Stories that Inspired A Home on the Lake, Piven and Fleetwood-Jourdain's Collaborative Play
Patricia Swanson's story, and others I’ve gathered over recent months, helped inform and inspire Tim Rhoze and Stephen Fedo, the writers of the play A Home on the Lake. The production, a collaboration between Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and Piven Theatre Workshop, is a fictional story about race and property in Evanston, and runs from April 20 to May 20. Click here for tickets! The idea for the play was sparked after Tim heard older Black Evanston residents remembering houses being moved--and Black residents being displaced--from white areas of Evanston in the 1940s to what is now the historically Black fifth ward. Thanks to Patty Swanson for spending time with me and telling me her family's fascinating Evanston history--which goes all the way back to 1839. Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” But brothers Bob and Fred Piron, who co-own Belgian Chocolatier Piron, Inc. on Main Street, make things much more predictable: you can pick each one of their delicious house-made chocolates that goes in your box. I’ve done it for years. What I didn’t predict, though, was my recent chat with Bob’s wife Patricia Swanson Piron and the Evanston history I discovered is packed into her family. It includes being related to the first white, non-Native American, child to be born in Evanston, a great-grandfather who was a firefighter with the Evanston Fire Department and the first to die in the line of duty while fighting a fire at the storied Clayton Mark factory, and a father who was a police officer with the Evanston Police Department and who made, by hand, a holster for every officer in the department and spearheaded the birth of Evanston Hospital's security department. We spent an hour unwrapping that story. Here are some highlights. Born in 1840, Patty’s great-great- grandmother, Susan Pratt, was the first white--non-Native American--child to be born in Evanston. She was the daughter of Paul Pratt and Caroline Adams, who came to Evanston from Massachusetts in 1839 [Caroline was from the same family as Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams]. According to the "Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois 3rd ed." of 1895, “Paul was the oldest resident of Evanston, and one of the earliest surviving pioneers of Cook County. From 1845 he was one of the most familiar characters in the northern part of the county, he and his ox-team being well known to every family along the north shore.” "Mr. Pratt made a squatter’s claim to a large tract of land, including the site of Northwestern University, and when this land was surveyed and offered for sale he purchased it from the United States Government, paying $1.25 per acre. There were but two houses within the present limits of the city of Evanston when he located there. He built a log house at the present intersection of Ridge Avenue and Leon Street." Susan Pratt married Evanston resident Louis Leonhardt, and they had 12 children. One of those children, Carrie Leonhardt, married a man named George Stiles--a firefighter--and they had two children--one of whom, Stella Stiles, born in 1896, was Patty’s grandmother. Here’s Patty: PP: My great-great grandmother was the first non-Indian child born in Evanston. She was one of four children. She was raised here in Evanston, married a man who came here from Prussia, Germany. she grew up on a farm. The farm was somewhere in the area of Asbury to Maple, Church to ... I’ve forgotten the other side of it, but he owned 140 acres right in that area. That was his farm and that’s where she grew up. DE: And how did he get here? PP: He came from Massachusetts. His name was Paul Pratt, Jr. His father was actually a minuteman, he fought at Bunker Hill and at the battle of Lexington. His son, Paul, decided he wanted to find his fortune and decided to go west and aimed for Chicago. He ended up in Evanston and he had squatters rights on about 140 acres, which he eventually bought from the federal government for $1.25 an acre. He was a farmer. And he felled trees. One of the big things he did was taking down trees and getting them out onto the river and sending them to Chicago. His daughter, Susan, married Louis Leonhardt, who came from Germany, and he was also in the logging industry and gardening. DE: Do you know what year Paul arrived? PP: It was about 1839, I think, he left Massachusetts and started heading this way. DE: So that’s your great-great grandfather, and everyone has lived here since then? PP: Yes. From that part of the family. Susan had 12 children. Four passed away. During 1880, typhoid hit. Everyone got sick. I actually have her cookbook and the kids have scribbled in it. We found it in the basement. So my grandmother's name was Stella Stiles Swanson. Her family goes straight back to Susan Pratt. Stella Stiles was the daughter of George Stiles, the first fireman to die in the line of duty in Evanston. December 13, 1905 ... at the corner of Dodge and Dempster. DE: What do you know about the fire? PP: It was the Clayton Mark fire. A wall collapsed on him and a gentleman named William Craig. They both lost their lives that day. He was young. My grandmother was nine and her brother was eight. DE: Where did Susan Pratt live? PP: They used to live, as I said, Asbury was one of the boundaries. And the houses were on Ridge Avenue. And the two houses were together. Susan lived in one house and her parents in the other house. ... Every Sunday we would sit at the dinner table and I’d hear all these stories. My grandmother sat to the left of my father. And he would talk about people who had passed a long time ago and who I did not know. But I would hear about it all, and I was interested. And my grandmother would say, 'Oh yeah, I used to go quilting with Grandma Susan and Grandma Caroline ... We used to quilt on the porch. And we’d have lemonade …’" So now I’ve gone to look for the houses, I haven’t found them all. Paul Pratt’s house was razed and another put up while he was still alive. That one’s still there ... on Leon Place and she was on Leonard Place around Ridge Ave. As I said, they used to live -- Asbury was one of the boundaries, and they used to live on Ridge Ave. The houses were together. Susan lived in one house and her parents lived in the other. My brother still lives in the house built by my great-great grandfather on the Swanson side. And it's next door to my mother who also still lives in Evanston. ...Anyway, my grandmother married Albert Swanson. His father came from Sweden. They built the house that still houses Swansons. It was built as a duplex, which is something that they did back then. It’s in the Gaffield Park area, over in north Evanston east of the Civic Center [east of Ridge, just south of Noyes]. And so it’s kind of in that little pocket east of the Civic Center. There’s a lot of Northwestern housing now. A lot of people have moved on. We’re still there. My brother still has the house and it’s next door to my mother, who also lives still in Evanston. The house was always meant for the elderly to be on the first floor and the next generation upstairs. And as each generation got married they moved in upstairs, [and the older generation] moved downstairs. I got married I lived up there. My mother and father lived up there. They didn’t move downstairs because they bought the house right next door. ... My grandmother was a card-carrying member of the WCTU. DE: Would she have known Frances Willard? PP: Oh yeah, absolutely. ... I happened to learn [from my grandmother] that Paul Pratt had had all this land. I asked her, 'We owned a portion of Northwestern University and he actually gave the land to them?' And she said, yeah. And she would tell me about all the different lands that we owned in town. I don’t know where it was, but apparently land was lost in a poker game. And the woman went the next day and won that land back, won that home back. Those archives are at the Frances Willard House. DE: Tell me about your father. PP: My father [Albert Swanson] used to ride horses here in Evanston. His horse was stabled up at the corner of Ridge and Noyes. Now there is a house at the corner of Ridge and Noyes, it’s gray and it has a little house behind it. That was a stopping point on the way to Fort Sheridan. And that was one place you could stop get food, get rest. They’d take care of your horses and then you can move on. It was like a half-way point. I was in it when I was a child once. Beautiful inside. All the wood and everything. DE: Did you feel special as a child given your family’s early history in Evanston? PP: No. But I felt special because my father was a police officer and very involved and interested. He was a lieutenant. I felt special because so many people respected him. And he respected his past and everybody in his family. He passed away in 1998. He was passionate about, he was a soldier. He was in World War II. He was a floral designer. He was an artist. He did leather work. At one point every police officer in the city of Evanston had a holster that he hand made and my mother hand stitched. He was involved and he cared about absolutely everybody. DE: And your husband’s family is from Belgium. PP: The came here in the 50s by way of New York. DE: So you went to Evanston High School. Where did you go for middle school? PP: Haven. And I went to Noyes School for Kindergarten but moved over to Orrington. And I went to Bradley University. DE: And do you still live in Evanston? PP: We live in Glenview now. It was hard to find a place we could afford when we got married. We were young, in our 20s. So the idea was to get a starter home and then come back. We’re still there. We made a life out there. But our business is still here. Family’s still here. It took us years after we bought the house there to even find anything around us because we kept coming back here. Our life is both. It’s intertwined. Because this is home. DE: How would you compare Evanston to Glenview? PP: Here, for me, there’s more people stepping up. If there’s something that’s gonna go wrong, they’re gonna be out there. They’re more engaged, more involved. They care. DE: Do you know how your family, going back so far, connected with Black Evanston residents back then? PP: I don’t. I honestly don’t. It’s a work in progress trying to figure all this out. They have to have. That’s why we’re looking for their stories and trying to write a book. There’s more research to be done. DE: And tell me about where we’re sitting now? PP: We’re sitting in Belgian Chocolatier Piron. My husband and I both went to ETHS. We graduated on the same day--him in the morning and me in the afternoon. Our graduation class was over 1,400 kids. We met a week later. Through my best friend. We’ve been together 40 years, and married for 30 years. He always wanted to do something with his hands and got into school for architecture and became a draftsman in the early 80s just when everyone in the building industry was being laid off. So he had the opportunity to go to Belgium and he met one of the best chocolatiers in Europe who said, 'Well if he’s as good with his hands as he says he is, free exchange, labor for knowledge, no pay, don’t know where he’s going to live, but if he wants to come, I’ll teach him everything I know.' And he did. We opened in Northbrook in the basement of a medical building. Then there was some press about us and we had to open a retail shop, so we came to Evanston. This is his baby. I do most front of the store. We’ve been here since 1986. DE: What do you like about the chocolate business? PP: You know, when I was still doing real estate, I would work here every Saturday. And my husband said, 'You know, you’re always happy when you’re here.' And I said, 'How could I not be? At work, I’m the complaint department, and here, everybody walks in, takes a breath and goes, Ahhh, and they’re happy.' And it’s great. He’s got a great product. He believes in making something that’s as beautiful as it tastes. He’s got scruples and standards. It’s kind of like our heritage, you’ve got to be proud of what you do, and he is. DE: Talking about heritage, what are you proudest of? PP: I’m proud that they came here, that they tried, that they were pioneers. My father was a police officer in Evanston for over 20 years, he started the security department at Evanston Hospital and Glenbrook Hospital. My great grandfather was one of the first firemen to die in the line of duty in the city of Evanston ... my father’s father was a plumber. We’ve all been workers, we’re all blue-collar workers and we all work together with everyone around us. It’s our town. They're all about service, community, helping their community, being part of it. We get involved. PP: It’s diversity. And I love just the location. Just being at the lake. It just gives you something. I just don’t know anything else, I guess.
For more: read and hear Bennett Johnson's story and Jerome Summer's story.
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