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Lambert: Electric Park — Wild Days of Jazz, Booze and A Preacher Man

Once a thriving tourist attraction, what became of Electric Park once it closed for good in the 1920s?

The Inquiry

This is the second installment of the 20th Century history of the Electric Park site in response to a Plainfield Patch reader’s inquiry: “What became of Electric Park after it closed in the 1920s?”   

The Facts

Although Electric Park never re-opened in 1924, several interesting chapters were added to the site’s legacy over the course of the next five decades.

Many attempts were made to revive Electric Park and its brief—but unforgettable—popularity. Nearly all of the efforts were tinged with a bit of notoriety and a few with a bit of outright scandal.

As summer turned to autumn in 1924, most of Electric Park’s equipment and furnishings were sold off in piecemeal fashion before the 20-acre park grounds were sold.

Radio Days

The early 1920s was a period of rapid technological change. 

Just as technology had put an end to Americans’ dependence on streetcars, technology also brought new life to Electric Park. Numerous inventions, including the introduction of “wireless sets” (or radios), fueled the younger generation’s craving for “fast living.” 

Among young people, the institution of Prohibition unleashed a social revolution. The music of the age was “jazz” that could be heard in dance clubs and on the radio.  Many small radio stations reveled in the “jazz culture,” bringing the devilish music into homes across the country.

Odd Bedfellows

As the 1923 park season drew to a close, an odd partnership struck a deal with the management of the Aurora Plainfield & Joliet Railroad. During the early months of Prohibition, Rev. George F. Courrier, a Methodist minister, had become acquainted with an alleged Joliet mobster, Lawrence “Butch” J. Crowley. 

Thirty-five year old “Butch” Crowley was a dapper bootlegger who had invested heavily in many of the area’s old breweries as Prohibition became the law of the land. Crowley’s money had underwritten the operations of many of the once-powerful brewers as they began to produce “near beer” as well as “root beer.” 

“Butch” Crowley also owned the Alamo Ballroom at Clinton and Chicago streets in downtown Joliet. From that location, Crowley established Joliet’s first radio station, WWAE, in November 1923. The 500 watt transmitter aired dance music from the Alamo Ballroom three nights each week.

At that time, Crowley was a frequent patron of the Purple Gackle, a roadside inn and speakeasy on the outskirts of Elgin. Batavia’s WTAS radio station became widely-popular throughout the Fox Valley during 1923, based largely on its broadcasting of “hot jazz” from the Purple Gackle.

Live … from Electric Park

Between 1912 and 1919, Dr. George F. Courrier, a Methodist minister, lived at Elgin.  Courrier had been born in Minnesota in 1881 and became an ordained Methodist minister around 1910.  After his first appointment at Lockport, Rev. Courrier and his wife moved to Elgin, where he served several Methodist churches. In 1919, Courrier accepted a pastorate at the Methodist Episcopal Church of Plainfield.

With the demise of Electric Park, “Butch” Crowley was determined to move the radio station to Plainfield. The former auditorium at Electric Park was envisioned as a larger venue where dances and concerts could be held throughout the year. “Butch” Crowley purchased the majority of the Electric Park grounds in mid-1924 and moved the radio station to the auditorium building that October.   

Within a few months, Rev. Courrier began broadcasting Sunday church services from the WWAE studios at Electric Park.  Broadcast services were followed by an organ recital on the former park’s grand pipe organ. The weekly religious broadcasts soon forged a business association between Courrier and Crowley.

At first, WWAE prospered in its new location as its broadcasts reached listeners throughout the south suburbs of Chicago. Rev. Courrier’s involvement with the station continually increased.

Unfortunately, Crowley’s attempt to revive Electric Park was ultimately unsuccessful. By December of 1925, Courrier had orchestrated the return of the WWAE studios to Joliet, where broadcast studios were housed in the First National Bank building.

In spite of the studio relocation, the transmitter remained at the former Electric Park site. The following year, the 500 watt transmitter was replaced with a 1,000 watt transmitter on the former park grounds.

Electric Park Dismantled

Between 1925 and 1928, Crowley subdivided the east side of the Electric Park grounds. Many of the former camping cottages were purchased and retained as summer homes along the DuPage River. 

However, a few of the original cottage structures were moved to the east side of James Street.  There, they were enlarged and remodeled into permanent homes. Today, at least three of those relocated Electric Park cottages remain standing.

During this period, the grand pipe organ from Electric Park’s auditorium was sold to the Great States Theatre Corporation. The organ was installed in Joliet’s Princess Theater, replacing a smaller 1913 Hinners theatre organ.

From Spiritual Leader to Studio Head

In January 1927, Rev. Courrier moved the WWAE studios from Joliet to Greer Auto Technical College, located at 2024 S. Wabash Ave. in Chicago. “Butch” Crowley’s involvement in the operation of WWAE diminished dramatically. 

Courrier became the sole owner of WWAE in August 1927 and, soon thereafter, left the Methodist Episcopal church at Plainfield. Courrier returned to Elgin and assumed the pastorate at the small Plato Center, Illinois Methodist Church, just outside of Elgin. Rev. Courrier served the Plato Center church through 1940 while expanding his radio interests. During this period, the WWAE transmitter remained at Electric Park.

Reportedly, a suspicious mid-year fire in 1928 destroyed many of the original buildings at the former Electric Park site. Although the auditorium building survived, the radio transmitter was damaged. However, by June 1928, the WWAE studios and transmitter had been moved to Hammond, Indiana although a small broadcast studio remained at Chicago. 

Rev. Courrier became the President of the Hammond-Calumet Broadcasting Corporation. With his cousin Doris Keane, Courrier established the Radio Institute of Chicago around 1931. The Institute was a professional school that instructed students in all aspects of radio programming. 

Courrier and Keane established a second radio station, WHIP, at Hammond, Indiana in 1937. 

The Enduring Legacy of Reverend Courrier and Electric Park’s WWAE    

The creation of Rev. Courrier’s second radio station took its toll on both the Hammond-Calumet Broadcasting Corporation and the personal fortunes of Courrier and Keane.  

Courrier sold WWAE, and—in 1940—its new owners changed the station’s call letters to WJOB.  The station continues to broadcast from Hammond, Indiana 72 years later.

Hammond’s WHIP radio station was sold in 1942 to Chicago Sun publisher Marshall Field. The station was “off the air” by mid-1943.

During the early 1960s, Courrier and Keane’s Radio Institute of Chicago disgracefully faded into oblivion after operating for nearly 30 years. Beginning in 1954, the Institute operated WSEL(FM) until it was forced into bankruptcy seven years later.  

At that time, Doris Keane was indicted and, later, convicted of defrauding the federal government.  Only Rev. George F. Courrier’s declining health—and ultimate death in 1961—protected him from standing trial as well. 

Next Week: Electric Park: A Decade of Disappointment 

Have a question about Plainfield’s history?  Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch. 

© 2012 Michael A. Lambert. All Rights Reserved

S H August 14, 2012 at 07:59 PM
Your column is the most interesting thing about Plainfield Patch and I can't wait to read the next one. I love reading what you discover and seeing the pictures.
Droncz87 August 14, 2012 at 08:23 PM
I kinda wonder what electric park was like up until the tornado?
S H August 14, 2012 at 08:37 PM
Prior to the tornado, there were quaint little houses and streets nestled between James Street and the river. I recall the streets being more like driveways, winding and narrow, no sidewalks. There were lots of big trees, a lot of big old oaks. I don't know for sure if all the houses were what remained from the cabins at Electric park, but I liked to think they were. My aunt and uncle lived on James Street at Commercial, and their house was a charming little cottage-y place with a beautiful rustic stone fireplace. It was like something fanciful out of a movie with red shutters and paned windows, a winding path to the front door and pretty flowers. Mr. Lambert has done an excellent job on his research. I'm just going by what I remember from my home town.

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