Last Updated on July 20, 2018 by Janet Frost
For the second installment in the “Our Town” series I revisited my hometown. I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois. Wheaton is a suburb of Chicago, and the county seat of DuPage County. I was last in Wheaton in 1993. I had plenty of Wheaton memories floating around in my head, so after 25 years I was interested to see how the area had changed.
Let’s go learn things about my hometown, Wheaton, Illinois………
Wheaton memories at Cantigny Park
This beautiful park/golf course/historical mansion/war memorial/tank park has always reminded me of my Dad the historian. While my memories of the history behind the park and the museums are vague. My memories about tromping around beautiful gardens and climbing on old army tanks are vivid. Odd combination I agree.
So let’s see what we can learn from Cantigny, and what it has to offer today.
McCormick Mansion Museum
Cantigny Park was originally Red Oaks Farm, the country retreat and experimental farm of Joseph Medill. Eventually it was expanded into a mansion by his grandson Robert McCormick. Both men ran the Chicago Tribune and were prominent political activists of the region. McCormick later gave it the name of Cantigny Park to memorialize the famous WWI battle of Cantigny, France. His artillery unit assisted the Army First Division that recaptured the town from the Germans. The battle shaped Robert McCormick for the rest of his life.
Red Oaks Farm was created by Joseph Medill as an experimental farm. Today that mission continues through the spectacular gardens spread across the 500 acre campus.
Cantigny Gardens’ mission is to promote the beauty, enjoyment and education of horticulture and to protect our natural environment
The gardens include a rose garden, rock garden, idea garden, prairie garden, formal garden, hosta garden and ecological pond garden. Each garden evolves through the seasons, giving a reason to return often.
I promised a “Tank Park” and it is far better than I remembered. Recently renovated and repositioned, over 12 tanks sit scattered across the lush green lawns. The tanks represent WWII through Desert Storm. They are real tanks and are really available to climb on. When I visited, there was a dad and his two young boys enacting an imaginary battle of some sort. My “kids” and grandkids would love this park.
First Division Museum
As I mentioned before, Robert McCormick served as a Colonel in WWI and participated in the battle of Cantigny, France. The renowned U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division was the leading force of that battle. McCormick left the park as an endowment for the betterment of Illinois residents in 1955. It opened as a museum to the public in 1958. Cantigny Park has continued to grow and improve over the 60 years. The newly designed First Division Museum is one of the latest improvements. This museum represents 100 years of the US Army Infantry 1st Division. Interactive exhibits take the visitor deep into the experience of WWI, WWII, Vietnam and current day conflicts. War buffs and history lovers alike will be impressed by this museum.
Wheaton memories in the city parks
It is telling, that my Wheaton memories are dominated by parks. This town is proud of its tree-lined avenues and plentiful refreshing parks. Chicago and its suburbs can seem like a concrete jungle sometimes. Wheaton, and many of the other communities of DuPage County hold firm to their lush green spaces where visitors can find respite.
Just six blocks from my childhood home sits Northside Park. This park has tennis courts, baseball field, city pool, walking paths, children’s playground, fishing lagoon and ice-skating pond and sledding hill in the winter. My brother and I lived in this park. It was a quick bike ride to adventure.
Surprisingly, the 68 acre park looked much like it did 40 years ago. There have been some nice updates. The playground equipment is of course updated to modern safety requirements. New bridges and spillways have replaced the treacherous rocky (and often flooded) path we used to take to the high school.
Wheaton was established in 1837, by two New England pioneering brothers, Jesse and Warren Wheaton. As was customary at the time, the founding fathers created the local mill and controlled the development of the township. In less than a decade the railroad moved through town, furthering Wheaton’s presence as an escape for wealthy Chicagoans.
John Quincy Adams, fourth cousin twice removed of the President, co-founded the Chicago Board and Trade. In 1876 Adams moved to Wheaton and Adams Park is on the land of his original home. Adams built the first library in Wheaton in honor of his departed wife. This architectural gem faces Adams Park. Today it serves as the DuPage County Historical Museum.
Adams Park is prominent in my memories because it was my pathway to the Wheaton Library. Several renditions of the library have occupied the East side of the park. I have been a library fanatic since I started reading in 1968. The current library is terrific. It is three floors of books and media. There are banks of windows and seats overlooking Adams Park. A small cyber cafe rounds out the amenities.
So maybe you aren’t that excited by libraries. I get that, but this square of luscious park, historical buildings and welcoming library is worth a visit.
Wheaton memories on Wheaton Avenue
Yes, believe it or not, I lived on Wheaton Ave as a child. It was a straight shot down picturesque Wheaton Ave to Longfellow Elementary School. The school was built in 1874 as Central School. It served grades K-12 at that time. Today there is a brand new school buildilng on the site. Across the street sits Memorial Park. Memorial Park is within a couple of blocks of downtown Wheaton. It still has the bandshell that has hosted summer evening concerts for generations. To this day I miss the quaint sidewalks of Wheaton Ave. on a summer’s evening.
Downtown Wheaton memories
In many respects the charm of Wheaton has remained unchanged over the last 25 years. The town has blended the old charm with modern touches that continue to make it a popular place to raise a family. I would say the area that was most changed is the actual downtown. The main layout is unchanged, the post office sits stolidly in the same place. Commuter trains still rumble through town. Front Street is stilled lined with local shops and eateries.
However, the names of those businesses are new. Front Street is undergoing a massive redesign ( I think the second or third since I lived there). A few names were familiar. The Little Popcorn Store is still a tiny gem, Stone’s Jewelry is still tempting me and grumpy old Sandberg still owns the storefront on Front and Main. To my delight, downtown Wheaton is full of trendy spots. There are even two craft breweries in downtown. I chuckled at the name of Dry City Brew Works because Wheaton was definitely a “dry” town when I grew up there.
I had a great time revisiting my Wheaton memories. I explored several other communities in DuPage County. Stay tuned for those posts. For now, why not check into Wheaton yourself. Cantigny Park makes a perfect day trip and then head downtown Wheaton for a stroll through a quiet park, brush up on some history and stop for some food and drink. Let Discover DuPage help you put a visit together.
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