By Larry Atseff
There has been a considerable flurry of activity at the Oak Brook Heritage Center over the past few months which just culminated in a well-attended open house this past May 15. Nearly 100 showed up at Spring Road and 31st Street to find out what has been going on. Board President Lisa Griffith and the new Board, and volunteers have been quite busy, and it shows. As Lisa puts it, “We all care deeply about Oak Brook, and knowing village history enriches everyone’s lives.”
History Of The Building Itself
Let’s start first with the history of the building, where the Center is now located because the building itself is where a lot of early history took place. As Griffith says, “The building inspires us and strengthens our roots.” Ten acres of land was donated by Frank O. Butler who then funded construction in circa 1921 for a new, 2-story schoolhouse. (Frank, of course, was the father of Paul Butler, who; in turn, is generally regarded as the father of what has become Oak Brook). The new schoolhouse replaced two one-room schoolhouses: Rabbit Hill School, and Torode School. Frank Butler was quoted as saying “Ownership would revert to him if the school did not meet state standards as a superior school.” Naturally, it was called Butler School. It should be noted that the school is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building’s architecture is known as Revival Georgian Style and the original floor plan for two schoolrooms has been retained. (Note, however, that over the years, the building has been used in different scenarios, as you will read further.) One room was for grades 1-4 and the other was for grades 5-8. Combined class sizes averaged 52 students for decades up until 1961. Subjects included English, history, geography, math, science, art and gym. Music was taught by a traveling music teacher who would visit the school once a week. A piano was in the basement room which also was used as a meeting room, auditorium, and gym.
Adults and children formed a Community Club It didn’t take long for Butler School to become a “hub of activity”, well beyond school. Social activities in the ‘20s and ‘30s included square dancing, potluck suppers, music recitals, card games, dice games and even pig roasts. Softball, soccer and ice skating, of course, were outside. During World War 2, from 1941 to 1945, a civil defense organization was created to cover areas served by the school. Eventually, the group took the name of Oak Brook Civic Association. It was the first time the words Oak Brook were used to define a specific geographic area. As the population grew in the ‘50s, student enrollment also grew and it was necessary to look for a new school. The village was incorporated in 1958, and the building began serving as a Village Hall, Police Station and Library. In 1960-61 a new, larger Butler School was proposed and then built. Eventually a new Village Hall was built in 1975 next door, and the schoolhouse largely became a library, until a new library was built in 2000- 2001. In the last 20 years, it has become a place where historical records have been kept, and organized, and donated items of the past from members of the community have been collected. As Kathy Maher, Griffith’s predecessor says, “The Old Butler School building has served as an educational facility for 40 years, a Village Hall for 15 years and a Library for 26 years. She has faithfully chronicled the history online at www.oakbrookhistory.com
See Actual Oak Brook History
And, now, thanks to the recent considerable efforts of the new board, you can physically see how the building has been restored, and how artifacts have been unpacked and curated to date, as pictures of the Open House accompanying the article indicate. There is much more that will be done. Village President Gopal Lalmalani attended the Open House and was very complimentary to the group for all the work that has been done to show the history of the building as well as the history of Oak Brook. As Lisa says, “Now that we have items out on display to show, we want to invite everyone to come to see the history of Oak Brook come to life.” One of the important goals of the Society is to encourage tours of the Heritage Center among students and other groups in the community. As Griffith puts it, “It will be worth your while to visit, it will also be worth your while to become a volunteer, and it will be worth your donations in money and historical memorabilia to keep the momentum going.”
*Photos provided by the Village of Oak Brook