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updated: 1/12/2011 9:52 AM

A quiet look at Arlington Heights' past

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Bill Bryson, writing in his new book "At Home" about his residence, a former Church of England rectory, and its Norfolk environs, has given me new eyes to see the rich history of our block in Arlington Heights.

One day, looking for the source of a mysterious drip, Bryson wriggled through a ceiling hatch into the gloom of his attic and found himself looking out on a freshly exciting view.

"It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself at a world you know well, but have never seen from such an angle before," he wrote.

"Immediately in front of me was the ancient flint church to which our house was once an adjunct. Beyond, down a slight incline and slightly separate from church and rectory, was the village to which both belonged."

From this start he examines the "quietly thrilling" history that was part of his daily life, but largely unexamined. As I read Bryson's book, I looked up and out our dining room window.

Instead of seeing the neighbor's fence, I "saw" a verdant sweep of greensward that rolled from my window down to a red barn on Euclid, a block and a half away, where the local raccoons hung out, the view I first knew.

I found that early view magical. But our neighbors back then, for whom the thought of a large family next door was anything but magical, soon made the first of many changes in the landscape. They erected a tall fence. No doubt they had read Robert Frost.

Reading Bryson, I realized that while we couldn't claim a church older than Notre Dame on our block, we did have homes from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. And a truly significant Arlington historic figure.

Asa Dunton, the first man to lay claim to the land that is now Arlington Heights (I'm assuming that the Potawatomi did not lay claim to this land: they simply lived here), walked on our block. More, he built his home right across the block from where I live today.

Our two-block-square block was undoubtedly farmland early on. It wasn't part of the original village platted by Asa's son, William Dunton.

When we came in the 1960s, the center of the block was an enormous field large enough for simultaneous baseball and football games. Around the edges were little bosky copses used variously for pirates' lairs, teddy bear picnics, dens and hide-outs. The land belonged to several owners, all equally generous in providing this splendid play space for whatever kids turned up with a kite or bat or shovel for digging.

Today the "field" has reverted to individual ownership. Several large homes have large properties. There are fences, decks, patios, pools, formal garden plots. But I can still stand in awe and wonder not only at what it is, but what it has been, knowing that Asa Dunton's house is across the block where it has always been, anchoring our history for us.