“When I first moved to Riverwoods on May 15, 1950, I thought I had landed in Paradise.” That’s the first sentence of Barbara Zimmer’s Memories of Riverwoods and Surrounding Area (1991). Without a doubt many current residents feel the same way.
When Mrs. Zimmer moved to Riverwoods, it was a very different place. The Zimmers purchased land on Sherry Lane in 1946 at $1,000 per acre. That had been the price of land in the area for the prior 20 years, and would remain the price for the next 10 years or so. They chose Edward Humrich to build their house.
One of the first houses in Riverwoods was the small white clapboard house owned by the Herrmanns near the northwest corner of Portwine and Deerfield Roads. In the 1950’s, it was considered large. Neighbors used to refer to it as “the big white house.” When it was built, it was reached via Riverwoods Road and down Portwine Road, both of which were dirt roads at the time. Deerfield Road didn’t exist west of Sanders. Deerfield Road was extended to Milwaukee Avenue in the 1930’s. Riverwoods Road and Portwine Road were gravel roads as late as the late 1950’s.
Early settlers were generally self-sufficient, and opposed to government services or interference. They had their own wells and septic fields. Some constructed their homes using timber from their own lots. Their roads were privately owned. The fire department was a volunteer organization. The county sheriff provided police protection. Farmers along Milwaukee Avenue used to come to Riverwoods in the winter on sleds across the Des Plaines River. They would chop down trees for firewood. At the time the Zimmers moved to the area, the elementary school serving properties west of Portwine was a one-room schoolhouse on Milwaukee Avenue, with eight grades in one room. (The building is part of the group of buildings on Milwaukee Avenue between Deerfield and Lake Cook Roads.) The high school was about 15 miles away.
In the 1950’s, Massasauga rattlesnakes were common, growing up to about 3 feet long. Rattlesnake hunts were common, including those held by the Boy Scouts. The area was informally named “Rattlesnake Gulch.” As development spread west from Deerfield, realtors were concerned about the adverse publicity of rattlesnakes. Residents didn’t mind, since they preferred to maintain the rural character of the area. Children were known to have thrown rattlesnake skins into trees to discourage purchasers.
When, in the 1950’s, some residents decided that the dirt roads filled with potholes were insufficient for the community, old-timers objected. They felt that adding gravel to roads would facilitate traffic and interfere with the privacy of the area.
“It’s important to know that many of us early settlers came to Riverwoods for the trees, for the space, and for the freedom.” (Jane Ware Davenport, from A Village Remembered:Riverwoods after 25 Years, 1984)
Small game lived in the woods, too, including mink, muskrat, weasels, badgers, foxes and skunks. Deer were rarely seen, but became more visible with development. Riverwoods was so heavily wooded that some homes were built by their owners from the timber cut down on their lots. As late as the 1960’s, the woods were so thick that sometimes residents would get temporarily lost in their own woods. As late as the early 1990’s, areas of Riverwoods south of Deerfield were “solid with trillium” in the spring, “covered white, almost like snow.”
From the beginning Riverwoods was a self-reliant community. As deer became more prevalent, some residents considered changing the name of the town from Riverwoods to Deer Grove. Most residents continued to prefer the name “Riverwoods”, and so the name stuck.
Flowers. Since those early days, Riverwoods has continued to change. In spite of the conscientious efforts of George Herrmann [1888 – 1980] and other conservationists of the area however, some of Riverwoods’ most beautiful and exceptional flowers have disappeared or become very rare. There was a time when cranes hatched their families in a cottonwood grove south of Ringland Road, when there were many natural springs in the woods ringed with marsh marigolds, when folks could – and some unfortunately would – pick a whole armful of yellow lady’s slipper, not protected by law. The cardinal flower, the red columbine and gentians are especially prized in the fall and the bloodroot and hepatica are among the first signs of spring. These, however, are becoming more and more infrequent. But the trillium continues to make the woods a very special place each spring. And villagers should probably be excused if, in their admiration and pride, they refer to Riverwoods as the trillium capital of the world.
Birds. As for the birds, there was a time when the Herrmanns had scores of wren houses scattered about their property, all occupied by home-loving tenants. Now the wrens are much less frequent and it is a rare occurrence when a bluebird, another former denizen, is sighted. Almost lost to the woodland are two other favorites, the tanagers and the woodcocks. However, there are still enough rare and ordinary birds, year-round and summertime and migration time, to make the place “a bird-watchers delight.” (Dorothy Wright, from A Village Remembered: Riverwoods after 25 Years, 1984)
Passion. One thing about Riverwoods has not changed: the passion of its residents. Becoming involved in the affairs of the Village [in 1960] was like accidentally stepping into a gang fight. Half of the residents wanted the right to own and keep unlimited numbers of horses and ride wherever they chose. The other half screamed bloody murder about the intrusion of horses on their property and the thoughtlessness of horse owners in general. Half of the town wanted sewers, the other half didn’t need sewers and didn’t want to urbanize the community by their installation, thus making it easier for developers to change the character of the community by building on smaller parcels of land.
“At first, I thought all of this bickering and chaos was caused by people living in the woods for too long a period. But, after several years of being subjected to packed, acrimonious board meetings, contested elections and referendums over these matters, I came to realize that everyone has the same special intense interest and feeling about their community. Riverwoods is a hidden glen in an ever-encroaching jungle of a commercialized metropolitan area. People who live in Riverwoods are instinctively individualistic. They are creative, and react strongly against the planned development of their community by government agencies. Riverwoods residents find peace and enjoyment in going it alone among the God-given gift of the trees and nature that is uniquely Riverwoods.” (Alfred Lewis, from A Village Remembered: Riverwoods after 25 Years, 1984)