Kolze’s Grove, with its outdoor lights, offered multiple recreational activities near the Narragansett-Irving intersection prior to Merrimac Park being constructed there
by BRIAN NADIG
A nine-acre recreational site at the southeast corner of Irving Park Road and Narragansett Avenue has been known as Merrimac Park since the 1950s, but prior to that it was a privately owned picnic grove with outdoor electric lighting before such technology was commonplace.
“That picnic grove was the first in the Chicago area to boast of these newfangled electric lights, so you didn’t have to go home at sundown. You could stay after dark,” longtime local business owner Ralph Frese, who died in 2012, said in a video about Merrimac Park created by the Northwest Chicago Historical Society.
The grove, which was named after Henry Kolze who inherited the land in the 1890s, also was called “Kolze Electric Park” due to the lights.
For decades Frese operated the former Chicagoland Canoe Base shop about a block north of the park, and his complex included a structure that was moved there from Kolze’s Grove, said historical society researcher Frank Suerth.
The grove included a restaurant, bar, hotel, beer gardens, a shooting gallery, a dance pavilion and other recreational amenities, including ping pong tables, Suerth said.
“My mother remembers going there and listening to German music,” Suerth said.
The extension of the Irving Park Road streetcar service in 1896 made it easier for Chicagoans to reach the grove, Suerth said.
Companies and churches would rent out the grove for private events, and it was also a pleasant place for visitors to stop on their way to the nearby cemeteries and the Dunning State Mental Hospital, according to the historical society.
The grove served as “Saint Pascal’s playground,” and chicken dinners at the grove on Sundays were popular, according to residents on the video.
After World War II, the Chicago Park District acquired the grove and converted it into a park during the 1950s, installing athletic fields, a children’s playground and basketball and tennis courts.
The clapboard dining hall and tavern structure at the grove were converted for use as a fieldhouse, but in 1969 the park district replaced the structure with a modern brick fieldhouse, the historical society said.
The name “Merrimac” is derived from the Confederate iron clad ship the Merrimac, according to the society. A street of the same name runs near the park.
Its Union nemesis the Monitor has a street named for it east of the park.
The video can be viewed at YouTube.com, with a search for “Merrimac Park.”
The late Cardinal Francis George grew up in the area and said on the video that the grove had some play equipment and rides. “We use to sneak in (when it was closed) … just out of curiosity …but they had guard dogs, so we didn’t sneak in too often.”