Gruener’s Grove and Picnic Garden– the Coolest Place in Town
by Gayle Faulkner Kosalko
The following history has been provided by Ed Gruener and his cousin Shirley Gruener Rich. They are the son and daughter of the Gruener brothers William and Edward whose parents created Gruener’s Grove, an entertainment area at the turn of the century, which was located where a Family Dollar Store is on Sheffield Avenue and is right in front of the new Senior Center.
Jacob Gruener was born in 1864 in the Stuttgart region of Germany. His grandson Edward says that while in Germany, grandfather Jacob had been a vineyards man. Jacob’s wife, Friedericke Ruff, who was also from Germany, was born in 1863. The two met in America, Chicago to be exact, and married in 1885. Together they first opened a tavern at 5201 S. Ashland Avenue in Chicago.
And while they were quick to learn English, they never lost their German roots. “I remember my grandmother and my father used to talk a little bit in German,” said granddaughter Shirley. “My grandmother, who was indeed a very strong woman, also sang in a German singer bund.”
Jacob and Friedericke had four children, Charlie, William, Edward and Freida. It would be William and Edward who would stay with the family owned business.
Eventually the couple moved to the north side of Hammond and soon purchased some property near the junction of Sheffield and Hohman Avenue. The address was 3704 Sheffield and this property would soon become known as Gruener’s Tavern. The building had originally been built as a hunting lodge situated on the north east corner of a tract of land that we knew as Douglas Park.
Gruener’s Tavern was located on the south end of Wolf Lake. “They catered to men who operated an ice plant right there,” explained Ed. “They rented boats to fishermen and served drinks to local patrons in what was to become a well-known area establishment.” The Swift & Company Ice House was just north of the tavern. In 1853, Gruener’s one acre site was part of a 90 acres track that had changed hands for the price of one horse and $200 in cash.
“We walked out our back gate and out to the Lagoon,” Shirley remembered. “The bottom of the lagoon was very muddy. But in the winter we would ice skate on there.” She even remembers the lifeguard out at the Lagoon, a Mr. Stanley Tweedle. And in the winter, she said that a Mr. Chester Zavinski used to have a warming shack where he would sharpen people’s skates. This lagoon was the area where the “guys” who started the Mohawks skated as well.
Gruener’s Tavern sat at the front of the lot. Because it was originally built as a hunting lodge of sorts, there were many bedrooms on the upper floors. “Hunters would come and stay for the weekend,” Shirley said. “That’s why when we all lived there we all had enough bedrooms, too.” William himself was a big hunter, and his son remembers how the hunters would come back to the tavern laying all those pheasants on their dining room floor.
Her grandson said, “My Grandmother did no outside work. Our two uncles would run the show with Bill holding forth inside in the bar with Jacob and Edward handling all the outside work. The business thrived. “They were always busy stocking the stands, making repairs and, of course, the odious task of clean-up after each Saturday and Sunday affairs,” their grandson said.
“Sunday mornings were quite hectic - getting ready for another outing.” Ed said. “Dad had one helper and me, as I got older.” The area was ideal for picnics. Surrounded by lofty trees, the building itself had the Douglas Park lagoon right out its back door. “In the summer there were women out in the park who would give lessons on crocheting and doing crafts,” Shirley said.
After Jacob passed away in 1913, two of his sons William and Edward, joined their mother in running the tavern and picnic grove. The bar itself was known for its beautiful solid mahogany and brass cash register. The tavern was open 7 days a week and Friedericke did all the cooking. Workers would come in at noontime and have a big ham sandwich and a beer.
The bar also had a dining room where families could dine with a separate door at the side entrance for the ladies. The part in front was the tavern and was just for the men. It was a good thing that the tavern had many rooms for both William and Edward, since their wives and their children lived there. William and his wife Lorraine had three daughters, Dorothy, Lorraine and Shirley. Edward’s children were Eleanor and Edward Jr. The matriarch of the entire family, though, would always be Grandmother Friedericke.
Just an acre in size, Gruener’s Grove was not the only picnic grove in that area. There was another picnic grove on the north side of Hammond but Gruener’s flourished. At the turn of the century, most of the residents of the north side were a mixture of Polish and German backgrounds. Sunday picnicking was a popular activity for all the hardworking immigrants of the area. It was a time for families to come together in the beautiful outdoors, to dance, to drink, and to listen to music from the old country.
The hand painted fence advertising “Gruener’s Picnic Grove and Beer Garden” greeted Sunday visitors whether they came in on the Green Line street car or in their own horse and buggy. “I do remember back in the 1940s that the streetcar would go right past the Grove every day,” granddaughter Shirley said.
Shirley said that north Hammond at that time was truly “out in the boonies” and a particularly quiet place to live. The lake used to come right up to that area. Eventually a trailer court was built across the street, but that would be years after the Gruener’s family’s early years.
Shirley remembers what a wonderful place the grove was to live. “There were those great big tall trees and the lagoon,” she said. “Most of the time we had it all to ourselves. We had everything we could want to entertain us. We had it made there but of course we didn’t realize it at the time.”
Since Eleanor and Edward Jr. were the youngest of the crew, they lived there the longest and were busy getting the grove cleaned up from one Saturday picnic to the next one on Sunday. During their high school days, the oldest children went to Hammond High because Clark had not been built yet. The youngest kids would attend the brand new George Rogers Clark High School.
Gruener's Grove was busy most summer Saturdays and Sundays. “It was filled with revelers drinking, dancing and just having a good time,” remembered Ed. It was also rented out to groups like the Greek Orthodox Church of Whiting, and the Inland Steel 25 Year Club, and other fraternal clubs and organizations for company picnics.
There were stands built out in the grove where food and drink could be dispersed. Many of the picnics were catered by Gruener’s Tavern, too. A local brewery brought in a truckload of cold beer in barrels and Ed remembers learning how to tap a keg for those weekends. Ed said that the Inland Club would furnish free beer and food for their employees and that the company even installed a single lane bowling alley one year for the enjoyment of their workers. “And to make sure their patrons were safe as well as happy from a long day of picnicking, they provided free bus service to and from the Harbor,” Ed said.
As the grove’s popularity grew, the Gruener’s even built a dance hall there. Brothers William and Ed both played musical instruments. William played the concertina and Ed himself had a band of his own but most of the bands that performed in the Grove were locals.
During war time, being so obviously German could sometimes be detrimental. Edward remembers his grandmother going back to Germany for a visit sometime in the early 1930s. “She brought back a lot of stories about that new upstart ‘Hitler’ but I don't think she got brainwashed very much,” Edward said. His father Ed belonged to the Society of Germans which was a Parade Group. They were proud of their heritage.
He also explained that the Chicago area Bund group that met at Gruener’s consisted of people who had migrated to Chicago from Germany. “They were not necessarily a sympathy group,” he said. “I think they just came to listen to the music from home, meet and reminisce. This Bund wasn’t about politics.”
But it was evident that there was anti-German sentiment around during the war years. “The only carryover I noticed at Clark High School was when some slurs and a few remarks were made to me at times, usually from children of Slovak background, who had no love for the Germans. In fact, I had a nickname "Heinrich,” Ed said. “This was a reference to "Heinrich the hangman."
As all good things must, Gruener’s Grove and tavern closed. The tavern sat empty for many years. By 1960, both William and Edward were in poor health and their brother Charlie was busy with a small restaurant he owned in Hessville. So they came to the conclusion that they couldn’t carry on the exhausting work schedule they had followed for so many years. It was time to sell the place, the place where they had all lived for years and worked together in a truly family run Gruener’s Grove. Having begun in 1909, they had been there for 50 years.
The grove was sold to Angelo Bertagnolli who was to tear down the old tavern and build a modern grocery store, Angelo’s. And while such a modern grocery store was certainly an important asset to the area, it was sad to see one of the area’s most beloved pleasure places for dancing, drinking, and good German food become just a memory.