History of the Phoenix Club

In about the year 1890 in the vicinity of Reising, Pierce and Rural Streets, intersection High Street, which was at the time a major part of Pidgeon Hill, there lived a hard working, home loving people who were predominatly Irish and Luxemburger. Upholding the Irish traditions of fight and frivolity were such names as O'Donnel, Montgomery, Graham, Hill, Clasey, Slattery, Sanders, O'Neil, Smith and others. Those upholding the Luxemburger traditions of thrift, determination, and friendship were such names as Weber, Braun, Lehnert, Loutwein, Poulous, Boffenmeyer, Kundert, Kapp, Baddery, Shadick, Lister, and others. These people migrated here from the east as pioneers, or were emigrants from their home lands. They were accustomed to a hard life and usually very rugged. Families were large and it was the ambition of every father to own his own home. Work was scarce and wages were small. Boys at the tender age of eleven and twelve years often had to go to work to help their fathers acquire their home. Cows, hogs, and chickens were common and necessary possessions. Children of the rugged parents were of sound minds and healthy bodies, bubbling with energy which had to be spent to keep them normal. Playgrounds were not heard of in those days so the children had to find their own form of recreation. Their playground was the Indian Creek and the Burlington railroad yards. The High Street viaduct had not been built until later. The boys of this neighborhood like boys of any other neighborhood formed a gang. This gang consisted of thirteen members ranging from ten to fifteen years of age. Like any other gang they had a leader. Sam S. "Mont" Montgomery was recognized as their leader, others were John "Skid" O'Donnel, Nick Lehnert, Adam "Cooper" Lehnert, Walter "Buff" Boffenmeyer, John "Jengel" Poulous, Mathiew "Ikey" Loutwein, James "Jimmy" Graham, Joseph Weber, William "Billy" Kundert, Nick "The Bull" Braun, Charles "Chuck" Sanders and Robert "Bobby" Hill.

They delighted in playing tricks on a Burlington railroad detective and a story is told of how he was dumped head first into a "Chick Sales Chateau". It wasn't long after this act the detective had his revenge. Because of continuous borrowing of coal from the Burlington yards the C.B. & Q. decided to break up this gang and the detective had the pleasure of ordering them to vacate their shack as it was on Burlington property. To satisfy his desire for revenge more fully he burned the shack down.

By this time the gang had grown into adulthood, at least they all had their first pair of long pants, and began to take a more serious view of life. They talked of organizing a real club and accordingly arrangements were made to rent Baddry House on Reising Street as a club house. Other young men from the neighborhood were encouraged to become members and in the fall of 1893 the first organization meeting was held. The membership numbered twenty-two. Sam S. Montgomery was elected president and John "Casey" Braum was elected treasurer. Upon recommendation of President Montgomery the organization was called "The Phoenix Social Club".

It was originally thought that the name Phoenix was chosen without rhyme or reason. Charter members of the organization were questioned, but none seemed to know. However, on a recent visit to the Phoenix Club, Sam Montgomery had this to say: "About the time the gang decided to organize a club I had been reading Egyptian mythology. I read of a fabulous bird called the 'Phoenix' which was worshipped by the ancient Greeks and Arabs. This bird was pictured as somewhat of a pest, that he lived for 500 years and that he would consume himself in flame and rise rejuvinated from its ashes. Because of its long life it was accepted as a symbol of immortality. I saw some similarity to the pesky Phoenix in this gang of rascals who had become a nuisance in the community. I also saw some similarity to the Phoenix rising from its ashes in this organization coming into existence because their shack had been burned down. Because of this similarity I thought "Phoenix" was an appropriate name for the organization. I suggested this and it was accepted".

The purpose of this club was to promote good fellowship and flourish entertainment for its members. Minutes of the early meetings of the Phoenix Club were not recorded. The only records were those of the treasurer accounting for the receipts and disbursements. These records show expenditures for a punching bag, boxing gloves and items of similar nature.

The Phoenix Club occupied Baddry house until 1895, when the boys moved to the Poulous house on Rural Street where they stayed for about one year when the organization became inactive. During the year of 1896 the fellows still traveled together but no organized meetings were held. Their hangout was Bruan’s store on Pierce Street. In 1897 Al "Big Willy" Erdman returned to Aurora, revising interest in the club, and they decided to rent new headquarters and hold regular meetings. There was no building available in the neighborhood with the exception of one which was known as "The Haunted House." Not believing in ghosts, it was decided to investigate this house to find out what caused the weird noises they had heard about and from which the building had received its name. "Mont" Montgomery, "Skid" O’Donnell and "Humbug" Walt were not afraid of ghosts so they volunteered to make the investigation. They left Braun’s store fearlessly and with a great determination to solve the mystery. "Humbug" was all dressed up, wearing a white silk vest with pearl buttons, which only the best dressed men wore in those days. The house, now the rectory of St. Michaels’ Church, was situated atop a hill with no other houses near. The three "braves" entered the house and climbed the stairs to one of the upper rooms and waited. The silence of the dark room was frightening. "Humbug" Walt began to sweat, so he took off his coat and vest. "Mont" was a little uneasy too. He felt on one side of him and there was "Skid," on the other side he felt "Humbug;" at least they hadn’t left him alone. No one made a sound. Soon the weird noises started; first lightly and as the wind blew harder the noises became louder. "Mont" was frightened. To make sure he wasn’t alone he again reached to one side, "Skid" was still there, but when he reached for "Humbug" he felt nothing, "Humbug" was gone. Someone was moving very rapidly outside. They thought it must be "Humbug" going for help, but "Humbug" never came back. As the wind died down, the noises died with it. "Mont" and "Skid" continued the search and found that at one time an attempt had been made to heat this house with a hot air system and which was never completed. The tin used was never fastened to keep it firm and as the wind blew through the openings the draft created would catch this loose tin making it vibrate and beat against the walls causing the weird noises. While they returned to Braun’s store to report their findings they found "Humbug’s" white vest which he had lost in his great haste.

The Phoenix Club rented this house for its headquarters and occupied it until 1903, during which time many activities were promoted in the club rooms. Among the most popular sports was boxing. Sam Montgomery, "Skid" O’Donnell, Walter Boffenmeyer and Adam Lehnert always gave a good account of themselves in a fistic exhibition. Sam Montgomery and "Skid" O’Donnell often fought when boxing shows were put on at the old Opera House, as well as professionally throughout the country. The Phoenix Club rooms were often used as a training camp for many top-notch fighters, among them were Sturch, McCune and Griffin. Sturch at one time fought for the Flyweight championship and McCune gained a reputation when defeated Philadelphia Jack O’Brien.

In 1903 the Phoenix Club moved its headquarters to Braun’s on Pierce Street. But after a short time moved to the Niersbach house on Pierce Street where they stayed until 1905. Records of the meetings show there were three active committees namely, the fine, dance and refreshment committees. The fine committee was designed to control the conduct and habits of the members and this plan of regulating the members conduct has proven effective to this present time, as can be arrested by some of the members. The dance committee in the old days was very active. The Phoenix Club promoted many dances for the enjoyment of its members and even though well attended were usually operated at a loss. Invitations were often sent to the Joliet Rival Club or the Riverside Club of Elgin to attend these dances. A story is told of one member being assessed a fine for escorting a young lady to one of these dances who was caught smoking a cigarette. (How times have changed.) The duties of the beer committee were to see that refreshments were taken care of for all occasions. Sometimes the club enjoyed free beer donated by John F. Cass, unbeknown to him of course, as the boys were known to have rolled a quarter off the beer wagon now and then as it passed through the neighborhood. Sometimes they would buy one quarter and borrow two. Other stories are told of how some of the boys would go into a neighbor’s cellar and tap the eighth of beer he had just bought and then invite him down to drink his own beer.

At one time there was a ruling in the Phoenix Club that its membership should not exceed sixty and that no married men be allowed. There was always a waiting list of prospective members to join the organization. Many of the members celebrated their weddings in the club rooms and many stories are told of the things that happened to the bride and groom.

Some of the favorite pastimes of the members were gang fights, snooping and rushing the bucket. Gang fights were common in those days. The gang from one section of town would challenge a group from another section and whether out numbered or not the fight went on according to schedule. These fights were not always scheduled. Sometimes one gang would surprise another (a la Hitler’s "Blitz Krieg"). The Pigeon Hill gang had the reputation of being one of the toughest in town.

Snooping was a mild form of entertainment. The boys who were courting girls were the victims. Two or three members were delegated to snoop on each fellow courting a girl. After a party at the club two or three would take short cuts to their respective snooping places and hide. The unsuspecting couple after arriving home would coo and whisper words of endearment to each other. After the girl retired and her lover went back to the club the snoopers again took their short cut to the club and awaited his return. To his complete and often times embarrassment they would re-enact the scene.

Rushing the bucket resulted in more excitement. Whenever things got dull around Aurora, someone would suggest going to Chicago to rush the bucket. Those in favor would get out their tin pail and head for the C.B. & Q. yards where they would hop the first train to Chicago. On South State Street you could get a bucket of beer for a nickel. After two or three of these the boys were ready for action. "Ikey" Loutwein was usually the instigator and he could always be counted on to make things interesting; annoying the merchants on South State Street was his favorite pastime. "Ikey" was so small and innocent looking he was never suspected for his misdeeds and to see his buddies suffer for him was his delight. The Burlington Railroad could declare a dividend if they could collect for the rides this gang took on its system.

We pause here to give thought to a situation which certainly gives meaning and effect to the old quotation:

"There is so much bad in the best of us And so much good in the worst of us That it behooves none of us To speak ill of the rest of us."

In the spring of 1905 when Pigeon Hill began expanding northward the Phoenix Club moved northward with it. A George White was erecting a new building on an alley, now known as Phoenix Court. Some of the members approached him to rent the new building for clubrooms. He agreed and the Phoenix Club moved to its new headquarters. Here the seriousness of middle age overcame the members. Rascality was a thing of the past. They decided to make this club a credit to the community. For thirty-five years their efforts have directed to that end. Today we can proudly say the Phoenix Club enjoys a reputation second to none and is considered one of the outstanding social clubs in the city. The pranks of the young Phoenix boys turned into benefactions which were but a beginning of their social regeneration which is shown today in their rise from those figurative ashes to a membership increased more then ten-fold and honoring Pigeon Hill society at last by dedicating the new Phoenix Club to future civic betterment and an inspiration toward that immortality which the name truly implies.