At a time when automobiles were rare but orphans were plentiful, a tradition began in Chicago to bring them together. The idea was simple: Why shouldn't a needy kid get to enjoy an automobile ride and fun picnic in the park?
In 1904, five children from a local orphanage piled into a car and frolicked for a few hours in Jackson Park. The next year there were 12 youngsters. Within 10 years — and for the next 60 years — hundreds of cars (and occasionally some buses, trucks and taxis) were bringing upward of 5,000 children to a neighborhood park for an annual daylong festival of fun. The outings also included physically and mentally handicapped children, and elderly people from rest homes.
The Orphans Automobile Day Association tackled the complicated logistical task of arranging for hundreds of volunteer drivers to pick up three or four kids each from homes like the Angel Guardian Orphanage at 2001 W. Devon Ave., Chicago Nursery and Half-Orphan Asylum on Foster Avenue, the Illinois Children's Home and Aid Society in Evanston and dozens of other facilities.
The children, from toddlers to teens, got as much food as they could eat: Hot dogs, ice cream and cotton candy galore. Year after year, the Tribune reported on the gallons of orangeade and pounds of crackerjack consumed. The kids were entertained by clowns and other performers, a traveling animal show from the Lincoln Park Zoo, a Punch and Judy show and their own imaginations. Through the years, it was held in Grant Park, Lincoln Park and the picnic grove near Riverview amusement park.
Interestingly, the tradition continued during World War II, when gasoline rationing and other shortages forced a number of beloved activities to cease for a few years.
Ron Hayes, 76, of Rogers Park, fondly remembered those picnics in the late 1940s. He moved to Angel Guardian in 1946 before fifth grade after his mother fell ill and was unable to care for him and his three siblings. He recalled the excitement he felt as the picnic neared and on the big day itself.
To keep order, the nuns brought smaller groups of children to wait for pickup at the front of the building. "The cars were lined up all the way down on Devon Avenue," he said. "The kids would jockey for position when they saw someone they thought they were going to like."
The orphanage "was a good place, good education, very strict," he said. "With that many kids, I guess you had to be strict."
But that made the annual outing particularly sweet. "It was free time at Lincoln Park for most of the day," he said. "It was really something."Copyright © 2015, CT Now