Rod Sellers
Southeast Historical Society
Southeast Side Home Page
Newsletter Index

 SEHS  Events / Calendar
 Chicago's Southeast Side Revisited
Membership Form

Take a tour of Chicago's Southeast Side
Southeast Historical Society 
by Kevin Murphy


Founded as a result of the bicentennial Town Meeting of 1976, the East Side Historical Society became reality in large part because of the efforts of East Sider James P. Fitzgibbons.  On March 20, 1977, Fitzgibbons called a meeting that included Gertrude Robb, Ora Coon and Lois Stevenson.  Soon joined by Mildred Barnay, Alex Beifus, Kathy Dawson, Harry Mallek, Tom Mollo, Amelia Nelson, Esther Ringman Rydell, Louise Stiers, Linda Vertrees, Lucille Waszkiewicz, Maria Zvonkovich and others, the organization slowly gained recognition within the East Side, Hegewisch, South Chicago and South Deering communities that comprise the service area of the society.
The first recorded activity of the society was an Art Fair and sale held during "Old Fashioned Days," July 11 and 12, 1977

Southeast Historical Project

In 1980, Columbia College and James Martin received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to assemble a history of the Southeast Side.  On April 3, 1981, a luncheon meeting was held to introduce the project to the community.  Later, classes were held to acquaint residents with the processes involved in collecting and recording history.
Meetings of the East Side Historical Society were suspended while James Fitzgibbons became deeply involved in the Columbia College work, making presentations to civic groups to nurture their interest in local history and to encourage their active participation in the project.  One of the major outcomes of the project was the videotape, "Wrapped in Steel."
Sadly, Fitzgibbons died June 5, 1983, before the work was completed.  He never saw the documentation of his beloved Southeast Chicago.  Nonetheless, his dream had taken root, and the East Side Historical Society was incorporated May 1, 1984.

Historical Museum Established

Arrangements initiated by Fitzgibbons with the Chicago Park District were completed by member John Hroma, who was Supervisor of Calumet Park at that time.  The James P. Fitzgibbons Memorial Museum opened in the Calumet Park Fieldhouse on Labor Day of 1985, with artifacts donated by residents of the East Side, Hegewisch, South Chicago and South Deering.

Grave Site Restoration Completed

While management of the museum consumed much of the resources of the society, there were other projects in which members showed dedication and persistence.  Chief among these were two major preservation/ restoration projects, the Andreas Von Zirngibl gravesite near 92nd Street and the Calumet River, and the moving and restoration of the Illinois-Indiana State Boundary Line Marker.
One of the early settlers in the Southeast Chicago region, Andreas von Zirngibl died in 1855 and was buried at the site, which later became prime industrial property that threatened the very existence of the grave.  After decades of arduous legal wrangling, the site was secured, with the stipulation that there would be access to the grave, which was to be maintained by whoever controlled the surrounding property. 
Not all the companies who owned the site adhered to the court order.  Thus, by the early 1980's, the grave had fallen into terribly bad condition.
Members of the East Side Historical Society secured materials from area industries and began the difficult task of restoring the gravesite, largely by the sweat of their own brows.  Chief among those society members who labored steadily through some of the hottest summer weather of recent memory were the Sell brothers, Richard and Robert, Frank Stanley, James Vodak and Henry Zirngibl, who also paid for the concrete.
On Sunday, July 26, 1987, the restored gravesite was rededicated in a public ceremony that was covered by Chicago television station, WGN-TV. 
There are some interesting historical footnotes to that event.  First, the dedication ceremony brought together several of the descendants of von Zirngibl, now living in several states.  Many of them had neither known of one another, nor ever met, until that day.  In some cases, they had not known of one another until the East Side Historical Society began its restoration effort.

Oldest Monument Restored

The second project, the relocating of the Illinois-Indiana State Boundary Line Marker, centered on an obelisk believed to be the oldest monument in the region.  The best available information puts the erection of the marker at about 1830, when the state boundary line was re-surveyed by order of Congress. 
The fifteen and one half foot high marker stood at the northern end of the line that was the surveyed boundary between Illinois and Indiana.  At the time of its creation, it stood near the shoreline of Lake Michigan. 
Time, the winds and human development gradually altered the environment so that the monument stood several hundred yards from the lakeshore, surrounded by the mainline tracks of major nineteenth and early twentieth century railroads, including the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad. 
Isolated as it was from easy human contact, the marker became, at best, a fading memory for most people.  Wind drove sand particles against it so that, eventually, it was sandblasted clean of all its original engraving.  Later, local vandals covered it with trashy graffiti and gouged parts of the surface away.
When it was discovered by members of the East Side Historical Society, the marker was canted at an alarming angle to the vertical, and the base had been buried in several feet of sand and dirt.  Little was accomplished in the way of preservation, though, until Allen J. Benson, a member of the East Side Chamber of Commerce, and an employee of Commonwealth Edison Company, influenced his company to sponsor the rehabilitation of the marker, under the joint auspices of the Illinois and Indiana State Historic Preservation Agencies, with the active participation of the East Side, Hammond, and Whiting-Robertsdale historical societies, and their respective chambers of commerce.
After months of planning, contracting, re-surveying the line from the old location of the marker to its new position in front of the Commonwealth Edison State Line Generating Plant (Avenue G at what would be 106th Street if the street ran through to the lake), the marker was disassembled, refurbished, provided with a new, seven foot thick concrete base, and adorned with new brass plates, which mark the four sides of the obelisk with the words that had originally been chiseled into the stone.  The property on which the marker was rededicated was donated as an interstate park, which was dedicated to the memory of Allen J. Benson, whose vision had insured the completion of the project despite his untimely death before that happened.

Southeast Historical Project Comes Home

In 1989, James Martin left Columbia College.  He donated extensive photographic and text files to the East Side Historical Society.  Faced suddenly with an abundance of riches, the society struggled, with only limited success, to organize all the new data that Martin had provided.  Fortunately, the society had many excellent human resources in its membership, including some resourceful educators.

School Joins Forces with Museum

Member Rod Sellers, a history teacher at the East Side's Washington High School, joined with fellow instructor Kenneth O'Neill in developing a unique "Museology" course for area high school students (primarily, but not restricted to, Washington) and, gaining financial support from the Chicago Board of Education, they initiated the program during the summer of 1990.

Museology Course Takes Root

As the program grew, a third instructor, social studies teacher Joann M. Podkul, of South Chicago's James H. Bowen High School, joined the team of teachers.  A lifetime resident of the East Side she is also a Life Member of the East Side Historical Society.
The three instructors were supported on class day by society member Ora Coon, who also operated the museum during its public hours, in collaboration with Historical Society President, Alex Savastano, Past President, Frank Stanley, and other Society members.
Later, a fourth instructor, Pam Pugh, joined the program.  An elementary teacher from the East Side’s Gallistel Language Academy, she is also a lifetime resident of the East Side, and a member of the Southeast Historical Society.
Among the projects undertaken by the Museology Class during its one afternoon per week meeting (three hours, from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M.) were the documenting, organizing and presenting of the material donated by James Martin/Columbia College, as well as the interviewing and videotaping of area residents and their recollections of area history as they lived it.

Society Changes Its Name

In March of 1995, the members of the East Side Historical Society voted to change the name of the society to Southeast Historical Society, so that the organization’s name would more properly represent the communities and membership that comprise the group.

Tomorrow's "History" is Captured Today

The Southeast Historical Society continues its search for documents and artifacts of the past, while making a concerted effort to record the present in a fashion that will be organized and retrievable for historians in the future.  In an era when the present is almost as plastic as it was when the region was first developed, such record keeping becomes especially important.

Museum Hours

The Southeast Historical Society has two working locations.  The James P. Fitzgibbons Historical Museum is located in the Calumet Park Fieldhouse, at 98th Street and Avenue G.  The operating hours of the museum are from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M. each Thursday of the year, except Christmas and New Year's days.  The Museum is also open on the first Sunday of each month from 12:00 to 3:00 PM.

Business Address 

The society's business address is 9801 S. Avenue G, Chicago, Illinois, 60617, in the Calumet PArk Field House  The business office telephone is 773-721-7948 in the office of the East Side Chamber of Commerce. 

This brochure -- and its February 2001, revision -- were prepared by society member Kevin P. Murphy.

Teachers' Center
National Endowment for the Humanities
Illinois University