Cowboys, Posses and Sheriffs Roamed Oak Lawn’s Streets
More than 50 years ago, the Wild West came to town and left its mark for almost a decade in a bid to bring new residents to Oak Lawn.
A masked bandit halted a stagecoach traveling on the Old Vincennes Trail. With guns drawn, the robber unloaded a crate of gold as helpless passengers watched in disbelief. Satisfied with the haul, the bandit rode away on his horse, swearing vengeance on anyone who tried to call for the town marshal.
This scene out of the lawless frontier was actually the centerpiece of a three-day festival that made Oak Lawn a popular destination for Chicagoans in the 1950s, according to original documents, including historic brochures, photographs and newspaper articles available in the local history room at the Oak Lawn Public Library. Initially planned by the chamber of commerce as a parade to promote accident prevention on Oak Lawn's roads, the annual "Round-Up" became a celebration that helped put the small community on the map.
The tremendous growth Chicago experienced after World War II resulted in thousands of Chicagoans traveling to the suburbs for weekend fun. Many also looked to relocate outside of the city, providing Oak Lawn with a unique opportunity to draw prospective homeowners and boost its stagnant population.
Officials at village hall, always looking for ways to advertise their town, decided to host a festival to attract outside investment and showcase Oak Lawn as the perfect place to raise a family.
The weekend of Oct. 14, 1949, saw more than 25,000 visitors travel to Oak Lawn to take part in the western-themed event sponsored by local businesses. Although the first Round-Up saw little more than shopkeepers peddle their wares for city tourists, the event had proved its worth in the eyes of community leaders. The three-day festival had been a hit, right down to the mock trial of robber "Horsethief Harry," who would be portrayed by various chamber of commerce members for years to come.
In subsequent years, the Round-Up expanded to feature square dancing, pie-eating contests, and traditional western food, courtesy of the Oak Lawn Fire Department. Children donned leather chaps and toy six shooters as marching bands paraded down 95th Street. Business owners got into the spirit by describing special sales in period slang. One pharmacy on Ridgeland Avenue even offered "snake oil for gunshot wounds, noose burns, snake bites and seat calluses."
Visitors assumed the roles of prospectors and dug for valuables in fake gold mines scattered throughout town. Once a plastic capsule was discovered, the "gold" could be redeemed for anything from gift certificates at local stores and restaurants to a weekend trip to Las Vegas. Even if they didn't strike it rich, residents and visitors could always place bets on the true identity of the "Mystery Rider," a masked desperado who wandered the streets, handing out coupons for nearby stores.
As word spread through articles in the Oak Lawn Independent, the historic village newspaper of record, city planners were unable to deal with the throngs of people that backed up traffic for miles around Oak Lawn. By 1952, police from Worth, Palos Hills and Evergreen Park were called on to control crowds and block off streets.
The 1957 Round-Up saw attendance exceed 100,000 people. Even with this impressive showing, village officials realized the event was now beyond their control. Increasingly, residents complained their quaint village was being overrun by "outsiders." Combined with rising expenses that Oak Lawn couldn't pay off, the last Round-Up took place in October 1958.
Although many were sad to see the event cancelled, the annual Round-Up did succeed in bringing residents together like never before. Greater news media attention resulted in a brief population increase, from 9,000 in 1950; to 13,300 three short years later. Many attributed this change to the massive publicity campaign that accompanied each Round-Up.
The shopkeepers and village officials who planned the event had demonstrated a pride in their village that continues to this day. Oak Lawn's identity had been forged amid clattering wagons and the sound of spurs clanging on dusty boots.
For more information on Round-Up Days and the history of Oak Lawn, visit the local history room of the Oak Lawn Public Library, 9427 S. Raymond Ave., Mon-Thu, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.