Pulling wool hoods over their heads to protect themselves from the bitter New England air, the Pratt Family slowly made their way off of the docked English ship. They had come from the Mother Country to start a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. Settling in the small town of Weymouth in 1622, the stalwart family braved starvation, disease and hostile Indian tribes as they struggled to survive.
Several generations later, members of the Pratt family fought with distinction as a new country calling itself the United States of America squared off against the might of the British Empire. Amid the smoke and anguish of clashing armies, Emphraim Pratt demonstrated his cool and collected demeanor has he commanded militia units fighting alongside the courageous Continental Army.
In 1915, an engine on the bustling Wabash Railroad ground to a halt as conductors and baggage handlers managed the throngs of passengers streaming onto the cramped station platform. As plumes of white smoke rose into the Midwestern air, a young woman, overburdened with two small children hanging from her arms, cautiously scanned the crowd for the familiar face of her father.
While these experiences are seemingly unrelated, there is a strong connection that binds these disparate experiences together. While differentiated by hundreds of years, to the late Ethel Piper Tucker of Oak Lawn, such tales were common bedtime stories for children and grandchildren. As one of the first families to settle in the quiet farming town just outside of Chicago, the Tuckers and their relatives could trace their roots back to before the founding of this country.
Ethel sat down with members of the Oak Lawn Public Library in March 1975 (mere years before her death) to reminisce about not only life in early Oak Lawn, but also the unique set of circumstances that eventually led her back to the heart of Southland.
Born in 1890, Ethel Piper’s parents had settled in upstate New York in the mid 19th century. Father Alvin worked tirelessly as a farmer, raising wheat for eventual sale in Rochester. Although initially successful, a massive wave of Irish immigration into New York City soon flooded into the countryside. With rock-bottom land prices, numerous farms sprouted up around the Piper property. Unable to compete with his neighbors, increasing taxes forced Alvin to look elsewhere to make a living.
By the time Ethel was a child; her family had relocated several times, in hopes of finding a stable and relatively quiet community to raise their children. After a disastrous stint in Wisconsin, which saw a fire destroy much of their property, it seemed that the Pipers had run out of options.
A letter soon arrived from distant relatives that had acquired a thriving farm on the outskirts of Worth, Illinois. A generation earlier, Ethel’s grandparents had purchased several plots just south of a town called Oak Lawn. The land, now the location of Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, was one of the most profitable farms in the county. Immediately accepting the offer, the Pipers uprooted their bleak life in Wisconsin and boarded the first train for Chicago, eager to see what the future might hold.
Arriving in early 1913, Ethel’s parents tended to the family farm, and within a few short years, purchased another large tract of land. Later in life, Alvin would lease his property along Ridgeland and Central Avenues to a pair of businessmen that established a successful race track in Worth.
When asked by library staff what she remembered most fondly about life in Oak Lawn, Ethel’s response was characteristic of a small-town farm girl in the early 20th Century.
Summer days were lazily spent wandering the country trails that crossed Worth Township. “With a town population of only 300, it was hard to go a single day without seeing a familiar face,” Ethel explained during her 1975 interview. “I knew the Schultz, Hopkins and Brandt families all long before I got married and raised a family."
After marrying James Tucker in 1915, Ethel sold the family farm and moved with her husband to Oak Lawn, which was a mere mile down the road. She dedicated herself to her family, raising two sons that both grew up to be Methodist preachers. Each took a missionary post in downstate Georgia in the late 1930’s, and eagerly looked forward to their parents’ monthly visits.
But soon enough, Uncle Sam’s call came. Ethel’s sons both enlisted in the Navy and were shipped off to San Diego for training. So close was the Tucker family bond that James and Ethel followed their boys to the West Coast, ultimately settling in Pasadena. While the family was eager to get back to their prized farm (which was left in the care of neighbors), they remained in California for ten years. Upon completing his tour of duty, son James took over an abandoned church and started his own congregation.
With their two sons busy spreading the word of the Lord, John and Ethel traveled back to Oak Lawn. Although it was most certainly a far cry from the busy life they led in Pasadena, the Tuckers were happy to return to their leisurely life in Illinois. Reclaiming their quiet corner of Oak Lawn, the humble lived the rest of their lives warmly recalling simpler times.
For more information on Ethel Piper Tucker and other early residents of Oak Lawn, please visit the Local History Room of the Oak Lawn Public Library.