"I have no slightest recollection of any stern family rules at home.
There were kindnesses every day."
                                                   
                                                                -   Frank A. Vanderlip


A Mystery On Lake Street


     Aurora, Illinois is a pretty town on the Fox River, about forty miles west of Chicago. Although the actual river is visible from River Street, there is no body of water to be seen along South Lake Street. It is a busy enough road to be designated Illinois Highway 31.

     An unremarkable two-story house sits on a corner, across the street from a 7-11. There is no historical marker, or even any evidence that the building is at least 150 years old. In 1864, it was the birthplace of Frank Vanderlip.

     I stood in front, marveling that the house still stood here, on a trip to Aurora in September 2013 to look at Frank's early life, and to kick off the recent publication of my book, under the gracious hosting of Jennifer and the rest of the Aurora Historical Society. This house seemed like a good place to begin.
     In California, even a small house still standing ever since the Civil War wold probably be designated an historical monument. In Aurora, there are many from that time, all in fine shape and still looking strong. But locating this particular one was only thanks to the patient search of an historical detective from the Society, name Mike.
Mike is a quiet man who I met on-line when I started writing the first chapter of Frank's story. From his voice on the phone, I pictured a small, thin man in black-rimmed glasses. Over the course of months, I badgered him with questions, and Mike patiently researched each one, while he wondered who this crazy woman was who seemed to be obsessed with all things Frank. By the time we started looking for the house, I think he also felt invested in the search.

     We knew Frank was born on South Lake Street, because he says so, in his 1935 autobiography. We knew what the house looked like, because a photo of it appears in the 1935 Saturday Evening Post serialization of part of that book. When I sent Mike a copy of the old photo, he thought it looked familiar. So, one day on his own time, Mike drove slowly up and down South Lake Street.
     His diligence paid off. Mike called me one day to say he actually found it. Without the house physically moving, the address number had changed at least once. We shared as much excitement as two researchers can do over the phone.

     If this is the story of a detective, there must be a mystery. And indeed, there is. We have no idea who lived there when Frank was born, or why his mother would choose this spot. Frank's grandparents on his mother's side lived on South River Street, in another house, no longer existing, whose address changed several times. Did the house on South Lake belong to a doctor who delivered the baby? Was Frank's mother Charlotte visiting a friend when he came into the world, without time for Charlotte to go anywhere else for the birth?

     We have no answer, at least not yet. Perhaps one of our readers will be able to solve this small mystery and help Find Frank at his birth on South Lake.

     Who lives there today? Another mystery. The building seems to be divided into two units, with an outside staircase on the back side climbing up to an entrance on the second floor. Yes, I could have knocked on one or both doors, and I may not be the best reporter because of this, but it doesn't seem right to me to bother people in their own homes.

     No one would particularly notice this house on a drive down the street. It is not in a bad part of town, but not in a particularly fancy one either. It looks rather forlorn in the 2012 Google Earth photos, in the middle of being refurbished. To Charlotte Vanderlip, who was living in 1864 on a small farm, it may have seemed like a finer place to deliver her first child. However, it is a far cry from the fine homes that we will see Frank enjoying most of his adult life. The entire structure wold have not even filled one wing of Beechwood.

     So, after photographing as much as possible from the public streets, I silently thanked the owners for preserving this small piece of history.
     What can we learn from this stop? That Frank's beginnings, while certainly not palatial, were comfortably middle class for th time. That there are people who respect old buildings, even those that are not grand, and who will take care to keep them in good shape. That there are overlooked remnants of American history still to be discovered. And that we live in a country where someone from simple beginnings can, through his own hard work and determination, become a success story.

     Toward the end of his life, Frank wrote, "I have never ceased to wonder whether I was able to do it because I was Vanderlip, or because I was an American."


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