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Landmarks: A little lake in Oak Lawn helped set the scene for a bustling village

The tiny hamlet of South Mount Forest shows up on early 20th Century maps as little more than an eight-block subdivision halfway between Willow Springs and 95th Street, which already was a major thoroughfare, years before motorcars made road travel quicker and easier.

Linking the Sag Valley to the South Side of Chicago, 95th Street would only become more important as the century progressed.

The same wasn’t true for South Mount Forest, which by the 1920s had been swallowed up by actual forest. These days, the western terminus of 95th Street is anchored by Maple Lake, a popular fishing pond on Cook County Forest Preserve Property

More green space is at the eastern end of 95th Street, where the Chicago Park District’s Calumet Park offers sports fields, a fabulous field house and a Lake Michigan beach.

In between the two lakes, 95th Street traverses some of the busiest, most developed areas in the Southland. It links motorists to important institutions such as Chicago State University and Little Company of Mary and Christ hospitals. It’s lined by popular restaurants and stores. Its intersection with Harlem Avenue merits a cloverleaf interchange, and there’s a huge public transportation complex where it crosses the Dan Ryan Expressway.

And most of the way, it’s clogged with traffic.

Halfway in between Lake Michigan and Maple Lake is a much tinier body of water that helped turn a portion of that heavily traveled corridor from sleepy farmland into a residential destination.

But now, 130 years after it was created to attract development to a town that was having trouble holding on to its post office, Oak Lawn Lake’s main job is to offer respite from the hectic hubbub frantically flowing along the six lanes just to its north.

“People enjoy being here,” said Shari Wolfe, an office manager for the Oak Lawn Park District, which administers the lake and adjacent Lakeshore Park these days. “I enjoy going over there to see the ducks and turtles.”

Ducks were floating in the shallow water and turtles were sunning themselves on the lake’s tiny island around lunchtime on a warm Friday as two woman sat on a park bench chatting. Another pedestrian took advantage of the scenery for a constitutional stroll.

Wolfe grew up in the area and recalled the lake being more unkempt and overgrown in her youth, though she has fond memories of wintertime sledding down the lake’s banks onto the ice.

“We strongly discourage that now,” she said.

These days, the stately homes on either side of the sliver of water gaze down upon rock-lined shores that don’t attempt to disguise the lake’s origin as a channelized stream.

Oak Lawn was even smaller than South Mount Forest when Olaf Larsen came to town in 1892 to help transform a swampy lowland into a showpiece subdivision.

Olaf’s son, Carl Larson, who was born the same year as Oak Lawn Lake and was the village’s mayor from 1945 to 1949, grew up in one of the homes built nearby on Edison Avenue and remembered ice skating on “our lake, as we called it,” in a 1959 oral history interview archived at the Oak Lawn Public Library.

Some of the earth excavated from the marshy meander of a tributary to Stony Creek was piled in the middle of the lake to create an island that appears in historic photographs of the lake to tower above the waterline.

Larson said the lake was originally planned to stretch from 97th Street all the way to 95th Street, but the developer ran out of money, and the excavation stopped halfway there. The unexcavated portion eventually became Lakeshore Park, where the Oak Lawn Park District installed playgrounds, tennis courts and a concert pavilion and hosts special education programming.

Photos from the 1920s depict area children playing hockey on the lake in the winter and canoeing and swimming in the summer in shoulder-deep water. Over the years, the island eroded away and the lake has silted in, and no swimming or skating is allowed anymore.

The water flows into the lake from the direction of 95th Street, so swimming may not be a good idea these days anyway, but shortly after it was created, Olaf Larson worked a side hustle cutting wintertime ice from Oak Lawn Lake and selling it for iceboxes.

Landmarks: A little lake in Oak Lawn helped set the scene for a bustling village

Another historic image of Oak Lawn Lake on file at the library is a postcard depicting swimming children, but contains a more tragic footnote on its opposite side.

“Merrill Phillips drowned 6/30/16 in Oak Lawn Lake,” the handwritten inscription states.

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The lake may not have been as large as the developer wanted, but it attracted residents to what became a bustling neighborhood in the former swamp. Many of the homes they built along East Shore and West Shore drives on either side of the lake remain.

Those houses have been home to residents who earned a place in Oak Lawn lore, such as Enid Auschwitz, a trailblazing woman who enlisted as a yeoman in the Navy during World War I.

Oak Lawn’s population continued to grow, and in 1909, residents decided to incorporate as a village. In 1944, the village created a park district to take care of the area around the lake, which had become a dumping ground, according to a history of the village published in 1982 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the town coming together as Oak Lawn.

In the 1970s, the Oak Lawn Lake faced challenges again, and the Lake Short Park Concerned Citizens group was formed “to bring about a solution to juvenile problems in the park,” according to the 100th Anniversary book, which noted the group also worked to beatify the park and restock it with fish.

Signs indicate any fish caught there should be released, but Wolfe of the Park District, couldn’t remember seeing anyone fishing there recently, nor any recent stocking efforts, at least by the Park District.

Its original purpose of helping to fill out a new subdivision is long obsolete, and many of its recreational offerings have become history as well, but Oak Lawn Lake is still offering a respite from the stresses of nearby 95th Street, even if it’s just for a lunchtime break.

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at [email protected].

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