Downers Grove Historical Society - Newsletter Spring Edition 2023
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History Happens Here
The Tivoli Theatre

A DGHS Docuseries by Jim Toth 

Every year for the past three years, I have donated my time to create a documentary film for the Downers Grove Historical Society. Within this process, I have learned about our Village’s fascinating and up to this point, unknown to me, history. The documentaries first focused on the Main Street Cemetery and then on John and Doris Mochel and Main Street’s Mochel Hardware. The current film showcases the Johnson Family and their beloved movie palace, the Tivoli Theatre which still operates on Highland and Warren Avenues in Downers Grove.

This time and effort has culminated into a series of short films titled “History Happens Here” co-produced with Amy Gassen and Greg Elisha of the Downers Grove Historical Society.

It was a cool morning last September when we sat down to conduct the first of our preliminary interviews with Willis, Shirley and Chris Johnson, the current family/owners of the Tivoli Theatre in Downtown Downers Grove. We sat down in the empty theatre lobby at the Tivoli and began a conversation that would eventually take over nine months, consisting of more than 12 hours of filming, and over 200 hours of editing and postproduction to complete. Within that initial conversation, I learned so many things about this wonderful family, a family that accidentally became proprietors of the Tivoli, and how that single theater screen changed the trajectory of their lives — leading to them operating 137 screens and, becoming Classic Cinemas, the largest movie theater business in the state of Illinois and 39th largest in the US.

Since 1928, that magical screen at the Tivoli Theatre has changed Downers Grove and the way our villagers spend their recreation time. This project started in the late 1920s and was the vision of Gustav and George Bunge who incorporated the architecture of Van Gunten and Van Gunten and the prominent Downers Grove builder J.T. Schless Construction Co. to create The Tivoli Theatre, which was only the second theater in the country to be purposely built for the showing of sound-sync film, or “talkies” as they were referred to. Interestingly, this wasn’t the first movie theater in Downers Grove; it was the third, and this documentary explores the history of film and theaters in Downers Grove and explores the life and childhood of Willis Johnson and his son Chris, the Downers Grove residents who eventually became proprietors of the theater in 1977.

There will be a single opportunity to screen the film at the Tivoli Theatre, on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, at 6 pm. Willis and Shirley will also be honored as "Historians of the Year" by the Downers Grove Historical Society. The admission is $5.00 (DGHS members are free) and all proceeds will go to funding the Downers Grove Historical Society efforts, which is a 100% non-profit and volunteer organization. To register, click here.

In creating this film, and the stories before it, I discovered documenting family history in the form of a documentary film; linear storytelling has become a passion for me. I also learned that more families want to commit their collective history to a more permanent and viewable record, an artifact to pass down to their next generation. If you are interested in connecting to discuss your family’s historical documentary project — let’s connect. You can reach me, and also see my other work at



Founders Day 2023
Finding Roots in the Grove

Downers Grove Historical Society and Downers Grove Museum invite you to their upcoming *2023 Founders Day Celebrations! Whether you enjoy local history, golf, biking, hiking, gardening or petting animals, there is something for everyone. Many events are scheduled for the week of April 29th – May 6th and most of the events are free and family friendly!

At 3:30 - Saturday, April 29, the Downers Grove Historical Society will dedicate the Belmont Golf Club as their 2023 Historic Site of the Year. All are invited to attend. On that same day, Belmont Golf Club will be the site of the annual *Pine Hollow Golf Tournament. Registration is through the Belmont Golf Club or call the club house for tee times at (630) 963-1306.  The DG Park District is hosting a presentation called *Farm to Table: Heirloom Gardening Learn all about heirloom plant varieties and historic farming practices.

Do you love the historic Tivoli Theater as much as we do? On Tuesday, May 2, at the Tivoli, The DG Historical Society will present the next chapter of the Society’s *History Happens Here DocuSeries – Featuring Willis and Shirley Johnson Family. The Johnsons, owners of the Tivoli Theatre, will be celebrated at that time as the *2023 DG Historical Society Historians of the Year.

On Thursday, May 4, *Our Precious Grove (adults only) sponsored by The Friends of the Edwards House, will feature speaker Dr. M. Isabel Rivera, Global Tree Conservationist from the Morton Arboretum. The event will take place 6:30 - 8:30 pm at Alter Brewery & Tap Room.

May 3 features *Homesteading in the Burbs (Free) Listen & ask questions from our panel of local homesteaders, and learn about a sustainable life. The presentation is hosted by the DG Library.

 There will be many events to choose from on Saturday, May 6. At 11:30, Abigail Stearns Root is being honored as DG Historical Society’s first woman *Founder of the Year at the Main Street Cemetery. Born in Vermont in 1784, Abigail was a pioneer wife and mother who settled in Downers Grove with her husband, Martin Root, in the 1840s. She and many other pioneer women came west to settle here and have contributed to the history of our village. Her father, Asa Stearns, served as a Revolutionary War soldier and her grave will honored by the DAR with a marker.
Walk or bike past historic sites and finish at the Main Street Cemetery in time for the 2023 Founder of the Year Dedication with the *Family Bike Ride (meet at Fishel Park at 9:30 am) or with the Windy City Walkers as they *Walk the Grove, a Self-Guided 5K or 10K Walk (meet at the museum at 9 am).
Join the Pierce Downer Heritage Alliance for the *Lyman Woods Wildflower Walk from 9 – 11 am.
Also on Saturday, May 6, the Downers Grove Museum will be hosting *Country in the Park at the museum campus on from 12-3. You’ll find a petting zoo, hear live music featuring songs from the Civil War, booths, children’s games, a self-guided garden walk dedicated to Abigail Stearns Root and all 3 museum campus buildings will be open for you to enjoy.
*Be sure to check out details of specific events thru links on the Downers Grove Historical Society website. Some events require pre-registration.


Art Chester: Downers Grove Aviator

If Art Chester was a contemporary figure the boldness of his exploits could not be captured by a social media platform. Born on December 15, 1899, Art Chester was part of a generation that forged a new technological landscape in America. Almost exactly 4 years later December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers would make the first powered flight in North Carolina. With that, a pioneer began to blossom in the shape of Art Chester. Art would, not only become an accomplished aviator, but he would also become a virtuoso of airplane engineering and design.
Growing up in Downers Grove at the turn of the 20th century was a much different experience than it is in 2023. Art lived in a Downers Grove of seemingly endless farm country and open fields. His love for mechanics and engineering was apparent at a young age. Art and his brother Ed enjoyed building and riding motorcycles throughout the country landscape of Downers Grove. At that time there were no highways, stop lights, strip malls, or apartment complexes. It was rural America and farm country. People living in the city would come out this way to get away from the hustle and bustle.
Art truly was a self-made man. No one in his family had experience flying. The family was not wealthy. Art willed his aviation ability into existence. His persistence, perseverance, and passion drove him to greater heights over time. Art and his brother Ed started out their interest in mechanics by building their own mini cars and motorcycles and riding them around town. According to “The Art Chester Story,” (John W. Caler with John Underwood (Author) 1968), Art would have his first experience with aviation at the old Cicero Field in Chicago around the age of 13. This would prove to be an invaluable experience for a dare devil such as Art. His appeal to adventure would only grow with age. Art soloed a journey on his motorcycle from Chicago to New York and back at the age of 17. This was no small feat for a teenager in 1916.
Art’s eyes were firmly set on airplanes from that young age. He dropped out of high school as a sophomore to take a drafting job - later becoming a junior engineer - at International Harvester. In 1917 there would be a change in the arc of Art’s journey as the U.S. became involved in World War I. Both Art, and brother Ed would enlist. Art hoped to be involved with aviation in some capacity either designing or flying. He would not get that chance but his passion for aviation never faltered. After the war he would go back to work for International Harvester. It was time to make good on his passion for flying. Art would save enough money to start flying lessons in the spring of 1921. Thus, an aviator, adventurer, and engineer were born all at once.
Art would spend the rest of the 1920’s building up his flying experience. He would spend a lot of his time joy riding and doing air stunts for cash. Art was quite a gifted engineer and worked as a mechanic on both cars and planes during the time he was bolstering his flying experience. As much as Art was concentrating on the design of airplanes, he was also just as much an adventurer. Art was inching closer and closer to becoming an air racer pilot. It seemed he would do anything to achieve his dream. He even jumped out of a plane with a parachute for money; not a common practice in the 1920’s.
The Curtiss OX5 was the airplane of air racers in that day. Art knew it well and worked on this engine quite often. It would lead him to owning his very own plane. He would spend a few years in Downers Grove working as a mechanic and flying on the side during the summer and weekends. As Art’s flying career took off, he would traverse the country going everywhere from Cleveland, to L.A., to Spokane, to New York, to Denver for races. He won trophies, set speed records, and was heralded for his superb technique.
During this time Art would meet his wife Trudy, a college professor. Trudy became an integral part of Art’s aviation career. Trudy and Art had a son named Tommy. The family spent time together flying and running the family businesses. By the end of the roaring 20s everything fell into place for Art to become an air racer. By 1929 Art had a new OX5 plane and had opened an airport near Joliet. He would offer flying lessons and rides to people who were daring enough.
Art’s career eventually took him out to Los Angeles, California where the family settled. There was much more flying experience to be had there because of weather conditions. Art spent the 1930s upgrading, working, and designing planes for races while continuing to race all over the country. Then, in 1939 with the onset of WWII the racing scene slowed down to a halt. By the time WWII was in full swing in the early 1940s Art had been commissioned for a job with North American, an aerospace contractor for the government.
While Art’s flying career would be enough of a legacy to leave for any person, he wasn’t done leaving his mark. Art was eventually put in charge of designing everything forward of the cockpit for the P-51 Mustang during WWII. This fighter plane was a key component for the allies’ success in the air wars of WWII. Art not only would oversee design, but he also manufactured a key part of the propeller for the P-51 Mustang. Upon finding out how much they were paying for the part, Art claimed he could make it much cheaper. He erected a manufacturing plant in Inglewood, CA with the help of wife Trudy and began making the spinner – a conical fitting for the propeller.
Eventually Art’s daredevil tactics would catch up with him. After the war he started racing again. In January of 1949 there was an exhibition in San Diego. This race was setup as a mile long straight away race. Most races were setup in a triangle or rectangle shape. This meant that the turn the racers were to take would be much tighter. Tragedy struck as one of the racers got caught in jet wash and plunged to his death. Art was the President of the association of racers for this event and had to make the tough decision to continue with his flight. It would turn out to be a fatal decision. Art followed in the previous racer’s path. He got caught in a jet wash on the turn and would crash, leaving behind a wife and child.
There are not many living contemporaries who had the privilege of knowing Art Chester. However, both his nephew Craig Chester and niece Sue Chester Brixie still remember their pioneer uncle and his remarkable life. Sue Chester Brixie lives in Downers Grove. She and Craig both remember living on 2nd street across from Pepperidge Farm and seeing their uncle Art pull up to the house with his airplane in tow. He would be off to some race in Cleveland, or Spokane, or somewhere adventurous. Craig remembers Art being a good man who was family centric. Craig remembers Art taking his father up joy riding ensuring the passenger seat would not fall out of the plane when Art pulled a fantastic maneuver. Sue remembers that Art was a wonderful artist in addition to his aviation skills.
The siblings attended the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (MSHFA) induction ceremony on March 6-7 of this year in Daytona Beach. Art and other famed racers were inducted. Art was recognized for his contributions. Among those are winning the 1930 National Air Races and setting a world speed record of 237 miles per hour.
Time has a way of washing away the memories of the past. For many people 1949 seems like a lifetime ago. For many it is. Still, the accomplishments of the past are all links in a chain that brought us to where we are today. The experiences we enjoy as Americans, and “Downers Grovers”, are all possible because people who came before us forged a path for us to tread. None of us can know what it was like to live in Downers Grove at the turn of the 20th century. However, history can tell us a compelling story about the people who lived in our town and changed the world. Recognizing the accomplishments of former citizens like Art Chester can be an inspiration for generations to come. When you’re young and adventurous Downers Grove may seem like just another town in middle America. Yet, it’s important to remember where you came from as you venture out into the unknown. That place is a piece of what make you. Art Chester always had a piece of Downers Grove with him as he conquered the aviation world. Downers Grove, for that matter, will always have Art Chester as a homegrown aviation hero. Congratulations to the Art Chester family for his Hall of Fame induction.
For a more detailed account of Art Chester’s life, you can read “The Art Chester Story,” by John W. Caler with John Underwood. It is available at Amazon and other digital retail outlets.


Downers Grove Historical Society Names
Abigail Stearns Root
as the First Woman Founder of the Year

On Saturday, May 6, the Downers Grove Historical Society will be honoring Abigail Stearns Root as their 2023 Founder of the Year, at the Main Street Cemetery.
Abigail Stearns Root was a pioneer wife and mother. She and her husband, Martin Root, made Downers Grove their home in the 1840s. Her father, Asa Stearns, served as a Revolutionary War soldier, making her a True Daughter of the American Revolution. The DAR has honored her Main Street Cemetery grave with a plaque, seen here.
Abigail Stearns was born in 1784 to Asa and Lucy Stearns. She was one of 12 children. Her father was a soldier in the Revolutionary War for 7 years. Benson, Vermont, where she grew up, was a town of about 700 people. That’s many more residents than she would find in Downers Grove when she came here.
Abigail married Martin Root in 1808. Together they had 6 children. In the 1840s, Martin, Abigail and their family decided that their future was in the West and moved to Illinois, settling in Lisle Township. Although already in their 50s, the Abigail and Martin Root family established themselves into pioneer farm life in DuPage County. The Roots became associated with the early Congregational church where Martin served as a deacon.
Martin Root died in 1865 and was buried in the Main Street Cemetery. Abigail was left to run the family farm; but with most of her children living nearby, she was surrounded by family.
When Abigail died in Downers Grove in 1873, she had lived through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the first 18 presidents of the United States. She was one of many pioneer women who came west, settled here and contributed to the history of our village.


They Brought Golf to Downers Grove

This sign by the Downers Grove Golf Club on Haddow Street states it was established in 1892. In 2023 the name of the club was changed to the Belmont Golf Club. The history of the name Belmont Golf Club and why it was in Downers Grove is connected to 2 men, Archibald Haddow Smith and Charles Blair Macdonald.

Archibald Haddow Smith, a merchant born in Scotland in 1846, came to America about 1890 and opened a real estate business in Chicago. One of the pieces of land he owned was a 60 acre parcel in the town of Belmont, near Downers Grove, which he used for a stock farm. When he heard that there were many in Chicago who were interested in playing golf, a game he played when he lived in Scotland, he offered his land in Belmont as a place to play. His land offered a beautiful rolling meadow, pieces of rough land, clumps of trees and bog holes - all things a golfer would like. With a hired man, who used a shovel and rake, a course was created, using tin cups as the holes. With his land being close to the town of Belmont and Belmont being a stop on the Burlington Railroad, the course was named the Belmont Golf Club.

Another man who loved the game of golf was Charles Blair Macdonald. Born in Ontario, Canada in 1857 Macdonald was educated in Scotland and learned to play golf there. Returning to America about 1874 he located in Chicago as a stockbroker. Macdonald was very interested in golf architecture and developing a course in America, to make a place to play the game with the best elements, like the courses in Scotland.

In 1892, Smith and Macdonald offered the Belmont Golf Club to those in Chicago who wanted to play the game. With the course so near to the Belmont stop on the Burlington, golfers could take the train from Chicago. An express train would stop at the Belmont stop for them; a special round trip ticket for the price of 50 cents was offered. Club members bought a horse and buggy to help get the players the short distance from the train station to the course. A house that was owned by Smith near the course was used as a club house.

During the first year the club operated, Macdonald collected $10.00 from each of the 30 members of the club to cover operating expenses.

On weekends Macdonald, pictured here, could be seen at the course, helping the players learn the points of playing the game. His promotion of the game of golf earned him the title of “Father of American Golf.” (Macdonald died in 1939 but in 2007 he was inducted in the World Golf Hall Of Fame.)

Golf came to Downers Grove because of the efforts of Smith and Macdonald. The course here has had several different names over the years but now, in 2023, it will again be called the Belmont Golf Club, as in the days of its beginning.


Upcoming Events

  • April 29 - May 6: Founders Day
    (various events - check our website for more details)
  • May 2: Tivoli Documentary - (register here)
All vintage photos courtesy of The Downers Grove Historical Society and Downers Grove Museum.



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P.O. Box 663
Downers Grove, IL 60515

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Downers Grove History · P.O. Box 663 · Downers Grove, Il 60515 · USA

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