Walter Eugene Olson was born February 18 1884. If you are a real Chicagoan, and a bit old, you might well remember the gift he gave to all of us. It was the 22 acre Olson Park and Waterfall which opened September 27, 1935 on the northwest corner of Diversey and Pulaski (back then Crawford Avenue). in Chicago. He wanted to “transplant some of the Wisconsin out of doors spirit to the then somewhat drab factory grounds.”
Next to his massive carpet factory there was this landmark park made of 800 tons of stone, 800 yards of soil, 3,500 perennials, junipers, spruces, and pines. There were paths with birch railings and foot bridges that allowed visitors to walk across the waterfall, a birch bark canoe, a teepee, a statue of a Native American, and more. There was a rock garden, picnic area, bird sanctuary, a duck pond, ravines and caves. In 1942 there were peacocks, golden pheasants, and even Corriedale sheep!
The focal point was the three waterfalls, one reaching 35 feet in height with 22,000 gallons of water.
Walter was inspired by one or more of the 22 falls in Ontonagon county in Upper Michigan. Visually, the most likely one seems to be Ajibikoka Falls on the Ontonagon River. It is located near the town of Watersmeet.in Gogebic County.
Compare with the Olson Fall as Walter built it.
Walter’s Father, Oliver B. Olson was born in Stavanger, Norway and came to Chicago where he learned the carpet trade. After working for several companies including Marshall Field and Company’s predecessor (Field, Leiter & Co.), he started the Olson Rug company in September 1874 by weaving rugs in the basement of 1220 W. Ohio (old street numbering system). Oliver died on May 4, 1895 at age 44 and is buried in Mount Olive Cemetery just four miles from where the Olson Rug Company would later have their massive mill and waterfall.
Fast forward to 1905 when Oliver’s son Walter became the head of the company at the young age of 21. In 1928 he built the modern manufacturing mill on Diversey with 1.5 million feet of floor space and employed about 1,800 people. Looms wove eendless length rolls of carpeting as wide as 18 feet. Bales of wool came from India, China, the middle east and Scotland. During the war era, when raw material was scarce, people would send in their old wool rugs, rags, and even clothing where Olson Rug would turn them into area rugs. Olson became the leading rug company in the area and the largest mill outside of the east coast.
Walter Olson shared his manufacturing success with all of Chicagoans by building Olson Park and Waterfall in the heart of Chicago. The park officially opened on September 27, 1935, what was then American Indian Day in Illinois as well as the 100th anniversary of a treaty resulted in the final expulsion of the Pottawatomies, Chippewas, and Ottawas across the Mississippi. Each of the three waterfalls in the park represented the three tribes, which all had members in attendance.
Throughout the decades, regular events at the park included tribal songs and rituals by Chief Thundercloud of the Ottawas and princesses Medicine Man Child and Walk-In-The Day. There were archery demonstrations, skits, and a Green Corn Festival in 1950 when the Great Spirit provided blessings for a bountiful harvest. The park was immensely popular especially around holidays. In October 1958 there was a wonderful recreation of John T. McCutcheon’s famous Injun Summer cartoon first published in the Chicago Tribune.
There were fantastic Christmas displays featuring lights, Santa’s cottage, candy canes, reindeer, and Santa sledding along the length of a hanging wire. There were seven tall trees decorated with colored lights, a Nativity scene and life-size deer statues . Children knew Santa would be waiting for them at the park where he sat in a chair every night in December, listening to children telling him what they wanted for Christmas. Each received a small gift. The company also provided hot cocoa and sugar cookies. Do any of you readers remember being there for Christmas?
All good things come to an end. In 1962, Walter Olson sold the company and its retail outlets to the Stephen-Leedom Carpet Co.In 1965, Walter sold the massive plant to Marshall Field & Co., which used the property for a service center and warehouse.
Walter Eugene Olson died on May 4 1975 and is entombed with his wife Ida in Rosehill Cemetery. Buildings later became property Macy’s. Thank you Walter, for the waterfall and park!
Some of the northwest Siders might have had family who worked in the factory on the looms. Add a comment below.
And how many of us were excited when our parents would take us to the Olson waterfall? Please comment below if you remember this special place.