Packing plant

The Kankakee Packing Company was located on the west bank of the Kankakee River between what is now the Bird Park Quarry and the Big Four (New York Central) railroad bridge. This photo dates to 1913, a few years before the packing plant burned down and became the “hobo castle.” 

Singing about “a man of means by no means,” Roger Miller identified him as “King of the Road.” Others applied less noble labels to those who rode the rails aboard boxcars, especially in the 1920s: hobo, vagrant, bindle stiff, drifter, tramp or just plain “bum.”

On January 29,1926, the Kankakee Daily Republican ran a Page 1 story under the heading, “Hobo Castle Is Doomed to Destruction.” Taking a light and humorous approach, the Republican reporter related the story of “one of Kankakee’s nationally known landmarks” which would soon face demolition.

“The landmark is the ruins of the Heidenreich or Kankakee packing house, located on the west bank of the river, midway between Station Street and the railroad tracks,” he continued. “Probably no site or building in the state of Illinois is better known throughout the world than is this old pile of bricks and mortar.”

He then traced the source of that worldwide fame: “For many years Kankakee has been a favorite stopping place for tramps or hoboes —’bums’ as they have come to be more generally known. Hundreds of these fellows leave Chicago yearly on expeditions southward and most of them pass through Kankakee. ... Twenty years ago, tramp sojourners in Kankakee made their homes in a barren stretch of property which lies between the two lines of railroad tracks just north of the Bird property.

“Then, about fifteen years ago the Heidenreich packing plant was destroyed by fire. The place was never rebuilt and it took the tramps only a short time to discover that it was admirably suited to become the castle of tramp hotels, the Palmer house of hoboland.”

The impending demise of the hobo castle (nicknamed “Hollywood on the River” by local lawmen) was foreshadowed by news that local businessman Worth W. Bird was planning to donate to the city a tract of land on the west side of the Kankakee River for use as a park. The packing plant ruins were smack-dab in the middle of that property.

(Six months later, on June 23, Bird deeded to Kankakee thirty acres bounded by Station Street, the Kankakee River, the Big Four railroad tracks, and Wall Street. The major feature of the property, of course, was the large stone quarry that would become Bird Park.)

The January 29 Republican story devoted considerable detail to descriptions of various parts of the building favored by its transient guests. “There are corners where the coziest of campfires can be built, and nooks where, even on a cold night, a ‘bum’ can sleep in some comfort,” was one description. Another was a sort of “community room” or dining hall: “The basement rooms of the old plant are the ones which remain as suitable places in which to hold hobo luncheon meetings. There they cook and eat their greasy potatoes and their stale bread and discuss…the shortcomings of the world in general, the brutality and utter lack of necessity of policemen, the merits of Bourbon and canned heat, the difficulty of forever dodging work and what-not.”

Reporting that as many as 40 hoboes could be lodging at “Hollywood” on a given night, (although the average count was about two dozen), the Republican reporter noted that “most people in Kankakee do not realize that such a large number of tramps pass through the city regularly.”

“Besides the tramps,” he continued, “there is another class of people who know Hollywood well. They are the fugitives, men ‘wanted’ somewhere. Some are escaped convicts, others use the packing plant as a place to ‘lay-low’ until the bustle following some criminal act blows over.” He reassured readers, however, that the hobo castle “is one of the first places police visit after a crime of any sort that may have been committed by a man of this type. Often, they find their man with the hobos.”

The lengthy report concluded with these words: “Men from every country in the world have visited Kankakee’s Hollywood. Many of them have left their names carved in the soft plastering that still remains in a few places. The destruction of the old plant will be a catastrophe to these fellows, who always return, and who consider it the finest of their many ‘homes.’”

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the 30 acres donated by Worth Bird was developed into one of Kankakee’s major parks, centered on the old quarry. During the development of the park, wreckers tore down and trucked away the derelict structure that had been Kankakee’s “world famous hobo castle.”

Jack Klasey came to Kankakee County as a young Journal reporter in 1963, and quickly became “hooked” on local history. In 1968, he co-authored “Of the People: A Popular History of Kankakee County.” Now retired from a career in the publishing industry, he remains active in the history field as a volunteer and board member at the Kankakee County Museum. He can be contacted at jwklasey@comcast.net.

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