Heckel farm featured in Eisenhower display
Laura Heckel, a Harwood Heights resident since the 1940s, looks at the display about her family's peony farm in Norridge. Heckel Peony Farm was located at Harlem and Lawrence avenues until the family sold it in 1958. | Rob Hart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 28, 2012 6:04AM
HARWOOD HEIGHTS — Peonies once ruled the land near Gunnison Street and Harlem Avenue.
“Lots of peonies,” said the former Laura Hulett, who in 1941 married Howard Heckel.
Heckel was the grandson of Heinrich and Wilhemenia Heckel, who in 1906 purchased eight acres of land from Charles Ball.
Laura Heckel said when she started dating her future husband, the area was nothing but farmland.
“Not even the street cars came this far,” said the Harwood Heights resident. “There were cabbage farms, onion farms, every kind of farm.
“Harlem was a two-lane road with no sidewalks until you got to Foster.”
Most of the Heckel farm was along Harlem, ending where Vince’s Italian Restaurant’s parking lot now stands, Laura Heckel said. The farm is included in a Harwood Heights display at the Eisenhower Public Library, 4613 N. Oketo Ave. in Harwood Heights.
In addition to peonies, the family grew herbs, vegetables and delphiniums.
“The herbs were a big business,” she noted. “Everything went to the market.”
In 1943, Howard Heckel began a two-year tour with the U.S. Navy. While he was serving in the South Pacific, Laura Heckel lived in San Diego.
When her husband was discharged from service, the couple found themselves without a place to live due to a post-war lack of housing. They ended up moving into the home of Howard’s father, Frank, at 7135 Gunnison St.
Laura Heckel worked alongside the family in the peony field.
“We had to pick off every bud, but one on each plant, and there were hundreds of plants,” she noted.
Toward evening, the family would recut the stems, bring the flowers down to the basement of the home and separate them into bundles of a dozen. Carl Heckel, Howard’s brother, took the plants to market.
The area still was under-developed at the time, Laura Heckel said.
“Hunters used to come by for pheasants and rabbits,” she said. “In the fall, if we were in the backyard, we had to be careful that we didn’t get shot.”
Because no streets or sidewalks existed, Frank Heckel took his tractor and mowed a path through a neighboring field so his grandchildren, Jane and Brock, could walk to Union Ridge School.
“No one even noticed or cared,” Laura Heckel said about her father-in-law creating a path through the field for her children.
So isolated was the area that people used to dump their unwanted pets on the farm.
“We always had a supply of cats,” Laura Heckel said.
The farm made way for development when the family sold it in 1959.
At one time, Holiday Bowl used to occupy a spot. Still standing are Parkway Towers.
As for peonies, Laura Heckel shared a tip.
“You can keep them in cold storage for up to six months,” she said. “When you see a little pink in the bud, you cut it, put it in a little water and then put it in the refrigerator.
“But it can’t be a self-defrosting one,” she warned. “It has to be the old-fashioned kind.”~.