Ernest Von Oven in Holland’s Directory
The 1886 Holland’s Directory features three full-page ads promoting Ernest Von Oven’s various businesses. All have the same office “at the forks of Aurora and Oswego roads,” where St. John’s Episcopal Church currently sits. In fact, the rectory behind the church was once the Von Oven home.
Von Oven arrived in 1855, and by 1866, he had established himself as a businessman in town and married Emma Reifnerath, with whom he raised a family of five children: Helene, Johanna, Hedwig, Frederick, and Emma.
Von Oven also started the Naperville Nursery with his brother, Adelbert, the favorite of all his operations, which ran until the mid-1900s, long past Ernest’s own passing in 1906. It was one of several nurseries in the area and was well-known for fruit trees in particular. Emma and her children carried on the business for a number of years. This 1926 ad from the American Institute of Park Executives shows the only son, Fred, as the president and “H. Von Oven” as the secretary. As Hedwig, unfortunately, died while still a toddler, this no doubt refers to Helene.
Von Oven’s other operations included a tile- and brickworks with George Martin, the builder of the mansion now featured at Naper Settlement. Martin had started the brickworks in the mid-1850s, but it really took off following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 when the city was desperate to rebuild. One of Martin’s former associates was Martin King and Von Oven became a partner in 1878. In addition to bricks, the company also produced tile, which was becoming more and more necessary for draining agricultural fields.
Yet a third business Von Oven was involved in was a quarry and stone operation with Bernard B. Boecker, starting in 1884. Boecker survived the infamous Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago in 1903 but tragically lost his son to a wagon accident in one of the quarries. Naperville had several quarries along the DuPage River that eventually were abandoned, including the Von Oven and Boecker property. In 1831, a group of citizens purchased that land from the Von Oven heirs with the idea of getting the city to take it on as 100th anniversary Permanent Memorial and turn it into a park and swimming hole. Centennial Beach was dedicated in June, technically some months before it actually became property of the city. Bernard’s son, Theodore, was one of the members of the Permanent Memorial Committee.
It's interesting to look at the old Sanborn Maps of Naperville and see the industrial rail spur running down Jackson and up Ewing to join the main line going to Chicago. In addition to the stone and brick businesses, this spur was probably also used by John Suess’s church furniture shop and maybe the German cheese factory. The Stenger Brewery doesn’t seem to be along the rail route, but Stenger did store beer close to the DuPage River, so perhaps they used wagons for transportation to storage and later used the spur to connect with the main line?
Ernest and Emma’s children seem to have been smart and talented. In addition to helping with the family’s businesses, Fred was a trained engineer and also instrumental in developing Illinois state parks. He worked with Jens Jensen on a pamphlet called “A Park and Forest Policy for Illinois.”
Before Johanna died suddenly in 1909, she was an accomplished artist and teacher of art, training and working at the Chicago Art Institute and Chicago University. Helene and Emma, named for her mother, both continued in the nursery business. None of the Von Oven children had children of their own and Emma was the last of the line. She presented a portion of her land to the city for the Von Oven Scout Reservation before her death in 1960.
In addition to the Scout Reservation and the St. John’s rectory, the Von Ovens also left behind a stately monument in the Naperville Cemetery where all of the family is buried.