Kenneth Schoon, professor emeritus at Indiana University Northwest, has immersed himself in the history of the Greater Chicago/Northwest Indiana area for decades, writing books starting from the area’s earliest beginnings such as “Calumet Beginnings: Ancient Shorelines and Settlements at the South End of Lake Michigan” and “Swedish Settlements on the South Shore of Lake Michigan.”
In his latest book, “Pullman: The Man, the Company, the Historical Park” (History Press 2021; $21.99), he showcases what once was among the ultimate company town and is now a Chicago neighborhood. George Pullman, whose last name became synonymous with plush railroad sleeper cars, believed that happy workers were productive workers and so developed his town along the western shore of Lake Calumet in the late 1800s.
I thought I knew company towns having grown up in East Chicago, Indiana my friends whose parents worked at Inland Steel lived in Sunnyside in Indiana Harbor. On the East Chicago side there was Marktown built in 1917 by Clayton Mark, for those employed at the company he owned, Mark Manufacturing.
But they’re different Schoon tells me. Both Marktown and Sunnyside were residential neighborhoods. But Pullman was an actual town with its own schools, library, churches, Masonic Hall, businesses, and even a band. Garbage and maintenance was paid for by the company.
In 2015, then President Barack Obama proclaimed Chicago’s Pullman District as a National Monument, encompassing many of its surviving buildings such as the former Pullman Palace Car Works, the Greenstone Church, formerly the Greenstone United Methodist Church, the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, workers’ homes, the Pullman Administration Clock Tower Building, Arcade Park, and the Florence Hotel, named after Pullman’s oldest daughter.
Though I vaguely knew about the town of Pullman, it had never been on my radar as a place to visit even though it was less than eleven miles from where I lived.
“The same with me,” says Schoon who remembered going to the Florence Hotel, one of the fanciest structures in town, to eat when young never to return until hired by the Historic Pullman Foundation to write about the history of the town for their brochure.
Today we talk about experiences, but that’s what Pullman was all about back then. His sleeper cars were luxurious, but the brand also meant great service. After the Civil War, he hired recently emancipated African American men, to work as porters becoming the largest employer of Blacks in the U.S. Their jobs were to attend to passengers needs by serving food and drink, shining shoes, tidying up the train, making sure the temperature was just right and that lighting fixtures worked. Black women were hired as maids to take care of women guests on the most expensive cars—babysitting children, helping with their baths, giving manicures, and fixing their hair.
Pullman was no dinky little town. The Arcade Theatre could accommodate 1000 people and Schoon says it was, for a time, the finest theater west of the Hudson River.
With the advent of automobiles and highways, the need for sleeper cars lessened. But luckily many of Pullman’s historic buildings remain including the Florence Hotel which is currently closed for renovations but expected to open within a few years.
“The old stable is now a store,” says Schoon. “The old fire station is still there and of the 600 residential buildings all but three are still standing.”
In an interesting tidbit, Schoon notes that Pullman was originally dry because George Pullman was a Prohibitionist. Luckily for those who wanted to imbibe, Kensington, the town next door had 23 taverns at the time.
Kenneth Schoon will be signing copies of his book during the Labor Day Weekend at the Grand Opening of Pullman National Monument Visitor Center and Pullman State Historic Site Factory. For more information about times and other events, visit www.pullmanil.org