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Ask Chicagoist: Who Put the "Wicker" in Wicker Park?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on Mar 31, 2008 2:24PM

2008_03_askwicker.jpgDear Ask Chicagoist,

Why is Wicker Park called Wicker Park? I imagine there's some Bob Wicker out there you can tell me about.

Looking for Mr. Wicker

Dear Desperately Seeking Wicker,

No, not at all. It's all related to a fascination with buying furniture at Pier One.

Or, maybe, the Mr. Wicker you seek is actually two Mr. Wickers. Charles and Joel Wicker were two Chicago businessmen who were quite active in development of the city during the late 1800s. They started out as wholesale grocers (Joel owned the store after moving to Chicago from Vermont, and Charles came and worked as clerk after working on the construction of the Erie Canal), and went on to become active developers and business leaders. Charles in particular eventually become a city alderman who advocated for the lakefront being saved for public use, and then an Illinois State Representative who focused on the development of the railroads.

They brothers, or so the story goes, bought 80 acres of land off Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago in 1870, and set out to create a neighborhood where "people of all economic backgrounds could afford to live and work." They focused on having different types of lots available; some big enough for mansions, others small enough for a simple bungalow. They concentrated on the streets and the layout of the area, and let the city worry about the green space -- they donated four acres of their land right back to the city for the creation of a park, knowing that would draw people to the area.

The Chicago Park District's website explains how the city created a lavish park, complete with a pond in the the middle, helping "the area develop ... into a fashionable middle- and upper-class neighborhood." The park has gone through multiple changes in its time, but it's consistently kept the Wicker family name. The Chicago Fire also helped the development of the area. With their homes lost, wealthy German and Swedish families gravitated towards the new area to rebuild their homes, especially near Hoyne and Pierce Streets.

While technically the results are the same no matter how the story begins, it's recently been argued that the Wicker boys aren't the ones who really donated the land to the city, creating the famed park and the impetus for naming the neighborhood. Local historian Elaine Coorens, in her book about Wicker Park called "Wicker Park From 1673 thru 1929 and Walking Tour Guide," reveals that her research into land titles for the area show that another local landowner named D.S. Lee owned the land that the park sits on. She claims his widow Mary Stewart is who donated the land to the city for the creation of the park. The land the neighborhood sits on was incorporated into the city in 1868, and became the D.S. Lee Tract, which is the land the Wickers purchased.

Coorens does concede that the Wickers most certainly worked on the planning and development of the area, and says that the story about the Wickers donating the land most likely originated after Charles died in 1890; a woman who used to work for Charles Wicker wrote "that he divided the land and donated it to the city."

Whatever the real chain of events was in the development of the park, it's clear that Charles and Joel had quite a lot to do with making Wicker Park what it was.

Image via sierraromeo

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