved to Champaign, Illinois, where they opened and operated a Building Improvement Company. They had two daughters, Darlene and Charlotte. Hazel also was employed by the University of Illinois Library as a clerk/typist for 20 years. She died on January 9, 2007, at 101 years old.

Menno Botma

Menno Botma founded H. Botma’s Grocery Store at 18036 Torrence Avenue in 1919. Two weeks after he opened, the ice house behind the store burned to the ground. Botma thought his grocery days would be over. But the store was spared. His store was more like a general store complete with the pot-bellied stove in the center where men gathered to spin yarns, keeping the store open for very long hours. In 1921 Botma started a grocery route. A truck went out and took orders, drove back to the store, filled the orders, and then delivered them. Business grew and by 1930 he built a large addition.

Oak Glen
This building at 18036 Torrence Avenue started out as Botma’s Grocery Store. In the 1960s, Don Komorowski bought the business. Don retired in 2000 and Skip ran the store for 33 more years until 2011. The building was torn down just a few years ago. (Courtesy of the Lansing Historical Society)

Botma was very involved in his community. He was married twice, first to Nell, who died in 1961. They had five children. His second wife was Ann Riedstra who brought six children to the blended family. He was a charter member of the Lansing Lions Club and Kiwanis Club, and he served as president on the Board of Directors of the First Federal Savings and Loan of Lansing. He was an organizer of the Bank of Lansing and was a member of the Lansing Police and Fire Commission. Botma was president of Lansing Christian School and oversaw the Lansing Community Sunday School for 25 years. He also was an elder at the First Christian Reformed Church in Lansing. He died on March 24, 1976.

Oak Glen
Menno Botma’s grocery store at 18036 Torrence in 1920. (Courtesy of the Lansing Historical Society)

The grocery store was bought by Don Komorowski in the 1960s. He later sold it to Dick Eucce. In 1978, Don and his brother Skip, who had worked for his brother before from the time he was 16 years old, bought it back. They worked together until 2000 when Don retired. Skip retired in 2011 after 50 years. The building was torn down just a few years ago.

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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.

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