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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Growing up in Naperville – Changing times

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As I mentioned in a previous column, I was born in Naperville when there was no hospital. I was born at home at 616 North Ellsworth Street. Back then, the closest hospital was in Aurora. The population in Naperville was about 4,000 and our community was basically a farm and blue-collar town.

Local businesses included Brown’s Toy Furniture Company, The Boiler Works, The Bag Factory and, of course, Kroehler Manufacturing Company.

We knew all of our neighbors on our block and those behind us east of the alley which divided the block. Many of our neighbors worked at Kroehler’s and some rode the train to Chicago.

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We lived two blocks from the Burlington Railroad tracks and there were several businesses along the tracks. Swartz’s Lumber Yard later became Raymond Lumber, and then Ory Lumber. There was Brown’s Toy Furniture, and Boecker Coal & Grain which shipped a lot of grain and coal.

Kroehler was the world’s largest furniture company! Since I was a little tyke, I loved to watch trains and back then there were many passenger trains.

I will name a few, but remember for every passenger train going West there was the same train traveling East to Chicago!

For instance, there was the morning and afternoon Zephyr to Minneapolis, also the Blackhawk (night train and mail train) to the Twin Cities. There was the Great Northern Empire Builder and Mainstreeter, the Great North Coast Limited and the Western Star.

Other Burlington trains were the Denver Zepher, Nebraska Zephyr and the very popular luxury train, California Zephyr, or as train enthusiasts called it, “The Silver Lady.”

As a young boy, I would sit on our front sidewalk steps and watch the tractors come down Ellsworth Street, taking grain to Boecker’s for storage and shipping.

As Naperville began to grow, the farms slowly went away and the land they were on became neighborhoods and grew houses.

For example, Beebe School was built on the Bob Fry farm just north of Ogden. There was nothing else built there yet, and the farm was still a working dairy farm. My sister, Julie, went to fourth grade at Beebe and at recess time she would go to the fence and pet the cows! That area became Saybrook.

Not so long ago, I sat down one day and began listing all the jobs I had before leaving for college. I had worked at the Ben Franklin, National Tea Grocery Store, Amlings and Netzley Chrysler.

Just before heading to Northern Illinois University, I was employed at Kroehler. I worked in the wood department and did piece work. I quickly learned the faster you worked, the more money you earned. My boss, Johnny Morrison, told me to slow down because I would break the rate of pay.

With that, I said I needed the money for college. The financing deal my parents made with me was that I would pay for the first semester and if I got good grades, they would pay the second semester! NIU didn’t charge much back then as the tuition was $65 a semester plus $230 for the dorm.

Costs are quite different today.

Upon finishing the column for this month, I want to thank all the people of Naperville for a wonderful send off for my retirement from the Naperville Municipal Band! It was a great run of 57 years and I loved every minute of it!

I look forward to seeing everyone at the fall concert at 4PM Sun., Nov. 5, at Wentz Concert Hall.

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Ron Keller
Ron Keller
Ron Keller is a lifelong Naperville resident, tuba enthusiast and has been conducting the Naperville Municipal Band for over 50 years.

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