CALUMET CITY - Years ago, some children who attended the former Sandridge
Elementary School believed their classrooms were built on a Native American
burial ground. They weren't far off.
Before Calumet City was settled by European pioneers, nomadic Native
Americans inhabited the areas that are now home to Dirksen Middle School and
the River Oaks Center. In 1962, construction crews unearthed hammer stones,
blades, flint-like quartz pebbles and arrowheads in the Shabbonna Woods area,
west of Torrence Avenue and in adjacent Green Lake Woods.
The name "Calumet" comes from the Native American word "Kalamick," which
referred to the Little Calumet watershed. The first inhabitants relied on the
Little Calumet River to fish and trap waterfowl, muskrats and minks.
The real Calumet City is a far cry from the John Belushi's cinematic home in
"The Blues Brothers." The history of Calumet City is the story of pioneers and
farmers who settled close enough to a port city for water transport and
supplies, but distant enough to escape its congestion and problems.
Calumet City's first resident was Hans Johann Schrum, a German immigrant who
arrived here in 1863 - the height of the U.S. Civil War. Schrum and his wife,
the former Louise Schuringa, amassed ownership of 275 acres between what is now
State Line Road and the Little Calumet River at a price of $17 an acre - a
significant amount of money in those days. Their land holdings eventually
blossomed to more than 600 acres.
The Schrum family counted maple syrup and potatoes among its crops, and also
operated the Calumet Dairy and the Calumet Pickle Works. Their milk delivery
service charged a nickel a quart. The profitable pickle business sent delivery
trucks to Gary, Hammond, East Chicago, Whiting and all parts of Calumet City
with shipments of pickles and hot dog condiments that included relish, peppers,
horseradish and ketchup. The family businesses brought wealth to the Schrums
and attracted other families to the area.
An influx of German Lutherans arrived in what was then known as Sobieski
Park in the early 1880s. A house to live in was easy enough to erect, but a
house of prayer was notably absent from the fledgling suburb. The creation of
St. John's Lutheran Church was first suggested by a congregation of 11 men on
Dec. 9, 1888. By August 1891, the church was dedicated and an accompanying
school was giving students a parochial education - which included instruction
Polish pioneers settled south of the German enclave after 1885. The first
Catholic Mass was celebrated at the newly built St. Andrew the Apostle Church
on Feb. 25, 1892. The church was rebuilt after a tornado swept through that
same year, and was rebuilt again in 1918 when a devastating fire struck.
In January 1893, residents of the area then known as West Hammond took the
final steps necessary for incorporation under Illinois law - but the name
Calumet City was not formally adopted until 1924.
Calumet City grew rapidly with a diverse ethnic mix. During and after World
War II, Irish, Polish and Italian families began moving into town in increasing
Though the population was steadily increasing, the city lacked needed
infrastructure such as sidewalks and paved sidestreets into the mid-1900s. In
1910, the population was pegged at 4,948. By 1960, fully 20,000 more residents
had arrived and houses were being sold for $18,000. Employment was available at
numerous factories within a short drive, including Standard Oil (now Amoco),
the Pullman Standard Car Co., American Maize products, and the sprawling steel
works in East Chicago and Gary.
The "City of Homes" had become a place to live, work, worship and raise
families. But of all the aspects of Calumet City's rich history, perhaps the
most striking is not found with Native Americans or pickle entrepreneurs. To
current residents, the most remarkable fact is that people used to swim in the
Little Calumet River.