In east central Illinois the 'plain folk' have turned from farming to building
furniture and making jelly. In Chicago, a community of Jewish veterans is hanging on.
But in Oak Park a slice of Irish radio is still going strong after nearly half a century

'Be not conformed' opens to new interpretations

by Jefferson Robbins - Jefferson Robbins is a reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield.

The Amish craftsman gestures around his sawdusted workshop, toward new dining tables and dressers awaiting their owners. "This started as a sideline," he says, scratching at his twin-tined red beard. "Evenings and weekends."

No longer. For many Amish living around the tiny east central Illinois town of Arthur, population 2,112, farming as the staff of life declined a decade ago or more. Now the "plain folk" who settled here in the 19th century have become a service industry all their own building furniture, baking foods and drawing thousands of visitors each year. Black buggies park alongside GMC pickups downtown, and the cell phone joins the scythe as a tool of Amish business.

Be not conformed
Illustration by Mike Cramer

The Arthur settlement is the only major Amish colony in Illinois, although some families have migrated farther west into Pike and Greene counties. Three families of Pennsylvania Amish came to this state seeking better soil in 1865, and set up homesteads along the Moultrie-Douglas County line, near what would later become Arthur. The Amish sect had broken from the Swiss Mennonite church in 1693, with founder Jacob Amman preaching a conservative doctrine of hard work that leaned on Romans 12:2 "Be not conformed to this world."

As more and more outsiders trekked down Illinois 133 to get a glimpse of the Arthur area's 3,500 Amish, services erupted to meet their needs. The main shops now burst with Amish-made furniture, candies, breads and jams. At the Arthur General Store, a drop-leaf table sells for $595 and an oak cupboard for $2,275. Store manager Nancy Ferchow represents six local families of Amish craftsmen, channeling furniture orders to their shops. Demand for such crafts, from Arthur and elsewhere, has boomed in the last 25 years.

The reason, says Amish crafts dealer Jim Foiles, is quality. The drawers of an Amish-made chest are dovetailed, not just glued at the seams like much factory furniture. The quality flows from the builder's personal attention to the product.

"They're still in the horse-and- buggy days, so they don't get excited about mass producing stuff," says Foiles, whose Carrollton-based Foiles Customs Inc. retails Amish-built furniture from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

As a result of their work's popularity, Amish craftsmen have all the business they need and often turn down new customers. "You kind of have to keep trying to establish contacts," Foiles says.

None of this commercialization could have occurred without Amish complicity and simple economics. For generations, large families farmed 80- to 100- acre plots, using horses to plow and harvest, and relied on their vegetables and livestock for food

34 September 1999 Illinois Issues

and income. The Amish population boomed, but produce prices withered and even manual farming methods grew more efficient, meaning Amish families had to put idle children to work elsewhere.

Today about two-thirds of Arthur- area Amish live solely or partly through their farms. The remainder gain income strictly from their own craft shops or work for local firms, such as the Schrock Brothers cabinet company. There are at least 130 Amish-owned rural businesses, more than 100 of them woodworking shops, within seven miles of Arthur.In whatever industry, the Amish have applied the same work ethic that served them as farmers.

"They've tried to take that and turn it toward a business where you can work at home and your children can work in your shops," says Arthur businessman Ervin Yoder.

Much of Illinois' Amish-related sales and marketing comes from Arcola, 10 miles east of Arthur, home of the Rockome Gardens theme park. Large enterprises act as middlemen between Amish woodworkers and non-Amish clients; last year one of these compa- nies did an estimated $15 million in furniture business, jobbing out orders to multiple Amish shops.

Sitting just off Interstate 57, Arcola uses its seat near Amish country as a lure for highway travelers. There's no doubt this location is lucrative. Amish- related tourism probably creates between 700 and 1,100 jobs in local service industries, Yoder estimates.

While the Arthur Amish appear old- fashioned and nontechnological to most outsiders, the community has absorbed aspects of modern living. The tenet of Romans 12:2 has undergone varying interpretations, with each U.S. Amish community adopting practices by consensus. New technologies are embraced if they're deemed utilitarian, not materialistic. Buggies carry battery- powered headlamps and turn signals. Local bishops now allow community phone booths, each used by several families for emergencies and urgent business dealings.

The Amish distrust of home telephones and public electricity stems from wariness of physical connections to the outside world. Some Arthur Amish, to keep contact with clients, have sidestepped this ban by using cellular phones. Some businesses keep track of sales by computer, but hire non-Amish to work the keyboards. Both are sore subjects among community members.

One 47-year-old Amish craftsman, who asked not to be named, was born to Arthur dairy farmers, but the large size of his family and the small acreage available led his father to direct him toward woodworking. Today he uses hydraulic tools powered by a diesel engine to grind out cabinets, tables and bedroom furnishings. He and his four sons can build a six-piece bedroom set made to order in about 14 working days, with Sundays set aside for worship.

Once an order is done, he notifies his clients by mail. Even as Illinois' economy catches up with the Amish, some things never change.

"We've got a neighborhood phone, but we don't hardly use it," he says, while his 4-year-old daughter dangles from his arm in her floor-length dress and white bonnet. "I prefer the mails. Thataway I've got it in writing." 

John Carpenter is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Community broadcasting thrives way up on the AM dial

by John Carpenter

Eddie Hagerty, a teetering pile of compact discs in one hand and a rack of cartridges in the other, looks a little worse for wear as he ambles into the tiny rooftop radio studio in Oak Park. He had spent the previous evening toasting the town, mostly Rush Street, with Boston Celtics head coach Rick Pitino and friends.

Irish ears
Illustration by Mike Cramer

"I'm getting too old for this," the 39- year-old investment broker says, then pops two aspirin into his mouth and downs a cup of water, settling in behind the control board at WPNAAM (1490) to begin the weekly Irish music show that has been in his family for almost 50 years.

Moments later, Hagerty's first song, a lively reel that has his toe tapping, is playing. And then he's on the phone. He is taking the first of a stream of calls from listeners, all of whom he treats like family whether he knows them or not.

"Is that right?" he says in a cheerful voice that offers no hint of hangover. "Twenty-eight grandchildren! Why God bless you sweetheart. I'll play something nice for you."

Two hours later it's time for the next shift. The theme song is playing and two women are arranging papers and

Illinois Issues September 1999 35

soft drinks at a large table in the studio, which is beginning to take on the feel of a family room.

Mike O'Connor's wife Margaret places her husband's tape cartridges and other gear next to the console and O'Connor himself, a waddling white- haired leprechaun of an insurance salesman, steps up to the mike with not a minute to spare, kicking off the midday show he's run for 30 years.

Welcome to Chicago's radio slice of Ireland, a five-hour Saturday morning stretch way up on the AM dial where old-fashioned community broadcasting thrives in airwaves otherwise dominated by the jingly, slick-packaged products of corporate conglomerates.

At first blush, it might look like a marriage of Chicago's great political traditions a Polish radio station turning itself over to the Irish every Saturday morning. But it's simple economics. WPNA-AM, like other small stations, helps pay its bills by selling some of its air time. The Saturday morning Irish shows have been at this frequency for almost 10 years but they've moved around the dial in previous decades. Still, the Irish programming has managed to build a loyal following among those pining for the land of their birth and those who simply like Irish music and news.

It starts at 8 a.m. with Bud Sullivan, the congenial former manager of the Midlothian Country Club. He spins mostly sentimental old Irish favorites for an hour before one of the Hagertys comes in for a two-hour shift. The brothers Jack and Ed have carried on their father's radio show since he died in 1980, keeping alive a program that will enter its fifth decade.

"It's kind of a neat way of keeping your parents alive," Ed says between songs.

After the Hagerty brothers come O'Connor and his family. Born and raised in Ireland, O'Connor started his show as a way to promote his insurance business. Now he says it's a weekend labor of love.

All three shows are "brokered," meaning the hosts pay the station owned by the Polish National Alliance and otherwise broadcasting Polish programming all week for the air time. The hosts, in turn, sell advertising to recoup their costs and maybe even earn a little profit, though all three say they just about break even.

The ads come from all manner of businesses: car dealerships, lumberyards, Irish gift shops and, of course, travel agencies offering packages to the Emerald Isle. "Most of my ads I've had with me for 30 years," O'Connor says.

It's difficult to get a handle on the size of the audience because the Arbitron ratings focus on the larger, more commercial outlets. But there are some ways to measure the listenership.

All three shows have an open mike policy and Irish associations of all kinds announce everything from summer picnics to St. Patrick's Day dinners. The hosts are especially generous when someone is raising money for a sick friend or a family having trouble with its bills.

"The Irish are great people for things like that," Hagerty says. "And we're as happy as can be to help out."

"We can raise $80,000, $100,000 just like that," O'Connor says in his thick County Roscommon brogue. "That's a nice feeling."

Contests are also a hint of the audience size. On this particular Saturday morning O'Connor has a handful of tickets to give away for the Irish Heritage Festival. He asks for the 30th caller as soon as the music starts, and seconds after the first note is played the phones light up.

Still another sign of the popularity of the shows are the politicians with Irish surnames who frequently show up. Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes was a guest on the Mike O'Connor show after his election "as a way of thanking the Irish-American community."

Hynes says the response he got after appearing on the show "was really cross generational. A couple of older people came up to me and said they heard me. But there were also some people in their 20s." Not surprising, he says he'll be on the show again.

And then, of course, there is the music everything from sentimental ballads like "The Black Velvet Band" and "The Star of County Down," to lively jigs and reels with names like "Farewell to Connaught" and "The Greenfields of America."

It's hard-core Irish and it's hard to find anywhere else on the dial. 

Jennifer Halperin, a former Statehouse bureau chief for Illinois Issues, is an editorial writer for the Columbus Dispatch.

Part of one Chicago street represents the last remnants of a community

by Jennifer Halperin

It's just a sliver of street in the jungle of thoroughfares that crisscross Chicago, but it could stand as a testament to the ever-churning melting pot this city is, has been and probably always will be.

Just west of Lake Michigan and a mile from Chicago's northern edge, where the city butts against Evanston, is a length of Touhy Avenue stretching from Rockwell Street north to Washtenaw Avenue. Nothing remarkable on the surface: a dry cleaners, a nursing home, an abandoned filling station. But at its northwest corner, hanging beneath the street's rectangular name marker is another sign this one brown designating this little

36 September 1999 Illinois Issues

section of the Rogers Park neighborhood JWV/JWVA Plaza, in commemoration of Jewish War Veterans and the Jewish War Veterans Auxiliary.

The designation was requested a few years ago by Chicago's chapter of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, whose office sits on this block. But its significance goes further than proximity to an organization's offices. For within a mile or so stretch of this block is an unusually crowded cluster of nursing homes, assisted-living centers, synagogues and community organizations that house and serve the Jewish elderly. With such a high concentration of aging Jewish people, this eight-block area may well be one of the most densely populated havens for Jewish war veterans, their spouses, widows and other loved ones.

Exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint, says Ian Lipner, national director of publicity and events for the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish War Veterans. The group, for example, includes only a portion of Jews who were members of the armed forces. What's more, those who are members tend to be people who have remained active; tracking those who have moved into long-term care centers is more difficult, he says. But the large population of Jewish people in Chicago and particularly in West Rogers Park, where more than 40,000 live likely means a correspondingly high number of veterans, Lipner says.

State Rep. Lou Lang has watched the neighborhood change dramatically, even as it has remained home to many Jews. Once it was a mecca for families migrating to the city's upscale north and northwest suburbs; as younger generations moved, older ones opted to stay behind in Rogers Park. "In many ways, it's a neighborhood of grandparents," says the Skokie Democrat. At the same time, the area has seen a huge influx of young Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews; often, these are people who were not necessarily raised in Orthodox families, but who were drawn to the traditions, sense of community and attention to moral discipline that accompany such lifestyles. (See Illinois Issues, November, 1995.)

These demographics mark a fascinating conclusion for a century of ethnic and cultural change along a street named for an Irishman born in 1839. Patrick L. Touhy emigrated to the United States, became a real estate developer and helped found Rogers Park.

At the turn of the 20th century, the area already was culturally diverse:
Descendants of Irish, Scottish, German and English farmers who had been lured to the area's rich farmland in the mid-1800s settled alongside other ethnic groups who had moved to the city's outer boundaries after being displaced by the Chicago Fire.

Jewish war Veterans

Illustration by Mike Cramer

During and after World War II, Rogers Park became a haven for Jewish families from all over the city, the result of a northward migration to the suburbs. The neighborhood's synagogues and the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center, a bastion of Jewish activity on West Touhy Avenue for more than 30 years, have served as strong anchors.

Yet even as the Jewish population remains strong here, the designation of a street name honoring those who served their country is significant, says Lipner, a native of suburban Chicago. Their stories and contributions should be remembered, and shouldn't be taken for granted.

There was a time when anti-Semitism kept Jewish war veterans from being awarded such honors. In fact, during the 1930s and '40s, Jews were excluded from other veterans' organizations. Because of religious bigotry and a tendency of non-Jews to confuse the religion of Judaism with a nationality, their patriotism frequently was doubted, Lipner says.

The Jewish War Veterans, founded in 1896, enabled its members to bond. The group also works to recruit younger veterans from the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars, because most of its members are past the age of 60.

But as the decades have passed, Lipner says, the proportion of Jewish people joining the armed services has shrunk: While Jews made up about 4 percent of the U.S. population during World War II, they made up 6 percent of the military. During the war in Vietnam, they were down to 3 percent of the military. By the Gulf War, they made up just 2 percent of the armed forces.

Younger generations of American Jews are generally more educated, affluent and established in professional careers than their parents and grandparents, making them less likely to enlist in the armed forces. And many of the young Orthodox Jews moving into the West Rogers Park neighborhood live by a tenet of nonviolence that doesn't agree with participation in the military. These factors, says Lipner, along with the absence of the draft for the past generation, have diminished the number of Jews in the military.

So this sliver of street, with all the memories it holds, may well represent the last remnants of a community. 

Illinois Issues September 1999 37

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