In Context: A (Relatively) Short, Fascinating History of Maywood and It’s Public Library

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By Sean O’Connor, Chicago Libraries Examiner 

Part One: Beginnings 

The Maywood Public Library is one of the oldest public libraries in the state. It is almost 139 years old, as it was founded December 29, 1874. This was two years after the Illinois General Assembly passed a law authorizing the foundation of municipal libraries. In fact, the Maywood Public Library (MPL) is older than the suburb’s government, as the Village of Maywood incorporated in 1881. Maywood is an inner-ring suburb, eleven miles west of the Loop and five-and-a-half miles outside the Chicago city limits.

Maywood is south and southeast of Melrose Park; west of River Forest and Forest Park (and thus Oak Park); north of Broadview (and thus Brookfield); northeast of Westchester; and east of Bellwood. The famous Maywood Park Racetrack is actually in Melrose Park.

Maywood is separated from River Forest and Forest Park by the Des Plaines River. An unincorporated area separates Maywood from North Riverside to the south.

This is the Millers Meadows forest preserve of the Cook County Forest Preserve District east of 1st Avenue and the large hospital campus west of 1st Avenue and east of 8th Avenue. The latter includes the Loyola University Health Science Campus, Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University Medical Center, Loyola University Medical Center Pediatrics, John J. Madden Mental Health Center, and Edward Hines, Junior V.A. Hospital.

The first farmers in the area purchased land from the U.S. Government after the Blackhawk War (1832). They were mostly of English or German descent.

In 1850, they formed Taylor Township. Residents changed the township name to the more familiar Proviso in honor of the Wilmot Proviso (1846), introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman David Wilmot (1814-1868), which, if passed, would have outlawed slavery in any lands acquired at the expense of Mexico in the Mexican-American War (1846-48).

Colonel William T. Nichols
Colonel William T. Nichols

Colonel William T. Nichols, who had fought with the Vermont Volunteers during the Civil War and served in both houses of the Vermont state legislature, founded Maywood in 1869 with a group of six other men from Vermont who formed the Maywood Company. They named the community and the company after the colonel’s late daughter.

After they purchased the tract of land, they had $75,000 in capital. The State of Illinois chartered the company on April 6, 1869. Col. Nichols served as president until his death in 1882. He also lived in Maywood until his death.

The Maywood Company purchased homes along the bank of the Des Plaines River. The farm south of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad came from M.C. Niles, who sold the Maywood Company his farmland at $100 per acre. His farmhouse at 104 Oak Street is now The Way Back Inn, a rehab center.

In 1869, the Chicago and North Western Railway Company agree to build a depot in Maywood with side tracks for freight. Two years later, the Chicago Scraper & Ditch Company built a two-story wood structure along these side tracks between 6th and 7th Avenues.

In 1872, the Maywood Company built more than 100 homes. Two years later, the Maywood Company built a three-story brick multi-use building one block west to house the Chicago Scraper & Ditch Company’s plant and administrative offices, as well as stores on the 1st floor and a public hall that could accommodate 800 people on the 3rd floor.

The Chicago Scraper & Ditch Company was so successful that in 1878 the Maywood Company sold $531,000 in bonds (using real estate holdings as collateral) to purchase the Chicago Scraper & Ditch Company. As many Maywood residents were employed at the factory, Maywood effectively became a company town.

By 1881, Maywood had just under 1,000 residents. In 1885, the Maywood Company the multi-use brick building to the Norton Bros. Can Company, of which Maywood resident Henry Norton served as first president.

In 1901, the Norton Brothers Can Company merged into the American Can Company. Nine years later, the American Can Company began to build additional facilities along both sides of St. Charles Road.

By 1930, the American Can Company had multiple buildings between 6th and 14th Streets. It was the largest employer in town, employing thousands of people even during the Great Depression. The American Can Company was a powerful force in town until it closed operations there in 1975.

The Village of Maywood built a new Maywood Village Hall and also formed the Maywood Fire Department in 1895. The Maywood Fire Department Building at 511 St. Charles Road is on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

Early Maywood Fire Company
Early Maywood Fire Company (Franzosenbusch Heritage Project)

The Maywood Fire Department began to have paid firemen work beside the volunteers in 1928. It became a service comprised exclusively of paid, full-time firefighters in 1932.

Southern Maywood became more attractive when the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric railway added service to Maywood in 1902. As a result, the Maywood Company sold lots that ended with 225 houses being built in 1903 and ’04.

This helped spur the Village of Maywood to pave ten miles of brick streets. The Proviso Land Association built and sold single-family homes and two flats in a variety of styles.

Part Two: Progress

Although the Second Empire-style Nichols house has been demolished, there are a number of fine homes in Maywood from late in the 19th Century and early in the 20th Century. Eight of them are on the National Register of Historic Places: the Mrs. Henry F. Akin House, the Jacob Bohlander House, the Richard Cluevner House, the William Frangenheim House, the William & Caroline Gibbs House, the Caroline Grow House, the Mads C. Larson House, and the Timothy J. Lynch House.

A tenth building in Maywood is also on the National Register of Historic Places, the Masonic Temple at 200 Fifth Avenue. Today, it houses the Village of Maywood Parks & Recreation Department.

The population of Maywood more than doubled between 1920 and 1930 with 12,076 residents in 1920 and 26,000 residents in 1930. In 1929, the Illinois National Guard built the Maywood Armory, which stood on Madison Avenue.

In 1940, 122 men of the 33rd Tank Company, Illinois National Guard (Company B) were federalized. As active-duty service members, they fought in the U.S. Army’s 192nd Tank Battalion, which went to the Philippines in December of 1941 to defend the archipelago, then an American commonwealth.

They fought to defend the island of Luzon’s strategic Bataan peninsula, which helps form Manila Bay, and Corregidor Island, which is a smaller island at the mouth of Manila Bay, in the three-month-long Battle of Bataan. The survivors had the misfortune to be captured by the Japanese Imperial Army, which regarded soldiers who surrendered as contemptible.

In April of 1942, they and other Filipino and American POWs went on the Bataan Death March. Only forty-one of the men from Maywood survived to return.

This is why, from 1942 to 1987, Maywood had Bataan Day Parades on the second Sunday of September. It is also why there is a Bataan Park at 22nd Avenue and Lexington Avenue.

192nd Tank Batallion
192nd Tank Batallion

In September of 1992, the Maywood Bataan Day Organization sponsored the 50th Anniversary Banquet. On September 12, 1999, a Veterans Memorial was dedicated at First Avenue and Oak Street.

In 2012, the Maywood Bataan Day Organization and Village of Maywood marked Maywood Bataan Day on Sunday, September 9th at 3:00 p.m. with a memorial service in Maywood Veterans Memorial Park. Tina Valentino noted in an article the annual memorial service has come to encompass American veterans of other wars and Filipino-Americans from the Chicago area.

The population of Maywood peaked at 30,036 in 1970. By 2000, it had fallen to 26,987. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2000, 82.7% of Maywood residents were Black, 9.7% were White, and 10.5% were Hispanic or Latino (regardless of race).

Part Three: The Library Comes of Age

Early on, the MPL was housed in the basement of the Maywood Village Hall. Within the course of a few years, it moved into the Waterworks Building and then moved back to the Village Hall, where it occupied two rooms.

The Maywood Public Library petitioned industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1912) for money to build a library building. In 1904, Carnegie agreed to donate $12,000 for the construction of a library building after the Village of Maywood guaranteed it would expend $1,250 annually on its maintenance.

This proved to be an insufficient sum to provide heat, light, and equipment for the building, so E.T. Hughes, Chairman of the Building Committee of the MPL Board of Trustees, arranged for the sale of $4,500 in bonds to pay for equipment. The Maywood Public Library Building was dedicated in April of 1905. It opened to the public on March 31, 1906.

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie

A number of towns in Illinois have or had Carnegie libraries, including Chicago Heights, Downers Grove, Evanston, Glen Ellyn, Highland Park, La Grange, and St. Charles in Chicagoland, plus Rockford and Waukegan in Far Northern Illinois and Delavan in Central Illinois. The Aurora Public Library’s central library, the Main Library, has been housed for over a century in a Carnegie Library at 1 East Benton Street on Stolp Island (as I explained in “The Aurora Public Library,” Parts I and II). However, the Aurora Public Library is building a New Main Library one block west (“State Librarian Awards Aurora Public Library $10.8 Million Grant”).

Other public library systems I have profiled that have or had Carnegie libraries are the Gary and Crown Point Public Library Districts in Lake County, Indiana; the Toronto Public Library and the Hamilton Public Library in Ontario; and The New York Public Library. Between 1916 and 1961, the Carnegie Corporation of New York spent almost $9,000,000 on libraries in African colonies of the British Empire, two-thirds of which went to projects in the Union of South Africa.

In the last decade, it began to issue grants again to existent South African libraries to foster literacy (“Carnegie Libraries in South Africa”). Also, as I explained in “The University of Chicago’s Graduate Library School (1926-1989),” the Carnegie Corporation provided $1,000,000 in 1926 to establish The Graduate Library School at The University of Chicago, which began to admit students in 1928 and closed in 1989.

At the time the MPL opened, it has a collection of 4,648 volumes. It had 883 registered patrons and circulated 19,016 books a year.

The MPL opened its first branch in Garfield School in 1924 and a second branch in a real estate office on 17th Avenue in 1928. The second branch moved to a rented storefront on 17th Avenue where it remained for sixty-eight years.

In October of 1936, the MPL Board of Trustees received word that their application for a P.W.A. grant to remodel the 1,000-square-foot library had been accepted. As a result of the $27,000 remodeling project, the old Carnegie library had both a children’s room and a school room that held duplicate books to be sent out to school classroom libraries; a room for young adults, a cataloging room, and a boardroom on the 2nd floor; a main reading room, a reference room, books, magazines, and newspapers on the 1st floor; and a community room.

The MPL housed 20,000 books and served 7,600 registered patrons. It circulated 114,500 books and periodicals.

Maywood Public Library's Carnegie Building
Maywood Public Library’s Carnegie Building

The estate of former MPL Board member Fred Volkmann provided $95,000 for interior renovations undertaken in 1960. There were yet more renovations in 1970.

Twenty-one years later, Maywood residents voted to separate the library from the municipal government as a library district. This was supposed to guarantee dedicated funding for the library.

Part Four: Present Challenges 

In 1998, an $8,000,000 addition was built, the three-story Annex. When it opened, the 3rd Floor had The Adult Services Department’s reference section and computers; the 2nd Floor housed The Youth Services Department; and the 1st Floor had administrative offices, fiction, videotapes, and magazines. The designed by Ross, Barney & Jankowski won the 1999 Distinguished Building Award from the American Institute of Architects Chicago.

Meanwhile, the Carnegie library building was renovated to hold a Local History Archives Room/Board Room, meeting rooms, and more administrative offices. It is now called the Carnegie Building.

Combined, the two buildings provided 43,000 square feet of space. The Annex stands behind the Carnegie Building, which is to say between it and Veterans Memorial Maywood Park. The Computer Center opened on the 1st Floor of the Annex in March of 2003 after 7th District State Representative Karen Yarbrough secured a $23,000 State Commerce and Community Affairs grant.

Maywood Public Library Addition (At Night)
Maywood Public Library Addition At Night

The Maywood Public Library has a collection of approximately 90,000 volumes. It was formerly a member of the Metropolitan Library System (M.L.S.), which was one of five Illinois Regional Library Systems to merge into the Reaching Across Illinois Library System (R.A.I.L.S.).

Six blocks south of the MPL there is a small diner, Maywood Express, at 2 South 5th Avenue, which serves a mix of Mexican, Italian, and Greek cuisines, soul food, and American comfort food. I recommend the chopped steak sandwich on Texas toast.

The MPL is normally open from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays; from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; and is closed on Fridays, Sundays, and holidays. However, it closed on Sunday, October 26, 2013 for lack of money and remains closed. The MPL District needs approximately $800,000 – $300,000 to operate until spring of next year and $500,000 to retire debt. VFP

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