Author Tells Riveting Tales Of Niles History

Tom Ferraro, who has a passion for history, loves to dig up fascinating stories from Niles' past. He spills a lot in his just-released book, "Niles: The Early Years."


If you listen to Tom Ferraro talk for just a few minutes, you realize two things: the man really knows Niles history, and he's good at telling interesting stories.

That's a fortunate combination, and makes his just-released book, Niles: The Early Years, (Arcadia Publishing), fascinating for people who live in, grew up in, or have ties to the area.

on the history of Niles' Tam O'Shanter Golf Club and how it made modern golf the game it is today, at 2 p.m. at the Niles Historical Society, 8970 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Niles.

We sat down with Ferraro for a lively chat.

Q. What were some early developments that led to shaping Niles the way it is today?

Tom Ferraro: St. Adalbert’s (Cemetery). It’s such an important part of town. The town kind of grew up around it. 

Around the turn of the century, the city of Chicago extended the streetcar line to Devon, and although St. Adalbert's had already been open for about 20 years, this coincided with the fact St. Adalbert's was growing in size and serving the Polish and Czechoslovakian communities. Poles from Chicago would get off the streetcar and walk two blocks to St. Adalbert's.

The stonecutting industry was developing rapidly in Niles--there was work for the Polish stonecutters--that was their trade. There were quite a few monument shops.

For the Lutherans (who had been here before), it wasn't a respectable profession to have a tavern, but Polish people had no problem with it. So this was part of the economy fueled by the cemetery--you'd have big luncheons after the funerals. Now, monuments are smaller, but go into St. Adalbert's and look at the elaborate work in there. Ninety percent of that was done in Niles. These guys were craftsmen big time.

Q. Anything else besides St. Adalbert's?

Tom Ferraro: St. Hedwig's (Orphanage) was also a huge part of town. It opened in 1912. In 1906, Archbishop James Quigley saw a need for an orphanage for Polish orphans, so the Polish parishes helped work on it. It was at 7135 N. Harlem.


After World War I and before 1930, Niles was maybe 1,100 people. So the St. Hedwig's Catholic priests, the Felician sisters, who were school teachers, and the maintenance crew, plus the superintendent and the sextant at the cemetery, they were maybe 35 people, but all of a sudden,  you have this powerful Catholic voting bloc. (Ferraro explained that of the 1,100, many were too young to vote or did not vote, making the 35 or so adult Catholic voters a unified force for politicians to reckon with.) 

The Catholic Church was notoriously anti-saloon, and Niles was one of the ‘wettest’ towns in northern Cook County – I get the idea that when Mayor Fred Mau declared that all taverns would be closed on Sundays (in 1916), the Catholics had a say in it.

Q. Unlike many early suburbs, such as Park Ridge or Glenview, Niles never had a train station, and, because the downtowns usually grow up around train stations, Niles never had a downtown. Can you comment on that? 

Ferraro: John Calef, fifth village president, attributes the fact there is no downtown in Niles to the fact that his administration wanted to develop a downtown at Touhy and Milwaukee in the late 1920s, but were thwarted by the expansion of the St. Adalbert's and  St. Hedwig’s properties. A referendum to expand Harts Road all the way to Harlem failed, and the Catholic Church bought all the land between Milwaukee and Harlem, south to Albion.

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They were going to have a train station at Touhy and Lehigh. That was going to be the Niles stop, but it never happened.

We’ve never had a train station, a recognizable downtown, or a public high school.

Niles is known as a town with a significant senior population. Why?

My generation (he's 45) all moved out, to Mount Prospect and beyond; we couldn’t afford Niles when we were getting married. 

The house I grew up in, on Bruce Drive, when I was getting ready to buy my house, it was $300,000, my parents paid $40,000, and it’s nothing special. Now it’s probably $200,000.

I live in Palatine, my brother lives in Arlington Heights.

How was the experience of putting together the book? 

If it wan’t for Ray Steil, he died last year at 97, and his son Bob, who lives in Washington DC, it might not have. They have the farmhouse on Dempster, just east of the viaduct on the north side of the street.

They shared their photos with me, and I purchased photos through auctions.

When I started this project in 2009, I didn’t want to cover the unpleasantness surrounding (former mayor Nicholas) Blase. I think if you added up his assets and liabilities, the assets would stand out.

I’m a police officer and I don’t want to say anybody’s above the law, and that’s as much as I want to say about it.

So I was going to write the book from 1955-2000, but Walter Beusse (executive director of the Niles Historical Society) said, 'you have to talk to people here in their 90s and cover the early history.' So I ended up writing this book from 1832-1955 – there was clearly too much material for one book.

The next book will start with the advent of Notre Dame (College Prep) in 1955, and continue until 2000.

I’m still surprised it all came together so well.

Q. When did you get this passion for history? Did you grow up loving it?

I did, actually. I think it started when I read a book on the Indian wars when I went to Jefferson School in Niles. I was a voracious reader.

The centerpiece of my living room is a three-tiered bookshelf with 1,000 books on the Indian Wars.

As a cop, we don’t like change, that’s a known fact. The face of this town has changed so much in the past 20 years. There really is no preservation movement here. A lot of the buildings in this book are not here anymore. I was jealous of the other towns which grew up around the railroad.

Q. So what are some really old buildings or places that are left?

On Howard Street, near Tam (O'Shanter Golf Course), Mr. Block owns the property, he has the last remaining barn in his backyard. If you were going eastbound from Waukegan Road and started watching on the lefthand side before you got to Tam, you’d see some really old houses. When you get to the one which looks like it was built in the 1850s, right behind it is the last barn.

I don’t know who exactly  owned it. The Ruland family lived there, they were descended fron Revolutionary War heroes. 

Q. How did Niles get its ethnic character?

The town started with Scandinavian and German immigrants in the 19th century. There were two main churches, St. John's Lutheran and St. Matthew's Lutheran, which served those populations.

In the 1890s, Chicago extended the streetcar line to Devon Avenue, and there was a huge influx of the Polish population. Poles would walk the two blocks from Devon to St. Adalbert's Cemetery. There were  lot of taverns around Albion Avenue. They were stonecutters, for the monuments in (St. Adalbert's) cemetery. On Evergreen (Street), now called Newark, there were stonecutter shops.

Post World War Two was when you had Italians, Greeks, Irish, come, but the Irish had already had a presence here.

When Niles quadrupled in size in the 1950s, they’ll tell you 'we came from Little Italy.'

Greeks came in the same period. We had St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox, over by Maine East High School, that was the big Greek church in this area. St. Haralambos didn’t come until later.

Any theories on why area is attracting many Asian and Middle Eastern folks?

I think that repreesnts the current immigration into the country. Some of the unincorporated areas around Niles always had very heavy Asian populations.  Even when I was a kid in the 70s, there was heavy immigration, and immigrants always want to go where their culture is.

How did Niles people get to downtown Chicago back in old times? 

The first village president, John Huntington, who was also a Niles township president, ran an omnibus that went from Chicago to Niles, round trip. (He later explained that, when googling 'omnibus,' he found it looks like a horse-drawn bus.)

It went from Milwaukee Avenue, then called North Plank Road, and Touhy, then called Park Ridge Road, to downtown Chicago. 

Q. Is this your avocation?

It’s definitely my hobby. I have a 10-year-old daughter, obviously she takes up a lot of my time. This writing is something I want to do full-time when I retire from the police department (in 10 to 14 years).

The Club Rendezvous fire in 1935 was a huge event in Morton Grove and the surrounding communities. It was thought to be mob-related arson; several Northwestern students celebrating the end of their school play died.

The Schuessler-Peterson murders in 1955 changed our culture significantly. Three teen-aged boys were murdered at Silas Jayne’s Idle Hour Stables in unincorporated Park Ridge and dumped at Robinson Woods in Schiller Park. A caddy at Tam in Niles was at one time a prime suspect, but obviously he wasn’t guilty (stable-hand Ken Hansen was convicted of the murders in 2002).

What's your job when you're not writing history?

I’m 45, and I’m an investigator sergeant for the Illinois Secretary of State police in the Chicago area. We investigate auto theft and identity theft and regulate auto retail sales in the Chicago area.

I’ve been with them for six years, I was a municipal police officer in Park City in Lake County before that. I started in 1987 as a community service officer wth the Niles Police Department. I worked there until 1991, and was a police dispatcher and reserve police officer.  Post that, I was a police officer in McHenry in Hebron and Richmond, then worked as a dispatcher in Arlignton Heights. When I was 35, I went to the police academy and then went to work for Park City.

Q. What does your family think of this book?

The only part of my family left in Niles is my cousin Frank DiMaria on Olcott. I love the fact we’re still here. His father, also Frank DiMaria, a builder, built 25 percent of Niles, maybe more, in the 1950s and 60s.  

My father was a Niles policeman starting in 1965; he’s now deceased.

My grandfather opened the IHOP near Golf Mill in 1961, then my uncles ran it until 1991; it’s now Niles Grill.

My family’s very interested, very proud; they’re really looking forward to the next book, too.

Q. Any upcoming appearances?

Ferraro: I am giving a presentation here (at the Niles Historical Society, 8970 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Niles)  July 22, on the history of the Tam O'Shanter Country Club.

Q. Parting thoughts?

Ferraro: (in reference to how the community debate over whether the Tilted Kilt, a tavern with waitresse in scanty costumes, should be allowed in Morton Grove, is nothing new)

In the 1930s, there was Kitty Davis’ Mile High Club in Morton Grove; it was in an airplane, and the waitresses were dressed as airline stewardesses. I’m sure getting all glammed-up was part of the shtick.  It was on Dempster. 

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The Beet July 21, 2012 at 03:28 AM
Great interview. Will buy the book. Nice job!
James J Torenko July 21, 2012 at 03:19 PM
James Torenko...Fond childhood memories. Grew up on Albion Ave & Milwaukee since early 50's. NPD Andy Cameron was neighbor. Flowers grew and sold in our neighborhood because of Adalbert Cemetery. Prince Castle,Tromba's,Bunker Hill,Joker Joe's,Milwaukee Avenue Picnic Groves, No man's land at 6500 North on Milw with hidden gambling, Natoma Bowling Lanes & Weighlen Pool greeted the street car riders too. Niles Little League was fun times with team mate Frank DiMarria. I had the "best" childhood years anyone could wish for.
Greg M. February 01, 2013 at 10:35 PM
That was my Uncle's amusement park. His name was Herb Fritz. I have many fond memories of it as a kid!
Donna Shetsky Skaro April 21, 2014 at 02:33 PM
As we discussed before, I used to work for Tom and Vince @ the IHOP back in the 60's. Many fun times and fond memories, I remember your mom bringing you in as a tiny baby, I always felt like part of the family. Looking forward to future postings
Donna Shetsky Skaro April 21, 2014 at 02:38 PM
Oh yea, and Marty was.a pain on the neck. Sorry. Marty, loved you then , love you now but the truth is the truth. LOL


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