Tents and firewood at Dam No. 2 on the Des Plaines River in the 1920s.
by Natalie Bump Vena
In the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s first decades, the preserves became a place where people supplemented their incomes and lived off the land. In the wintertime, they cut ice from ponds and purchased cheap firewood chopped from fallen trees. In the summertime, people harvested vegetables from gardens and even resided in the forest preserves. Officials increasingly realized that this intensive use damaged the natural resources they were mandated to protect. So by the late 1930s, they began curtailing long-term and extractive activities on forest preserve land.
Families facing hardship appear to have sought temporary shelter in the forest preserves—sometimes by invitation. In 1922, The Chicago Defender reported that thousands of Chicagoans “saved rent” over the summer by living in “tent colonies” located in the forest preserves.[i] In 1921, the District described these dwellings in romantic terms, writing, “there is a growing tendency on the part of many families to pitch week-end camps, while others remain during longer periods, some passing the entire summer under the shade of the great woods.”[ii] In 1920, District commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution to provide housing in the preserves for people affected by “a devastating tornado” that had swept through western and northwestern Cook County.[iii]