Where it all began2


The Park District began by several Bridgeview residents. They wanted their community’s adults and children to have open space and facilities in their village for recreation.These residents pooled their own money, hired an attorney, circulated petitions, and held a referendum which was passed by the voters in the village. Hickory Hills Park District supporters lodged a legal challenge, and the courts threw out the formation of the Bridgeview Park District. It seemed both districts claimed the same territory. The originators were undaunted and with the cooperation of many volunteers, a second effort was made to get our Park District established. This second attempt was successful in 1965.

The newly elected Park Board of Commissioners, Kenneth MacIntosh, James Simon, Joseph Allen, Donald Mullen and John Nieman now had their work cut out for them. The board along with the aid of their attorney engaged the services of a professional community development company. They specialized in studies of land needs for the recreational purposes of communities. The company compiled information for the current and projected size of the population of Bridgeview. They also compiled information on open lands within the village. They presented the Park Board with their findings and a master plan for park development. It was suggested in this Master Plan that seven neighborhood parks and one large, main park be purchased. With this plan, no child would have to cross either railroad tracks or major thoroughfare to be able to play in a park. Land was acquired slowly through purchases from private owners and paid for from money received from land sales. The physical basis for our Park District began to take form.

Listed near the bottom of the priority list for land acquisition was what was then known as the Belke property, east of Oketo Avenue just north of 79th Street. At that time this property was poorly drained marsh land. Four steel radio towers used to guide airplanes into Midway Airport as they landed were located on this property. At that time, Midway was the busiest airport in the world with a plane either taking off or landing every forty seconds! The property also had giant ant hills measuring ten feet across and two feet high.

The Board consulted with residents and decided that the property should be bought for park use instead of commercial development. They negotiated the purchase of the property upon which WIERZBA MEMORIAL PARK is now located.

The park was named in 1968 after Edward Wierzba, the first local fatality in Vietnam. It turned out to be the most extensively used recreational open land in Bridgeview. 

The Park District made arrangements with the school district to lease space and hold activities in the local schools until funding became available. The first year a summer program was held for children which included arts and crafts, athletic contests, swimming at the now defunct Guidish Pool, and field trips. The programs available for adults were dance classes, a very successful garden club, and a little theatre group.

When the 23 acres of land on which COMMISSIONERS PARK at 81st and Oketo was first acquired, the house on the property was supposed to be demolished. The Park Board was persuaded to save it since the District had no other building of its own. Over a period of a year, the building was completely remodeled primarily using volunteer labor. It became the park headquarters with business offices, a board room, rest rooms, kitchen, and a large meeting room.

The acquisition of land was slow and took a long time to complete. It happened parcel by parcel over a ten year period. As the land was purchased, the Park Commissioners and other residents volunteered many hours of their time to grade and seed the land as well as install park equipment. These “Founding” volunteers and the many volunteers that have followed through the years have become the core of our Park District.

In 1973, some of the parks were still marsh land. A full-time park director, Michael Budde, had been hired. Baseball diamonds, cyclone fences, backstops or batting cages had been installed at Wierzba and Founders Parks. A few pieces of used playground equipment had also been installed at Wierzba Park, but not much else had been done. The task facing the Park Board at this time was to provide park drainage and landscape, so the parks could be used. An engineering firm was employed to help solve these problems.

At this time, the Park District also developed a Senior Citizen Club which held its meetings in the village’s library. This club developed into the Bridgeview Senior Citizens which expanded into an additional senior’s club called the Bridgeview Golden Agers. The Park District helped these groups get started and continued to support the large senior population of our town. 

It was decided that drainage fields of underground tiles should be installed in Wierzba and Founders Parks. Contracts were bid out and drainage fields installed. These were tied into the just completed village storm sewers. The parks were also graded and seeded, so they could then be used for their intended purpose.

Commissioners Park had several problems as well. It was the largest of the parks and was criss-crossed with dedicated but undeveloped village streets. It couldn’t be worked on as a single unit until those streets were given to the Park District by the village. The Park Board petitioned the village and received the streets. Work could now begin to improve the land.

As the Park District began to mature, its needs and priorities changed. Gone were the days when land purchases of 10 to 20 acres could be accomplished. Bridgeview had grown and much of the land was already built upon. The need changed from growth to development. In 1979, the steps to develop began.

Although there were limited funds to work with, the Board set its sights on Wierzba Park as the first park to receive some development. Until this time, a park in Bridgeview was a flat piece of land with a baseball diamond and a few pieces of play equipment. For the first time trees were planted, pathways were put in, landscaping was undertaken, and water fountains were installed. It was quite an attention grabber to see a few trees being planted along Oketo Avenue in Wierzba Park.

An opportunity presented itself to the Park District by Midland Savings and Loan during the summer of 1979. The bank looked to the Park District for additional land for their increased parking needs. The Park Commissioners seized upon this unique opportunity. The Board proposed that the Yankee Doodle Dandy Restaurant, which was next to and owned by Midland, be moved onto the park land now known as Muehe Park. Midland would pay for the project and in return received a lease for the property they needed. Midland agreed to this. They moved the building, poured a new foundation, set it in place and paved a new parking lot for use by Park District residents. The building was renovated for recreational purposes and is now home to many Park District programs.

Although park development was the idea of the day in 1979, that didn’t mean recreational programs stopped. New programs were introduced such as annual snowball softball tournaments, belly dancing, and computer classes.

Between the years of 1980 to 1983 the appearance of the Park District changed forever. In the fall of 1979, the Park applied for a matching grant from the Illinois Department of Conservation for the specific purpose of park development. In the spring of 1980, the district received word that Bridgeview was one of the few park districts whose grant had been approved in an amount exceeding $100,000. The Park district had $100,000 of it’s own money, so combined with the grant, this money was pledged to transform the Park District.

The major portion of work was done from the summer of 1980 to the spring of 1982. At that time 400 trees, 800 shrubs, 3 miles of asphalt, 2 outdoor shelters, 2 parking lots, thousands of cubic yards of dirt and 2000 pounds of grass seed were planted, poured and constructed. Each park was given a new, improved look to further enhance resident use.

In January of 1980, the Park District bought a bus to be used to transport program participants. The bus was used for summer camp and adult trips, as well as local community groups. 

Tax relief by the Park District was 10 years ahead of Cook County when in September of 1981, the Park Board boldly announced a tax levy decrease of $42,000. In the following years, the Park limited taxes and taxed below the allowable limit. 

In 1983, another park site was dedicated. The park was named FOUNDERS PARK in 1982 in recognition to those who took a chance and chose to make Bridgeview their home in the early 1900’s. It had a tennis court, a ball field and a shelter.

With Southfield Park being rebuilt (which included the new building for recreational purposes), it was decided that it should have a new name better suited to the community. A cue was taken from the naming of Wierzba Park and MUEHE PARK was named in 1980 for a young man from the Southfield subdivision who was also killed in Vietnam.

Recreational programs continued to expand during this time, but the small office building on Ferdinand Avenue afforded few opportunities for large programs and activities. Only after the building at Muehe Park was completed did the opportunity arise to expand programming. Two new preschool classes were added, aerobics classes were introduced, and there was finally a building to house a summer program for children. With the newly developed parks, came many outdoor activities such as summer concerts, fireworks on the Fourth of July and soccer.

The end of 1983 saw the existing facilities filled to capacity and a need for more space. The Park Board undertook the task of examining what the next step would be for the Park District. They needed to see what facility would best meet the demands of a growing community and be affordable.

The end result was the present day Pool and Sports Complex. Its concept was announced in the spring of 1984. The facility would include an outdoor pool, a new home for the administrative offices and preschool classes, a weight room, a multi-purpose room for crafts and meetings, exercise area and locker rooms.

A great deal of work and planning lay ahead so the Park District set about the task. In the late fall of 1984, ground was broken for the new building. The work was halted in January and February of 1985 when record cold temperatures hit the Chicago area; but in March it was able to pick up again. The Park District acted as the general contractor which resulted in considerable savings but also resulted in considerable headaches and problems.

Undaunted though the Park District held true to it’s July 1985 opening date. The air conditioning wasn’t installed yet, and the racquetball courts were still unfinished. The bare essentials greeted the new pool users, but in their enthusiasm neither the staff nor the swimmers noticed. Their reward was cool and refreshing water. Bridgeview finally had a pool!

The project cost $850,000 and the taxpayers bill went up, as promised, $4.20 a year. The Park District had the building and now the recreation department took on the job to fill it up. They filled it with racquetball and wallyball leagues, aerobics and exercise classes, craft classes, preschool, weight room users, and 3,000 pool users per year!

The park district finally had more room to expand programs which was a huge benefit for the residents.

Traditions have become the norm for Park District Programs and also the specialty. The Haunted house, Lunch with Santa, Breakfast with the Easter Bunny are among the annual special events sponsored by the Park District and enjoyed by the many Park residents.

The Park District also worked hard to instill a spirit of cooperation with all of the village’s organizations, especially the Village of Bridgeview and the John A. Oremus Community Center.

The Park District never stopped changing. In the early part of 1989, all six park sites were upgraded with new equipment, soccer fields and graded fields. The interior and exterior of Muehue Park Rec Center was also remodeled.

As the Park District entered the 90’s it continued to move forward. The beginning of these changes was the construction of a much needed new and improved maintenance facility at Wierzba Park . The Property on which it was built is known as the Belke property. August Belke and his wife originally bought the land in 1905. When their home burned down in 1911, Belke erected a house he purchased as a unit from Sears Roebuck & Co. This house and a concrete storage shed which stood behind the Belke House still stand on the property as a way of keeping part of Bridgeview’s history alive.

In the early part of the 90’s Phase II of the sports complex was completed. The main part of this new addition was a gymnasium surrounded on the second level by a padded running track. Those areas along with a dance/aerobics room, newer and larger fitness room, additional meeting space and an elevator to make the building accessible to everyone, completed the plan put in motion a decade ago. It was a new beginning for the Park District. The opportunities for new programming were endless. Youth basketball leagues were formed, gymnastics and cheerleading classes were offered, and the floor space and bleachers in the gym offered a new location for many seasonal special events. It seemed as though the Park had finally reached somewhat of an end. We now had adequate facilities in place, parks were up to date, and the recreational life in Bridgeview was blossoming. In the true spirit of the Park District it was decided “DON’T STOP THERE,” but what else could they do??

The answer to that question came in October 1995 when the Park District purchased the Saints Spectrum Ice Arena. Renamed for the Park District the Ice arena underwent a modest bit of remodeling during the first year. A coat of paint here, a new carpet there and the mechanical systems received the attention they needed. The Park District then offered open skating, rat hockey, ice rentals and was the home of the youth hockey club the Chicago Hawks. In cooperation with the Chicago Hawks, learn to skate programs were offered throughout the year for even the smallest hockey enthusiast. 

During its history, the Bridgeview Park District strove to serve the residents to the best of its ability. Your elected Park District Commissioners, Park staff, and Park volunteers worked together toward the goal of dedicated service to the community, and will continue to do so!

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