Shagbark Lake's Legacy of Early Brick Industry
Beautiful homes surround what was once the clay pits for Whitcomb Brick.
Today, tidy ranch homes surround the hidden Shagbark Lake, a product of Des Plaines' very first industry. The homes have spectacular views and access to lake recreation, but are prone to flooding.
In 1868, Franklin Whitcomb purchased 36 acres of land along the Des Plaines River. Of these acres, 20 contained clay suitable for brickmaking. The factory sat on what is now River Road at the end of Campbell Avenue. The clay pits were south of what is now Algonquin Road.
Whitcomb was foreman at Park Ridge's Penny & Meacham brickyard, the industry which established that town, first known as Pennyville, and then Brickton.
Having struck out on his own, Whitcomb established the Whitcomb Brick and Tile Manufacturing Company, and produced 800,000 bricks in the first year.
At its peak, the Whitcomb brickyard employed more than 100 workers and produced three million bricks per year. In 1873, Whitcomb was elected the first village president of Des Plaines.
When the demand for locally-made brick dried up, Whitcomb's son George Whitcomb continued the business by manufacturing concrete products and concrete construction.
The clay pits filled with water from a natural spring, forming Shagbark Lake. It was briefly popular as a swimming hole, being slightly safer and cleaner than the adjacent river, but its 14-foot depth and width made it a dangerous spot nonetheless.
Much of the early production of Whitcomb Brickyard contributed to rebuilding Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
There are few remaining brick buildings in Des Plaines with Whitcomb brick.
Whitcomb was superintendent for the construction of the Congregational Church at Prairie Street & Graceland Avenue, now Masonic Hall. He also donated the material for its construction.
Additionally, a brick home on River Road was reportedly the former horse barn of the brickyard.
Shagbark Lake became home to an experimental farm. James F. Coombs purchased 26 acres as an estate in 1915 and established Shagbark Lake Fur and Feather Farm. According to records, as of 1936, it specialized in Yukon mink, with over 350 kept at a time, and dozens of black raccoons, pheasants, quail, partridges, ducks, geese, swans, peacocks, foxes, weasel, and other birds and animals. Shagbark Lake Fur and Feather Farm sold pelts as well as live birds and eggs.
Coombs retired in 1941 and sold the land to Peter M. Berry. Berry parceled the land into the Shagbark Lake Manor subdivision in 1954, followed by Shagbark Lake Manor II in 1956 and Voss Shagbark in 1964.