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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, May 24

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Thanks to Jett for suggesting this week's question:

Q: How did Cottage Grove Avenue get its name?

Although difficult to imagine now, Cottage Grove Avenue existed long before today's asphalt, brick and concrete landscape. Imagine, for a moment, Chicago during the last ice age. As the glaciers slowly retreated, they left behind ridges of higher ground amongst the otherwise wet and marshy land. Now imagine the early Indians using these ridges to navigate their way through the terrain, creating the first footpaths.

A stretch of Cottage Grove Avenue follows what was once part of one of these well-traveled Indian trails, a 300 mile overland route that ran from the Chicago area to Detroit. The Chicago-Detroit Trail remained unchanged for hundreds of years. But, when European settlers began moving into the area in earnest, a man named Charles Cleaver came along and transformed part of trail into a suburban avenue.

Charles Cleaver was born in London, England on July 21, 1814. Then when he was just 18 years old, he left England behind forever and sailed for America. Cleaver landed in New York on March 13, 1833, but it was not his final destination. Later that year, he traveled west and arrived in Chicago on October 23.

As one of Chicago's earliest settlers, Cleaver was well-positioned to leave his mark on the area. In 1851, Cleaver bought about 22 acres of land from Samuel Ellis, who operated a tavern near 35th Street and Lake Avenue. At that time, very few people lived in the area, apart from a handful of woodsmen and fishermen.

Cleaver, however, used the land, which stretched between 37th and 39th Streets, to build a successful soap and rendering works. And those who have read The Jungle understand what is involved in rendering for soap.

But Charles Cleaver didn't stop there. He bought more land and began building his own company town, which he dubbed Cleaverville. As he built houses and planned roads, he also assumed the responsibility for naming the streets in his new community.

Part of the old Chicago-Detroit Trail, as it passed through Cleaverville, was renamed Cottage Grove Avenue for the simple reason that there happened to be a cottage located in a stand of trees in the area. Sources are unclear about whether the cottage actually belonged to Cleaver, or whether it was a pre-existing structure belonging to some forgotten woodsman. In any case, the name of street had fairly literal origins.

Other streets in Cleaverville were given similarly prosaic names. Brook Street, now part of 40th Street, was named for a nearby brook. Oakwood Avenue was inspired not only by the local trees, but also from the name Cleaver gave to his own estate on the land, Oakwood Hall. Streets named Cedar and Elm also existed for awhile in the community.

After building Cleaverville, Cleaver's most brilliant move was paying the Illinois Central Railroad $3,800 a year to provide train service to his community, thereby transforming Cleaverville into one of Chicago's first commuter suburbs.

The area represented by Cleaverville was annexed to Chicago by 1889, and today forms part of Chicago's Oakland neighborhood. And although the cottage and the grove may be long gone, the memory of that landscape remains in Chicago's streets.


Hayner, Don and Tom McNamee. fStreetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1988.

Quaife, Milo Milton. Chicago and the Old Northwest, 1673-1835. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.


Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, August 8, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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