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updated: 12/20/2012 3:03 PM

Wintertime truth and fiction in old Arlington Hts.

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I can't ride around town for an hour without coming upon some building or object that reminds me of a story someone told me of Arlington history. With winter coming, I'm sure to be reminded of Gloria Paddock sledding under a car on Arlington Heights Road.

"She got her start at that little park on Chestnut and Hawthorne when there was a water tower there," I'll tell my long-suffering husband. "And sledded past Highland and Vail and Dunton and Evergreen before she burst out on Arlington Heights Road."

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Except the story isn't true.

On my principle that I don't use a fact until it has been corroborated, I went back to John Annen, whose story I was repeating. He went through it again.

"Gloria was coming off the mound of ice under the water tower that used to be at that site, rolled unto Chestnut and sledded right under a car and out the other side."(Cars in those days rode higher off the ground than now.)

"She did go under the car," I said, to be sure I had it right.

"Oh, yeah."

"And came out all right?"

"Yeah."

Annen was more interested in telling me how, when the water tower overflowed and froze, he and his friends coasted from the mound down the five blocks to what he called State Road. (I persisted in calling it Arlington Heights Road.)

"Did you sled under any cars?" I asked, picturing Arlington Heights Road today. "No. There weren't any cars (to speak of) on State Road then."

John Annen's stories were a microcosm of Arlington. His home on north Highland was built in 1905 by local carpenters for an early Arlington mayor, Peter Mors. Both John's father and his grandfather, carpenters themselves like many men in Arlington, had worked on the original house. "My grandfather did all the trim work in the house. My father did all the rough work." John was the third owner.

As a boy, John lived at Hawthorne and Highland in a town of truck gardens. North of his boyhood home, a whole block was a cherry orchard. He remembered that Hawthorne, pretty much a mud trail east of State Road, ran into fields of grapes. John himself picked flowers at the local peony farm and sold them on State Road for 25 cents a bunch. With not much traffic on the road, the sales were few. He made more money picking the sweet cherries in the next block.

He started earning his own money when he was 10. When he was 11, he was the family driver. His mother did not drive so, like many kids in town, he ferried mom around on all her errands and visits. When he was 15, he was allowed to take a date and three other couples to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.

He knew Burt Laudermilk, the developer of Stonegate and Scarsdale subdivisions. And while he sympathized when sales halted on Laudermilk's homes during the Depression, John and his friends profited.

"There were so many homes that were never completed. They just sat there. There was a house I admired where a large living room had a cathedral ceiling. We made it into a basketball court. Nobody cared. It was cold in winter, but it had a roof."

The Depression was a time of making do. The Annen family took a picnic lunch once a year to Starved Rock State Park. They'd stop for Mass along the way. John remembered a hill near the park entrance too steep for the car to climb.

"We had to go up in reverse. And we always had a flat, either coming or going."

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