This historic village is the epitome of small town charm, with its quaint downtown, active neighborhood associations and strong sense of community.
In a charmingly throwback way, if you walk along downtown Western Springs, you come across a butcher, baker and candlestick maker.
In addition to the butchers at Casey’s Market, bakers at Kirschbaum’s Bakery and merchants who sell candles at The Uptown Shop, this community of nearly 13,000 residents exemplifies small-town America in other ways. On a given summer day, you can spot children tilting colorful cones in front of an ice cream parlor, morning commuters clutching coffee cups on their way to catch the Metra train to the city, or bicyclists riding past the historic brick and stone Water Tower in the center of town, which was built in the 1890s to supplement the original mineral springs in the area.
State Representative Jim Durkin, who grew up in nearby Westchester and moved to Western Springs in 2003 with his wife and children, is part
of that scenic backdrop. “One of my greatest joys is on a Saturday morning, getting a cup of coffee at Starbucks, walking down to the hardware store, bakery or meat market and seeing everybody,” says Durkin.
The butcher, baker and candlestick maker are lines in a much-loved nursery rhyme, but to the people who live and work in Western Springs, the village’s small town charm is key part of its character and identity. “I came to Western Springs nearly 40 years ago to complete a six-month internship in city management for the Master’s program I was enrolled in and obviously never left,” declares Village Manager Patrick Higgins. “I suppose there are at least three reasons why and they concern people -— the elected officials, the staff and the residents here.”
Western Springs native Mark Ptacek is senior vice president at the local Heartland Bank and current president of the Western Springs Business Association. He, too, maintains there are many reasons why the people and places in Western Springs make it so appealing. “It’s a very safe community, the schools are incredibly strong, and there are great people and neighborhoods,” he says.
Location is another bonus, adds Durkin. “There is a great geographic enticement, too — it’s still in Cook County, there is access to every major thoroughfare, and you have the benefit of fabulous public transit,” he says. “You can get to the city easily for work or for entertainment, but it’s nice to know that you don’t have to go there for a nice dinner or special event.”
The village also has a distinctive sense of neighborliness. “Western Springs is the kind of town where everyone says hello as you walk by, and I love how welcoming our residents are,” says Jessie Wang-Grimm, a nine-year resident who is co-president of the Lyons Township Alumnae Panhellenic and active PTA member in District 101. “It’s a haven outside of the city, where people care about their schools and community and rally behind each other in times of need. There’s an unspoken pride in the history and simple traditions of our town, and it’s a blessing to raise our family here.”
Janet Dahl, a longtime resident who raised three sons in town with husband and radio legend Steve Dahl, was a four-year village trustee and echoes the almost surprising friendliness in the town, something that was immediately evident.
“On our first day, two neighborhood girls — both of whom now live in Western Springs — put a May basket of wildflowers on my front doorknob. Someone else gave me a map of the street that included every home on the block, with stick figures to represent their kids and pets. I knew I had found home,” Dahl recalls, adding, “Western Springs is like Mayberry. We have a very safe community. The fact that 30 community members serve as paid on-call firefighters in our professional department speaks volumes as to the character of our residents.”
The collaborative spirit is underscored by Village President William Rodeghier. “We are a community of strong church organizations that address not only their faith communities but sponsor many
other activities such as scouting and other programs for young people,” he explains. “We also have strong civic organizations such as our local VFW Post that sponsors and organizes the Memorial Day parade, the Business Association that produces the downtown Christmas Walk and Gathering on the Green, the Historical Society that maintains a museum in the historic Water Tower, the Tower Chorale, the Garden Club, and many others. These organizations enrich life in Western Springs and make this village a desirable place to live, to raise a family, and simply to call home. I can’t fathom what living in Western Springs would be without them.”
Channeling Mayberry: Downtown Western Springs
Compared to other western suburbs — including La Grange to the east and Hinsdale to the west — Western Springs has a somewhat quieter downtown, which allows for easier parking and a more open streetscape.
It also leads to strong bonds. “We were talking about this a couple weeks ago, and I was saying that our staff knows about 75 percent of our customers,” says Joe Lane, store manager of Casey’s Market.
The main shopping district along the railroad tracks on Metra’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe line features many longtime businesses like Kirschbaum’s, Casey’s, Village Hardware Store, Oberweis Dairy and the Fruit Store, most of which are housed in vintage buildings that harken to another century. That all-American look and feel actually led downtown Western Springs to be chosen as a setting in the movie Contagion with Matt Damon.
Over the past decade or so — and after the previously “dry” village allowed alcohol to be served in local restaurants — downtown Western Springs has welcomed many new businesses that have enhanced the local scene. You can still run errands and get fresh fruit, homemade pastries and cakes — or, for that matter, a new hammer — but you can also meet friends at a fine dining restaurant like Vie, grab breakfast at Solstice or shop for stylish clothes and eclectic gifts at a boutique like Clever Girl.
“Having a vital downtown is a huge part of Western Springs, and we’ve had some changes over the last 36 years since we’ve been here,” notes Lane, a past president and active member of the Western Spring Business Association.
Among the new restaurants in town is Davanti Enoteca, part of Francesca’s Restaurants. “This town is incredible,” says owner Chris Elsey of the support he has received from the community. “We are also getting people coming from La Grange, Hinsdale, Downers Grove and other suburbs.”
Recognizing another need and opportunity, Francesca’s Restaurants opened Hillgrove Tap next door to Davanti Enoteca in late 2015. Initially a sports bar, Hillgrove Tap has become a gathering spot for families as well and, this time of year, a place to hang out on the 55-seat patio, according to Elsey.
Such growth and expansion is continuing with the impending groundbreaking for a new condominium development near the railroad tracks at Wolf Road and Burlington Avenue. “We’re excited to have 28 new households living right in downtown Western Springs, and we believe it’s the beginning of more shopping and restaurant choices,” notes Ptacek.
According to Rodeghier, community input is pivotal in such expansion and improvement. “Over the last couple years, our residents participated in creating a downtown plan for the business district,” he explains. “The residents recognized the need for progress in revitalizing the downtown buildings and streetscape, but with a view towards keeping the character of development family-friendly,” he explains.
Dahl says that many residents welcome developments that have been carefully planned. “The new housing on that site should energize the downtown visually and commercially,” she says. “I hope to see more housing and commercial options pop up to make Western Springs even more of a destination,” she says.
Gathering Place: Special Events
To village president Rodeghier’s point, residents gather and connect at various public events in Western Springs. Two of the biggest — the annual Memorial Day parade and the Gathering on the Green event, both offering live entertainment — take place earlier in the summer.
A regular and popular event throughout the summer is the weekly French Market, held on Hillgrove Avenue near the iconic water tower. Visitors can find fresh fruits and vegetables, along with fresh-baked breads and pastries, meats, cheese, wine, flowers and artisan-made goods. The French Market, which runs through early fall, takes place from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursdays.
This time of year, people also savor the season by attending summer concerts at Springdale Park, the Tower Green and at Ridgewood Park. Various neighborhood associations, along with the Park District and Village of Western Springs, sponsor the concerts.
The Park District offers other outdoor activities, too, including Camping under the Stars at Spring Rock Park — the biggest park in town — and free summer movie nights at different park locations around the community.
Bravo! Theatre of Western Springs and Music Makers
It may be tucked away on a quiet side street, but the 400-seat Theatre of Western Springs is hardly a hidden gem. The theatre puts on a dozen high caliber productions a year.
Founded by resident Mary Cattell in 1929, the Theatre of Western Springs is one of the oldest continually operating community theatres in the country, points out Executive Artistic Director Eddie Sugarman, and has produced more than 500 plays.
The theatre is also distinctive due to its “in-house casting system,” in which those who perform on-stage must work backstage on other productions. In all, the theatre is served by a core group of more than 300 committed cast members and volunteers.
The theatre also hosts shows visiting professional like actress and former Saturday Night Live cast member Nora Dunn, who graced the stage with her one-woman show, Mythical Proportions, earlier this year.
Throughout the year — and especially in the summer — students from around the area take advantage of a full roster of classes, including a summer drama workshop, high school summer stock, junior high and high school improv, acting and voice lessons and more.
Another longtime cultural hub in the community is Music Makers of Western Springs, a full-service music school that offers musical programs for all ages and abilities, from tots to rock band classes to music and theater camps. According to owner Jeremy Michor, the theater program has greatly expanded in recent times.
“Six years ago, we performed three plays throughout the year, for K through 8th grade students. We now produce eight different plays throughout the year, including a college rep program in August,” says Michor, adding, “We are thrilled to be a vibrant part of the theater and performing arts community.”
Block Parties: Neighborhood Associations
It’s not Chicago, of course, but residents of this western suburb tend to identify themselves by Western Springs neighborhoods, which include Old Town, Field Park, Forest Hills, Ridge Acres, Ridgewood, Springdale and Timber Trails.
Most, if not all, neighborhoods have a neighborhood association comprised of residents of all ages and backgrounds. “The Ridgewood Association is active and vibrant, and new residents jump right in,” reports Dahl.
Over the past several years, the residential landscape of this community has evolved, with more teardowns and larger houses replacing smaller ones. “Certainly, residential development and redevelopment have been occurring since the late 1990s. Although it slowed down during the Great Recession, we seem to have returned to pre-Recession levels this year,” says Higgins, noting that sales at the new Timber Trails development have been strong.
Durkin says that housing improvements help bolster overall property and community value. “I look at that as an indictor of success for neighborhoods,” he says. “It’s a sign that people are willing to make an investment.”
Other Western Springs Highlights
The Western Springs Historical Society is housed in the old Western Springs Water Tower and is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. In addition to the Tower Museum, archives and collections are also available at the Grand Avenue Community Center and at the Ekdahl House.
“Visitors to our town should stop by the town’s historic Water Tower,” says longtime resident and former trustee John Devona. “Built in 1892 as both a water tower and village hall, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.”
In addition to sponsoring or co-sponsoring special events, the Western Springs Park District offers a full slate of things to do and see at its own Recreation Center and at the Grand Avenue Community Center. Spring Rock Park on the western edge of town is an expansive green space that also includes a walking/running path, recently improved fields for baseball and soccer, tennis courts and in-line skating rink, among other features. At least 12 other parks lend green space — and leisure and recreation opportunities — for residents and visitors.
The Cook County Forest Preserve’s Bemis Woods in Western Springs is also an attraction for its groves and trails as well as a new “Go Ape” obstacle course featuring treetop zip lines, which debuted earlier this summer.Edit Module