Road Blog: Stopping by Woods

Thorn Creek Woods, just outside Park Forest in Chicago’s southernmost suburbs.

My siblings and I were lucky to grow up in a place, just at the outer edge of Chicago’s southern suburbs, where nature was close by. For a crucial period of our growing-up years, we lived in a house my parents had built on a one-acre lot in the middle of a forest. During the summers, especially, we almost lived out of doors — camping, exploring and even learning a little about the life of the woods.

Until last weekend, I hadn’t taken a long walk in the woods in decades. Most of my visits to the area have involved checking out our old house and marveling at the fact that a good-sized residence on a wooded acre could be on the market for the low six figures (or even less; the place sold for $99,000 about three years back).

But since my brother John and I are here on our long road trip, we had the rare circumstance of all four sibling being in town together. So we got together and drove down to the woods on Saturday afternoon. The immediate purpose: to do something to remember our mom, who had a significant hand in the campaign to stop the nearly one thousand acres of forest from being knocked down for tract housing in the late 1960s.

Strolling an old haunt.

A lot has changed out there. Instead of walking out into the woods from our backyard, we accessed them by way of a trail that starts at a nature center just outside Park Forest. (The center building is an 1860-vintage Lutheran church that was moved about four miles in the mid-1960s to serve a new congregation, then later repurposed for the forest preserve.)

The woods themselves look different. Some areas are densely overgrown, others have little vegetation (but plenty of poison ivy) under the forest canopy. So ravines and gullies that used to be pretty much obscured by undergrowth are much more obvious.

A stand of fir trees that was apparently planted in the 1940s or ’50s has bolted. When we were kids, our neighbors and others used to go out and cut some of the firs for Christmas trees; now many of those trees appear to be seventy or eighty feet tall.

The Will County Forest Preserve District has installed wooden walkways through areas that are typically wet and put up a series of bridges over Thorn Creek. There are signs now marking trails through the trees. And a nice viewing platform on the edge of a seasonal wetland.

None of the improvements felt intrusive, and plenty of what we remember is intact. For instance, much of the gravel road that used to wind its way from just below our house to a Remington Arms plant on the other side of the woods is still there.

Probably the best measure of how satisfying it was to be back in the woods is that we continued walking and talking and exploring until it was nearly dark. Just as we did when we were kids.

The sibs (Ann, John and Chris) and me.

Our Past for Sale, Again


My sister Ann sent me (and my brothers and dad) an email today that she had gotten from a friend she grew up with. The message said, "Is this your former home?" and included a link. The link (which includes the picture above) goes to a real-estate listing for a "contemporary, raised ranch" home near the town of Crete (about 30 miles or so south of Chicago); it’s got four bedrooms, two baths, a hot tub, two-car garage with an upstairs studio, a wraparound porch, and an acre lot in the woods. Ann’s friend is right — it’s the house my mom and dad had built in 1965-66 (we moved in June 10, 1966) after we had lived in Park Forest, just a mile away, from 1956 on. The hot tub, wraparound porch, and garage have all been installed since our time.

The first thing I looked for in the listing was the asking price: $300,000. Not much by San Francisco Bay Area standards or compared to what similar places are going for in the New York area or Chicago’s northern and western suburbs, but a lot by the standards of the ’60s. Mom and Dad had the house built for something like $35,000; I remember hearing them talk about the lot, which now has undeveloped public land on two sides and is relatively secluded on the other two, and I think they bought it for $10,000 from a family we knew, the Fitzgeralds, who lived a couple blocks from us in Park Forest. The sale listing reduces the house to a series of dimensions. Strange to see, knowing what went on in some of those rooms (which have been inhabited by others for a long time and have a completely new set of experiences and memories imprinted on them). I noticed the listing has the building date wrong, putting it at 1970.

Just out of curiosity, I searched for the property address on Google and got a single hit (with the picture below). It was an online listing for the house last August. The asking price then, six months ago, was $219,900. The jump in price made me curious: Is a new owner trying to flip the property for a big profit? Or, unlikely as it seems, had the old owners put it back on the market for a higher price? An agent’s phone number was included in the old listing, a guy apparently working out of Park Forest. I called. It turned he’s the husband of the house’s last owner, the one who put it on the market last year. He said it sold for a little under their asking price.

When I told him the house was listed again and the current price, he said, "No way that house sells for $300,000." So it looks like the quick-profit scenario is what’s actually going on. I think this is the third or fourth time the house has been up for sale since my parents sold in early 1986 (for a fraction of last year’s sale price) to move back into the city.

I have to say the old owners had the right idea, picturing the house during the summer, when everything in the woods is intensely green. The current listing’s snowy landscape doesn’t look nearly so inviting.