Old Chicago Houses
by John Drury
published about 1940
When the present intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Pulaski Road, now a busy shopping and commercial center, was a muddy country crossroad, there was built, just north of this point, a comfortable brick farmhouse. It attracted attention then as the home of the grandson of one of the first settlers of the region.
That house is still standing.* But, instead of farms and prairies, it is now surrounded by rows of apartment houses, two-story flat buildings, stores, schools, and churches. Only a few blocks to the north are located the Chicago Municipal Sanitarium and the Bohemian National Cemetery.1 Streetcars, busses, and automobiles have supplanted the buggies and hay wagons that once creaked and rumbled in front of this house.
Of greater interest than the age of the house, however, is the man who lives in it today. He is the same man who built it with his own hands, brick by brick, seventy years ago, or at the time of the Chicago Fire.2 Now ninety-two years old, he enjoys the distinction of having spent his entire life on the property originally acquired by his grandfather.
This man is William Harding Spikings,3 a retired building contractor and head of a Chicago family that included three sons, two daughters, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.4 his wife, Minnie,5 died in the old brick homestead in 1936 at the age of eighty-six. She had been brought to it as a bride in 1874. When she was ten years old, her parents brought her to Chicago from their native land, Sweden.
Two years before the area was incorporated as the township of Jefferson -- and forty-one years before the township was annexed to Chicago -- William Spikings came into the world in a log cabin acquired by his grandfather from an Indian chief and which stood on his grandfather's original tract near what is now Avers and Argyle avenues. As a child William Spikings often saw Indians going by on the muddy roads of Jefferson Township.
The father of the boy was Richard Young Spikings,6 who had quit the little wooden frontier city of Chicago in 1840, gone up the north branch of the Chicago River, and had got work on a farm in the vicinity of the present Spikings homestead. Here he became acquainted with Cornelia Harding,7 daughter of a farmer, married her, and was presented a large tract of land by his father-in-law. He later became a trustee of the village of Jefferson.
This marriage would not have occurred and there would probably have been no Spikings homestead today if, according to a family legend, William Harding, father of Mrs. Spikings, had not had a lucky break earlier in his career.
On his way over from England, he and other passengers were cast adrift on a raft when their vessel foundered. After several days of starvation they were reduced to such straits that they even ate the leather of their shoes. Finally, in utter desperation, so the story goes, they cast lots to select one from among them who was to be killed for food. William Harding was the unlucky man, but just before he was to be sacrificed they sighted the coast of Maine.
"With all his possessions gone, my great-grandfather did odd jobs in Maine and then drifted down to New York," explained Mrs. Alice Ropp, daughter of William Spikings, with whom she lives, and widow of Silas Ropp, member of an old Irving Park family. "In New York he set up a hog farm at what is now Central Park. Then he came to Chicago and by 1836 had acquired a section of land out in the country northwest of Chicago."
This land purchase begins the story of the present Spikings homestead, which is located at 4853 North Pulaski Road. William Harding is said to have acquired his 640 acres at eight dollars an acre. Today this tract would be roughly bounded by Lawrence Avenue on the south, Kedzie Avenue on the east, the north branch of the Chicago River (which runs east and west at this point) on the north, and Pulaski Road on the west.
After marrying Harding's daughter, Richard Y. Spikings came into possession of sixty acres of the original Harding tract at the northeast8 corner of what is now Lawrence Avenue and Pulaski Road. These sixty acres were left to his son, William, and it was here the latter built his brick farmhouse and reared his family. Harding Avenue, which runs north and south through the sixty-acre portion, was named after William Harding.
What enabled William Spikings to build his homestead of brick was the fact that he operated a brickyard not far from the spot where his birthplace stood. As the years went by, Mr. Spikings worked hard, reared his family, held on to his property, and saw the city slowly creeping up.
By 1912 the real estate development he had waited for so long was about to get under way, and in that year he sold half an acre at the northeast corner of Lawrence Avenue and what was then Crawford Avenue (now Pulaski Road) for $8,000-- or two thousand times the price his grandfather had paid seventy-six years before.
Today the Spikings homestead, a two-story, gable-roofed dwelling with wide porches on two sides and set back on tree-shaded grounds, presents an odd appearance as it stands there among tall, modern apartment houses. In the summer it is a restful and attractively rustic spot. The rooms still retain their old-fashioned atmosphere.
And on the porch, seated in a rocker, a cane by his side, Mr. Spikings often sits of a summer's evening. His daughter said that on these occasions he frequently talks of the days when the region around his brick house was mostly grassy prairies and truck farms.
* Demolished since this book went to press.