The Chicago Tribune labeled Olson Park one of “Chicago’s Seven Lost Wonders.” Built next to the Olson Rug Company, this 22-acre park attracted over 200,000 people a year by 1955.
The Olson Rug Company of Chicago was founded in 1874 by Oliver B. Olson. Born in Norway, he came to Chicago and learned the carpet trade. He worked for several companies before starting his own company, located four miles away from the future mill.
In 1905, Oliver’s son, Walter, became the head of the company. In 1928, Walter built the manufacturing mill at Diversey Avenue and Pulaski (then named Crawford). The family-owned business was the largest manufacturer of rugs, carpets, and broadlooms selling direct to the home.
Inspired by his Wisconsin vacation home, Walter wanted to transplant the great outdoors to the factory grounds for his employees. He built the 22-acre park right next to his manufacturing mill.
The project was ambitious, especially given it was built during the Great Depression. It took 200 workers six months to create the park out of 800 tons of stone and 800 yards of soil. Olson used many of his workers as garden builders and locally sourced the limestone, plants, and trees.
The park had 3,500 perennials, spruces, junipers, pines, and annuals that stood in contrast with the surrounding industrial area. There were also three waterfalls, one 35-feet in height, a rock garden, a bird sanctuary, a duck pond, ravines, and caves.
The park opened on September 27, 1935, on the 100th anniversary of a treaty that resulted in the expulsion of three native tribes – the Pottawatomies, Chippewas, and Ottawas – across the Mississippi River. Walter Olsen was an admirer of Native American history and invited representatives of these tribes to the opening ceremony, which included a symbolic deeding back of the park and area to these tribes. The three waterfalls in the park represented the three tribes.
An estimated 25,000 people attended the opening. The park continued to develop, opening up to the public free of charge. Peacocks, golden pheasants, and Corriedale sheep even made Olson Park their new home.
The holidays were especially popular with themed seasonal decor added for Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. Christmas displays featured a Nativity scene, life-size deer statues, Santa’s cottage, and Santa sledding along a hanging wire. Every night in December, Santa could be found in his chair listening to children’s wish lists for Christmas. Each child received a small gift.
While it had a good run, Olson Park did not last. The mill and premises sold to Marshall Field’s & Company in 1965. The mill was turned into a warehouse, but the park remained open until the 1970s. They bulldozed Olson Park, literally paving paradise to put up a parking lot.