Roundabout Christmas

Roundabout Christmas
Now part of Gethsemane Garden Center, the building at 5739 N. Clark, is ont of Edgewater's oldest commercial structures. When it was built, Clark Street was called Green Bay Road. In 1901, it was the Winandy Saloon. In this 1967 photo, it was still a bar, with a Summerdale exchange phone number. When the Amvets turned it into one of their Posts, they built a great addition on the back. Under that "depression brick" skin is genuine, antique, pine board-on-board siding. Most early wooden store fronts were replaced with brick by 1915.

The Chefases are the proud owners of Gethsemane Garden Center at 5801 N. Clark Street and its addition at 5739 N. Clark.

ucille Chefas knew something wasn't right when they came home from Brookfield Zoo. They had left early in the morning with their son John, daughter-in-law Cathy, and their granchildren for the Shedd Aquarium, and then went to Brookfield Zoo to see the dolphins. They had been gone all day. It had gotten dark and the Christmas lights were on.

he lights must have been on all day! They had turned them on early in the morning to admire all the work Cathy had done decorating the house and yard where they sold other Christmas trees. John's family had come from Florida to see Chicago and enjoy the Christmas season with his parents.

o use turning the lights off now since they've been on all day," Mrs. Chefas said. "Even the lights to the train village are on."

fter the busy day, everyone but Spiros and Lucille went upstairs to bed. They were in the habit of watching the 10 o'clock news, so they stayed up.

piros asked his wife, "Do you want to watch Johnny Carson? He's going to have on that actress you like."

efore she could answer, there was a "pop" like a bulb bursting; the Christmas tree went up in flames.

ire! Get out of the house!" Spiros yelled up the open stairway. Luckily, his granddaughter was brushing her teeth in the upstairs bathroom, heard him, and woke her parents.

randpa Chefas, Spiros' father that is, came to America from Greece n 1911. He got a job as a cook in a Chicago restaurant. The Moody Bible Church was nearby. He fell in love with a nice Swedish girl named Ester Benson, and married her in the church. With her help, Regas Chefas opened his own restaurant. He also bought a little farm just over the border in Wisconsin.

randpa Chefas' real passion was growing things on his farm. He'd often put someone in charge at the restaurant and take the family to help on the farm. What he didn't grow himself, he'd buy from his neighbors to use in his restaurant. His son, Spiros, received an early indoctrination to gardening.

oo small to work in the restaurant, but having an enterprising spirit, young Spiros would go to Randolph Street and buy roses at 12 cents a dozen, bring them back to Devon Avenue, and sell them in front of the then new Granada Theater for a dollar apiece.

piros lived in a number of homes, but always on Devon Avenue. He attended Hayt, Sullivan Junior High, and Senn High School in Edgewater. One of his best friends while growing up was Clayton Moore. Some time after high school, Clayton, who was interested in acting, decided to go to California and tried to persuade Spiros to go with him. Clayton went west alone, and eventually got the part of "The Lone Ranger." He became famous but visited his friend, Spiros, whenever he came to Chicago.

fter graduating from Senn, Spiros went to Northwestern University, Chicago campus, for five semesters, studying accounting and business administration.

here's an old saying that goes something like "a son's skill is 50% learned, even before he picks up his father's tools." So it seemed only natural that Spiros would open up his own restaurant. He did, keeping the books for other restaurant owners as well.

ike his father, he had a number of different business locations. One was the Runway by O'Hare Airport. His wife dreaded hearing the telephone ring. Many times it would be Spiros calling for her help. They were real busy, or the cook, waitress, or dishwasher hadn't come to work.

'm swimming out here; hurry!" Spiros would say over the phone.

ot knowing how to drive, Lucille would have to take a couple of buses to get there with her daughters. After they got off the last bus, the only way to get to the restaurant was walking down the railroad tracks; trains never came. She'd keep the three girls inside the rails, so they wouldn't wander off. The girls didn't like working there, except for making milkshakes.

he Chefases had just bought a new home on Devon Avenue. Spiros, wanting to treat his daughters with a jack-o-lantern for Halloween, went to Vince's market at Paulina, Peterson and Ridge. Charlie, Vince's partner, wanted 75 cents for a pumpkin. Spiros couldn't believe there was such a mark-up on pumpkins. His father used to buy them for a nickel on the farm. He went out to the country, had a truckload dumped on his front lawn and sold them all.

f pumpkins sold so well, Spiros thought, how about Christmas trees? The first year he got them from Ran-dolph Street, but then turned to the tree farms -- Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Wisconsin, Michigan. He had the trees shipped by rail to the Peterson Coal Co. Yard at Devon and Ravenswood.

hat was the start, 50-some years ago, of having pumpkins and Christmas trees for sale in the Chefas' front yard.

got personally involved with the Chefases at First Swedish Highland Avenue Methodist Church.

, too, had followed my father in his trade and become a bricklayer.

t was a very cold winter that Christmas and all the trees were frozen together. In order to separate them, Spiros took them down into his basement to thaw them out. He made the mistake of taking the local Fire Chief down there to pick out a tree for the fire station.

ou must be crazy having all these trees down here and living above them. Get them out of here now!" the very upset Fire Chief said.

piros needed a place to thaw out his trees.

an you build me a two-stall garage, Carl?" Spiros asked.

worked for a contractor at that time and was only free on Saturdays. So the next Saturday my carpenter friend, John Gidzinski, my son, Arthur, and I poured a concrete foundation and floor. The next Saturday, with three other bricklayer friends, we built the garage out of 8-inch cement blocks. John added the roof and doors during the week.

he next Saturday I came to get paid. Lucille Chefas had her ironing board in the living room by the front window so she could watch for potential Christmas tree customers. I noticed the brick fireplace front, that went all the way to the top of the 12-foot ceiling, had never been properly anchored to the wall behind it. Every time a bus or truck would go by, it would balance precariously. If it fell on Lucille, she wouldn't be ironing clothes for awhile. I warned Spiros of the danger.

'll take it down, clean the bricks, and you can put them up right next time," he said.

wasn't sure he would take the bricks down like he promised, and was surprised when one day I got a phone call.

ou can come and put the bricks back on the fireplace now," said Spiros.

y bricklayer friend, John Possler, and I layed the fireplace the next Saturday, anchoring it properly. Only one thing we did wrong. We didn't put as much mortar between the bricks as the first bricklayer had, so we were one corse (row) short.

knew those kids would lose some when they were cleaning them. They were carrying them all over the place," Spiros muttered.

didn't correct him.

n my different outings with Spiros, he was always looking for a Garden Center site.

ou know restaurants; what do you want with a Garden Center?" I asked.

his neighborhood needs one," was his reply.

e bought the lot where Car X now stands at 6034 N. Clark, but always felt it was too small, had no parking and no room for expansion.

hen Spiros' son, Regas, after a stint in the Army, his college training, marriage and other endeavors, came back to Chicago, Gethsemane Garden Center became a reality at 5801 N. Clark Street in 1978.

usiness blossomed in more ways than one over the years; more space was needed. The Garden Center purchased the block of property directly to its south, razed one of the buildings to make way for a new greenhouse, remodeled the former Amvets Post at 5739 N. Clark, and opened its expansions in the fall of 1995.

o think it all began over 70 years ago with Grandpa Regas' garden on a Wisconsin farm!

ire! Get out of the house!" Spiros had yelled to them up the open stairway. He yelled again for them to go out the back way, as he and Lucille then did. They didn't hear, or still sleepy, not thinking, they came down the front way into the fire.

he children and Cathy got minor burns on their hands and faces. John, thinking his parents were still in the fire, kept going back into the house to look for them. His face, hands, left side and chest were badly burned. He spent eight weeks in the Burn Unit of Cook County Hospital before returning to live in Florida with his family.

tructural damage to the house was extensive. Spiros and Lucille had to live in a rented apartment for awhile.

hen the insurance company repaired the fire damage, they didn't replace the massive brick front on the fireplace. There's just a small marble front with wood trim now. But everything looks terrific with wall-to-wall carpeting, new railings to the second floor, new tile in the bath and fixtures, walls and ceilings repainted, new furniture, and a big, prominent grandfather clock.

ife often seems to go roundabout in circles. The memory of their family's worst tragedy is bound up with the Chefases' success selling Christmas trees and the creation of the Gethsemane Garden Center -- a biblical reference to a garden outside Jerusalem that, centuries ago, involved another story of suffering and rebirth.

Carl Helbig

Editor's note: Here's wishing everyone a wonderful and SAFE Christmas! Seasonal trees are still available for sale in the Chefases' front yard at 1718 W. Devon, and an ample supply is now on hand for your holiday enjoyment at the Garden Center.

And remember:
If your electrical decorations have cracked or frayed sockets, toss them out.
Read the warnings on your light strings and be careful not to connect too many strings together. Lights you buy should have a tag that tells you how many can be safely connected; no more than three is the general rule.
Live trees need lots of water to prevent them from drying out, and must not be placed near candles, plugs or sockets. Metallic trees should never be strung with light strings or electrical ornaments.

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