Cantigny Park celebrates French Connection Day

When Cantigny Park officials organized the first French Connection Day eight years ago, no one was certain if it would be popular enough to return the next year.

But visitors streamed in all day to shop the open air French market, to play pétanque (a French yard game pronounced pay-tonk), and to take in French music.

"We knew we had to do it again," spokesman Jeff Reiter said. "I think part of the appeal is that there is nothing quite like this theme in the Western suburbs. And now, nearly a decade later, the public wouldn't let us stop it if we wanted to."

The annual event now attracts up to 5,000 visitors as one of Cantigny's largest single-day events, and it has expanded with new offerings over the years.

While the open air market by Bensidoun will return, along with games of pétanque hosted by the Chicago Pétanque Club, the event also will feature wine tasting and French food at Cantigny's Le Jardin restaurant, a 23-foot Eiffel Tower and children's activities that include art projects and storytime with famous children's literary character Madeline.

This year, Deputy Consul General Francois Pellerin from the French Consulate in Chicago will serve as a special guest. He will open the festival with a 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting and will address the crowd from the entertainment stage at 11:30 a.m.

Pellerin's visit aims to encourage Francophiles to visit the Consulate's information booth at the fest, which will focus on A La Carte, a week of French culinary opportunities this November in Chicago.

Other special events at French Connection Day this year include the return of French music by Claudia Hommel and accordionist Patricia Spaeth, as well as mime street performers and, new this year, costumed can-can dancers.

While the French-themed fest aims for fun, it has a monumental back story. French Connection Day is so named because it celebrates an important chapter in the life of Robert R. McCormick, Cantigny's benefactor.

In 1918, at age 37, Col. McCormick commanded an artillery unit in the Battle of Cantigny in France as a member of the U.S. Army's First Division. It was America's first significant victory in World War I.

When he returned to Wheaton, the colonel renamed his estate after the tiny French village that he and his fellow soldiers helped liberate from German occupation. After his death in 1955, McCormick willed his 500-acre estate to become the public park and museum we know today.

Reiter says the French festival's tie-in with Cantigny's heritage helps to continue the park's mission as a place for learning.

"It's something we take seriously here," he said. "We want people to have fun, but we value the educational side of our festivals as well."

For more details on French Connection Day, visit

  A replica of the Eiffel Tower will be on display during Cantigny Park's French Connection Day celebration. Bev Horne/ 2012
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