The Christmas Lights Ride in Frankfort, Illinois

The little town of Frankfort Illinois dolls up for Christmas every year by donning lights on its centerpiece park “The Breidert Green.” The mayor presides over the tree lighting ceremony and the season is officially open.

The lights brighten up long dark weary nights and add a festivity to the air. Combine that with the Mid-night Madness sale on a Friday night and the sleepy town stays up late to celebrate.

About ten years ago, I led a Folks on Spokes bike ride on a Friday night called the Christmas Lights Ride. Twenty of us met in the empty town parking lot at 5:30 p.m. The route I charted took us around the town on the most brightly decorated streets. I charted the ride to visit every neighborhood in town starting with the historic district and winding through each subdivision. The darkest stretch was along the Old Plank Trail which allowed us to cross route 45 a major thoroughfare safely. After an hour of slow riding a chill beset us and there was a mist in the air. One rider, dressed as he would for a twenty-mile an hour training ride was on the verge of hypothermia, so I directed him to the town center via a short cut to a warming place. The rest of the troupe valiantly proceeded for another half hour. The grand finale took us down Ginger Lane where the folks decorate the parkway trees as well as their homes. Residents wrap each tree trunk with green lights, and the canopy is strung in white. Riding down this curvy street arched in lights has a magic about it to put a person in the right Christmas spirit. Most of us had decorated our bicycles with battery powered mini lights to make the entourage just as intriguing. The neighbors who were out walking the displays, and those still hanging lights were surprised to see a chain of lighted bicycles powered by riders with Santa hats, reindeer antlers and Elf adornments streaming down the street all lit up. We ended the ride ready for a meal. A rider asked me if I made reservations at a restaurant. I replied, “in this sleepy town at this hour there will be no need for reservations.”

Upon our return at 7:30 cold, and damp there was a marked difference in town. There were cars parked everywhere. We scurried to load our bikes onto our cars and to head to the Kansas Street Grill across the street. I hurried across the street to get a table arranged while the rest of the group locked their bikes.

“I’m sorry sir, but the wait is forty-five minutes.”

“What?”

“Forty-five minutes.” That folks, is how I learned about Frankfort’s Midnight Madness.

At this point, I had twenty surly and hungry bike riders who had one thing on their mind, well several things: get warm, get a drink, get some food.

Don’t panic, I said to myself. Think!

“Let’s all go to visit Brent at the bike shop across the street,” I said.

Thankfully Brent a fellow bike club member welcomed us with open arms. Next door to Brent’s bike shop was a new pizza place with an empty room. I walked in and asked how long it would take them to seat a party of twenty.

“Ten minutes,” was the reply.

“Thank you Lord,” I whispered under my breath. I went next door to tell the group the new plan and to drink some warm cider.

The Christmas Lights Ride launched Tony’s Villa Rosa that night. The place became a village focal point from that point on until Tony decided he didn’t love his wife anymore and divorced her for another woman. Tony’s Villa Rosa is no longer in business.

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The ‘AV’ or Main Street America

High school gave me a freedom to explore.  Classes ended at 1:50 p.m. and basketball practice didn’t begin until 3:30,  that gave me an hour to walk up to Michigan Avenue.  It is a brisk five minute walk from the school, and up the hill to the “Av.”

The “Av,” short for Michigan Avenue, formed the central business district for the Roseland, and surrounding neighborhoods.  The “Av” and “Main Street America,” were one and the same. Walking down MIchigan Avenue between 103rd St and 115th St was the same as walking down the Main Street of Lowell ,Indiana, or Morris, Illinois. Small businesses covered both sides of the street from 107th to 115th.  There were clothing stores, shoe shops, a shoe maker, drugstores, Gately’s People Store, Walgreen’s, a small bike shop, barber shops, photo studio, and more.  Anything needed for life could be found on the “Ave”. There were restaurants, taverns, Dentists, and Doctors mixed in between and above the stores.  At the top of the hill on the corner of 111th and Michigan stood the Mocambo Night Club.

One of my favorite places was the soda fountain at Walgreen’s.  After a day in class, a coke hit the spot.  Mom shopped at Gately’s whenever she needed a special dress. Gately’s ran a bakery and food shop on the lower level.  One of their specialties was the French doughnut.  These were made on the automated donut machine.  I could watch that thing for hours.

The machine consisted of an ovular trough filled with hot cooking oil.  The start point was a dough dispenser, which plopped a ring of raw dough into the oil. The plop cooked in the oil as it moved around the oval.   A new plop followed as soon as the first was out of the way.  Once the plop reached the halfway point, a submerged basket lifted up and flipped it so the uncooked side was in the oil.  The half cooked donut continued to the end where it was again lifted and flipped out of the oil onto a tray as a fully cooked donut.  A worker arranged the finished donuts on the tray. She gave a final touch by sprinkling them with either powdered sugar, dipping them in chocolate frosting, or into plain sugar. When completed, she traded the full tray for an empty, and moved the full tray to the display case.  The process never stopped moving. Today, if you go to a Krispy Kreme donut shop you will see the same donut maker amazing people the same way it amazed me fifty-five years ago. It is also the same machine that amused me  in Hillman’s basement sixty-five years ago.

The Cianci Photo Studio was on the west side of the Ave between  at 113th.  They always featured examples of their work in the window.  High School graduation pictures were among their specialties.  When I graduated Mendel I had my studio picture taken there too.  My ugly face was one of the pictures they put into the window.  That was great from a girl chasing point of view, but I took a lot of flack from the guys.

I often visited the bike shop to look for parts to customize my bike.  There was something about the smell of the shop that turned me on.  The shop was not one of the modern sterile bright show rooms of today.  It was more like an old hardware store where the aisles and walls are stacked with shelves loaded with parts.  The difference being a hardware store didn’t have bikes squeezed into every inch of available floor space.

The owner of the shop was a gray haired man who wore an apron. His hands were black with dirt and grease.  The looked liked my hands when I cleaned my chain or rear wheel with a strong solvent.  The dirty grease gets into every pore and every fingerprint.  It was at this shop that I bought an eleven-tooth cog for my rear wheel.  A classmate from Roseland introduced me to the mechanical advantage offered by sprockets. He told me that putting a smaller sprocket on the back wheel would make the bike faster.  What he taught is correct but that “faster” also requires more torque.  Torque is required to turn the crank.  The force exerted on the pedal transmitted through the crank arm is torque.  The smaller gear required more torque, and since the crank arm is a fixed length, the force has to increase.  I found myself standing on the pedal to get enough force converted to torque to pull the chain that turned the small sprocket.

Once I got the bike moving with this sprocket, pumping continued to be harder. This extra effort got me to thinking that a bike really needs many sprockets on the back wheel. For starting from a dead stop or for climbing hills, a large rear sprocket is needed. Once you gain speed the sprocket can be smaller.  A multiple speed bike, what a novel idea(1952).

In 1972,  I bought a bike for my wife at the Schwinn shop in Evergreen Park.  I bought her a ladies model 5 speed, exactly what I had invented in 1952.  I told the shop owner that if Schwinn was smart they would add the multiple speed rear wheel onto a fat -tired cruiser.  The guy told me it was a dumb idea and that no one would buy it.

A hardtail mountain bike.

Image via Wikipedia

Two years later a kid name Gary Fisher from California put a 5 speed wheel on a cruiser and started riding it up a mountain just so he could have the thrill of coasting down at high speed.  The mountain-bike caught on, and a fad began which pumped new life into a failing bike industry.  The new sport of mountain biking became a rage.  Schwinn finally woke up in the late seventies and sold a crude mountain bike.

The Av was a major commercial area until the late sixties.  By then, shopping malls displaced Main Street.  On the Southwest side of Chicago, Evergreen Plaza became the new hot spot for shopping. One by one, the businesses on the Av closed. The street became quiet, and the storefronts boarded.

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