Is it the water at this Schiller Woods well? The magic may be more in the camaraderie
While buzz about the Schiller Woods water pump just off Irving Park Road is often shrouded in mystery -- from rumors the water heals ailments to belief it's a secret ingredient in maintaining youth -- many people who regularly use the pump say there's nothing magical about it.
For them, it's simply a natural source of water that brings people together.
The hand-operated pump just west of the intersection of Irving Park Road and Cumberland Avenue has been a source of folklore in the Chicago area since it was installed in 1945. People have said there's something magic about it, that its water improves health, vigor and youth -- leading to the nickname "Chicago's Fountain of Youth."
Whether people truly believe in these healing properties or not, lines of devotees can be seen daily waiting to collect jugs and bottles of the water morning, night and day.
The pump draws water from a hole drilled into an untreated aquifer 125 feet below the surface, according to Facilities and Fleet Department officials with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which manages 212 water pumps throughout the county.
Aquifers are bodies of porous rock or sediment saturated with groundwater, or precipitation that permeates the soil and collects in these empty underground spaces. The water can be resurfaced through wells and natural springs.
Though there are nine other pumps in Schiller Woods that all draw from the same aquifer, the pump off the south side of Irving Park Road is the most popular by a long shot.
Facilities Manager Eric Pedersen said the pump is repaired two to three times a year due to "various wear-related issues." From what Pedersen has been told, the pump has been popular since the early 1950s.
"I personally get calls from someone at least quarterly. If the pump breaks, I get 10 calls a day and we make it a priority to get it back on line as soon as possible due to its popularity," Pedersen said. "The water has a low iron content, so it is more pleasant to drink than other locations in the forest preserve that may have a higher mineral content."
Forest preserve officials are required to make sure the water is safe to drink under standards set by the state and county health departments. The water is tested for nitrates and coliform annually, as well as tested for nitrites every three years.
Debbie McCoy, an Elmwood Park native, said she has been visiting the pump since before she can remember. Her father would take her and her siblings to Schiller Woods when they were children.
To McCoy, the nature preserve represents a childhood filled with visiting the pump for fresh water, sledding down the hill across the street in the winters, and watching model airplanes soar through the air at the nearby Schiller Flying Field.
"It was beautiful. It's still beautiful," she said. "I love it over there."
McCoy continues visiting the pump around twice a week to fill a 5-gallon jug for drinking and cooking.
"I'm a big believer in natural sources including food -- organic food, no pesticides, no chemicals, that type of thing," she said. "It's not some kind of magical water or anything that you hear people say all the time. There's nothing magical about it. Just normal water. It's the way water should be."
McCoy is a co-administrator of a Facebook group called The Pump People, a group created last year by fellow administrator Morna Roberts-Chism to create a space for people to share photos and reasons they visit the so-called Fountain of Youth.
"I feel there's a very deep sense of community (at the pump). Even if you're just saying good morning to someone else," McCoy said. "We'll stand there talking about the airplane that somebody's flying over our head from the other side of the field, how cold it is, how sunny it is, how beautiful or how close the deer are."
Roberts-Chism, an Evanston resident, first discovered the pump on a website that provides a worldwide database of user-submitted cold and hot springs. She has been visiting the water source for nearly 15 years, and she hopes to organize a picnic next year for the growing community.
"The people are all so friendly and helpful. If you have a bunch of bottles to carry back to the car, they'll go help you. It's a very friendly group of people. It's always a joy to go there now," Roberts-Chism said. "Especially during the pandemic when people were apart, it was nice to have that little bit of chatting there."
As to whether the pump is a source of magic, Roberts-Chism isn't so sure.
"I think it's mostly people wanting the natural spring water, but it does have some folklore around it -- that it's healing water, that it's very special water," she said. "As far as these myths about it, I don't really subscribe to that. I think it's just really good, clean water."
• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.