Longtime Baker Community Center board member, former blacksmith dies at 100

If St. Charles ever has to point to a citizen who epitomized what it meant to grow up on a farm west of town and help the city transform into a key far-west suburb in the Chicago metro area over a century, that person has to be Melvin Peterson.

Peterson passed away last Friday at the age of 100, so one can only imagine the number of stories he could tell about the various people and projects he spent so much time with. I was honored to have heard many of them.

  Melvin Peterson, then 91, displays a commemorative plaque he built for the St. Charles Park District. The longtime St. Charles resident and well-known community member has died at age 100. Brian Hill/, 2012

His 40-plus years of devotion to his business at Wasco Blacksmith and his role for 70-plus years on the St. Charles Baker Community Center board of directors sums up Peterson's DNA quite well.

He would call me fairly often with news about what was going on at his beloved Baker Community Center. With each news flash, he would deliver a background story and as much information as a walking, talking local history book could offer. He was really pleased when the lounge at the center was renamed in his honor for, at that time in 2015, his 72 years on the board.

My favorite Melvin Peterson story had to do with his childhood, when Harold Covalsky, the police chief in 1933, told Melvin it was OK to drive himself from his farm west of town off Crane Road to the new Shelby School on Fifth Street in St. Charles.

A plaque honoring Melvin Peterson was added as part of the renovations at the Baker Community Center in St. Charles. Peterson served on the center's board for more than 72 years. COURTESY OF DAVE HEUN, 2017

The stipulation was that he couldn't have anyone else in the car with him, and he had to go straight home after school. It would have been a nice setup for a youth of any age in those days, but it was extraordinary for Melvin. He was only in sixth grade.

"Back then, if you were a farm boy, they allowed you to do that kind of thing, and the insurance company knew everything," Peterson once told me. "But I had to follow those rules because other kids would always want a ride, and I had to say no."

There was no other way for him to get to school. If he couldn't drive himself at age 11 on the dirt or gravel roads to school, he'd have to hitch a ride into town on the local milk truck and take the chance of being late on more than one occasion.

In later years, his family moved to the Baker Farm on the east side of St. Charles in the area in which Pheasant Run Resort eventually was built.

He worked for Col. Edward Baker in those barns, getting to know Baker's famous racing horses, including Greyhound, the greatest of them all. Peterson once noted that Greyhound was rarely in St. Charles because of the horse's racing schedule and elite status. Peterson considered it one of the city's best-kept secrets.

Melvin Peterson of St. Charles spent nearly half a year fixing and cleaning up a large cast-iron bell that was on a Mississippi steam boat that sunk and was eventually placed atop a silo on Crane Road farm property, then moved to the St. Charles History Museum. Courtesy of Dave Heun, 2007

When looking at the 2,500-pound bronze bell in the front of the St. Charles History Museum, it should be noted that Peterson spent nearly half a year fixing and cleaning the bell and getting it placed in the anchor it sits on. His work took place years after the bell was retrieved from a Mississippi River steamer that had sunk in 1920, with the bell somehow finding its way to storage at the Wild Rose Farm on Crane Road.

First and foremost, Peterson was a kind man. He loved making commemorative models for special anniversaries, events or friends that incorporated horseshoes as the base and one to hold photos or certificates.

He would do almost anything for anybody, and his obsession with encouraging others to care about St. Charles and its past as much as he did was infectious.

His time working for Col. Baker and his historic run on the Baker Center board provided possibly his fondest memories, along with his many years of marriage to wife Ruth. She passed away a couple of years ago.

The pandemic kept me away from places and events that Peterson might have been the past year or more. And I did notice a drop-off in his calls sharing story tips.

I'll certainly miss our talks or his voice on my message machine stating, "Dave? This is Melvin" to inform me about important things in his world.

We lost a great one with this gentleman's passing - the likes of which generally only exist now in our history books.

'Billy' takes up shop:

The retail strip that showcased Antique Market I and Market II over the past several years in St. Charles and more recently saw new restaurants or bars in the retail spot at 11 N. Third St., next to Antique Market I.

Billy Bricks, a new pizza joint, opened there last week, and the comments on social media have been positive for this latest entry into a strong pizza landscape in the Tri-Cities region.

The site previously had a Thai carryout restaurant, then Abby's Breakfast & Lunch restaurant, and later a restaurant/bar called Grandstander that moved from Geneva into that St. Charles spot. Less than a year after moving in, Grandstander became Game on Third under new owners.

All of that aside, let's just say a good pizza place always has the potential to enjoy more staying power than most.

Billy Bricks, a national chain with various locations in the suburbs, brings wood-fired pizza to the forefront on a menu that also has appetizers, soup, salads, an array of sandwiches as well as craft beers and wine.

For those (like me) who need a dessert after a meal, Billy's offers cheesecake, cannoli and small batches of gourmet cookies.

It's hard to argue with any of the above.

Taking Wok's spot:

Word was spreading last week that the former Wok n Fire restaurant location on First Street in St. Charles was going to become a new eatery called Moto i Moto, another in the line of BG Hospitality restaurants.

BG also operates the Gia Mia sites in Geneva and St. Charles, as well as Livia Italian Eatery on Third Street in Geneva.

Wok n Fire last month moved to the east side of St. Charles in the building that once housed Sweet Tomatoes buffet.

Those anxious to get out and try new places will keep a close eye on what takes place on First Street in St. Charles, including its expanded plaza along the Fox River.

They'll also watch the construction of The Graceful Ordinary upscale restaurant in the former BMO Harris Bank building on Main Street on the east side of the river.

Get this pandemic behind us, get the Arcada Theatre humming again, and downtown St. Charles will be an increasingly desirable choice for entertainment and dining.

Funds for assessment:

It didn't take long for Preservation Partners to raise the lion's share of funds needed to have a condition assessment done for the historic Beith House in St. Charles.

The organization is still taking donations for the project, which it is calling a "full, top-to-bottom condition assessment" of the Beith House.

For those not familiar, the Beith House is located at 8 Indiana St. near the Fox River. It was built in 1850 in the Greek Revival style, and it has much of the original stone exterior in place.

In that regard, it is one of the few houses in the region that remains in its original state. And it makes sense, considering William Beith was a key Kane County stonemason during his time in this area before the Civil War.

Preservation Partners is also reminding residents that area museums will be open in mid-May, with Fabyan Villa hosting guided tours from 1 to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays in the Fabyan Forest Preserve. The Durant House and Pioneer Sholes School in the LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve will have their first interactive event set for 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, June 6. Those types of events will take place once a month.

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