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Reader offers insight on Walter E. Olson PDF Print E-mail

Dear Editor:

While standing in awe at the base of a magnificent waterfall with my parents when I was just a little kid, who would have thought that some 55 years later I would be writing about the generous man who made those moments in time possible, as well as his American entrepreneurial spirit which is still at work to this very day inspiring people of all ages.

So in light of the ongoing dispute concerning Eagle River’s Olson Memorial Library, I thought it could be productive to step away from the legalities and inject some thought-provoking perspective that everyone can unite around in honor of Walter E. Olson.

For nearly four decades during the last century, a sprawling 22-acre park containing a manmade waterfall and rock garden graced the intersection of Diversey Avenue and Pulaski Road, seven miles northwest of downtown Chicago, nestled alongside the massive manufacturing mill and headquarters of the Olson Rug Co.

Dubbed “Chicago’s Seven Lost Wonders” by the Chicago Tribune after its closing in the 1970s, Walter, the enterprising son of O.B Olson who founded the company in 1874, designed and developed Olson Waterfall and Rock Gardens with his wife, Ida. Construction took place over a six-month period at the height of the Great Depression, not only to create work for 200 of Olson’s employees during hard times, but to recreate the North Woods for the pleasure of his giant workforce, as well as residents of urban Chicago who were unable to enjoy the splendors of nature like Olson experienced at his lake properties in the St. Germain area.

Eight hundred tons of stone and 800 yards of soil were used for the park’s construction along with thousands of perennials and numerous species of evergreens brought in from Wisconsin. And since admission was free, the park quickly became a favorite gathering spot for families which inevitably included a hot dog, pop and ice cream at a reasonable cost.

The enormous and intricate rock gardens incorporated tiered walkways, rock shelters, a duck pond, elaborate depictions of Native American culture and three waterfalls. Yet, the focal point of the park was a 35-foot-tall replica of a waterfall on the Ontonagon River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

According to a 2012 neighborhood newsletter, the park officially opened Sept. 27, 1935, on what was then American Indian Day in Illinois, which coincided with the 100th anniversary of a treaty resulting in the final expulsion of the Pota­wa­to­mies, Chippewas and Otta­was across the Mississippi.

The three waterfalls in the park represented each of these tribes which all had members in attendance. In a symbolic gesture, the park was deeded back to the tribes and throughout the decades regular events at the complex included tribal songs and rituals by Chief Thundercloud of the Ottawas and archery demonstrations from atop the waterfall.

Sadly, Olson sold the mill and surrounding property in 1965 to Marshall Fields who eventually turned off the legendary waterfalls and dismantled the iconic landmark in the early 1970s to make room for a parking lot.

Olson performed numerous charitable acts, such as in 1933 when he encouraged his employees to become involved with a hundred needy families and matched their contributions dollar for dollar.

Mr. Olson passed away in Florida on April 24, 1975, at the age of 91. After his death, the Walter E. Olson Foundation sold the Wisconsin properties and donated $350,000 from the proceeds to fund most of the cost to construct the current library which opened in 1980, the same year the foundation ceased operations.

Frank Gabl

Prospect Heights, Ill.,

and Eagle River

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 11:06 AM


+1 #1 Frank Gabl 2014-06-11 08:07

The park was 2.2-acres not 22-acres.

This was my mistake.

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