The Dill Pickle Club: A Bright Spot in a Somber Town

1845-1945, Book, Malfew Seklew, Ragnar Redbeard, Trevor Blake / Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

The Dill Pickle Club was the home of Dill Pickle Press, publisher of the 1927 edition of Might is Right by Ragnar Redbeard. The Dill Pickle Club was also a primary pulpit of pontification by Sirfessor Malfew Seklew, author of The Gospel of Malfew Seklew. Here are selections from three books that further give the flavor of this bohemian grove.

A Century of Progress by John Drury (Chicago: Consolidated Book Publishers Inc 1933)

“TOWER TOWN,” over the river on the near north side. Chicago’s largest and most flourishing bohemian quarter, bounded roughly on the south by Grand Avenue, on the east by Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, on the north by Division Street and on the west by Clark Street. District centers about the historic old Chicago Avenue Water Tower, Chicago and Michigan Avenues. Studios, art galleries, tea rooms, bookshops, alley forums and Italian restaurants are on every hand. The famous Dill Pickle Club, conducted by Jack Jones, is “Tower Town’s” main rendezvous. On Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday evenings lectures, debates and dances are held here. The Dill Pickle occupies a chapter in Albert Parry’s “Garrets and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America.” It is located at 18 Tooker Place. Nearby is “Bughouse Square” (Washington Square, North Dearborn Street and Walton Place), haunt of soap-box orators.

Chicago’s Left Bank by Alson J. Smith (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company 1953)

In Towertown, one-eyed Jack Jones had started the Dill Pickle Club, and here, every Saturday night, a Chicago one act play, written by some unknown Chicago playwright, presented by unknown Chicago actors, took the boards. […] With the coming of Prohibition, Towertown became something of a haunt for the underworld, too. The Dill Pickle became a scarcely-disguised speakeasy, and even had itself raided a few times just for the publicity.

Hobohemia by Frank O. Beck (Rindge: Richard R. Smith Publisher Inc. 1956)

One evening in 1919 no less a luminary than Sherwood Anderson published in The Chicago Daily News the statement, “Jack Jones and the Dill Pickle Club are the bright spots in the rather somber aspects of our town.”

Jack was a man of stature and a visit to the Club was for many years a must in the itinerary of all pilgrims making a round of the night clubs of the Windy City. It was a focal point of the nightlife of Towertown, a region of the near north side where, when the shades of night arrived, foregathered the Bohemian, the artist, the near-artist and the strange conglomeration of city dwellers who follow in their train.

The Dill Pickle Club is surely an appropriate name for an eating spot. What epicure but does not relish the dill, the humble anise of the Scriptures? When the eating club was opened on Locust Street and patronized mainly by disputatious labor leaders, it had over its door the sign, “The Copper Kettle and the Dill Pickle. ” A few years later, Bohemia-in-Chicago was stirred by food poisoning caused (supposedly) by the use of the copper kettle and the Club dropped “The Copper Kettle” end of the name and the Dill Pickle went it alone. While the Irish were pleased, the Germans were not.

The same Jack Jones, who in 1917 opened the Dill Pickle Club, now incorporated the club, copyrighted the name and moved it to Tooker Alley, where he continued to serve “coffee and a few light foods that are tolerable” as John Drury writes in his Dining in Chicago. On Wednesdays, his mild-mannered sister prepared a goodly assortment of sandwiches for the literary group who took over that evening. It was on one of these special evenings that I, in search of a copywriter, bought “coffee and — ” for a young writer, Carl Sandburg. He ate it in a dimly lighted recess in the wall, as I tried to persuade him to come with me to do some special writing, as I was then making the Chicago Area Survey of the Inter-Church World Movement.

But for John Archibald (Jack) Jones, the Dill Pickle Club was to serve purposes other than gastronomy. This king of the Picklers came to Chicago about the year 1907 and, as a labor leader, he wished his Club to serve his ends, by enlisting the intelligentsia.

Where he came from and who he was was definitely secondary to the fact that he was a most intelligent and militant labor agitator, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World. His Club was to be a public forum for the discussion of what, to Jones, was the most vital subject in our national life, the rights of manual laborers.

Of an earlier interesting place, a nursery rhyme said, “The way into my parlor is up a winding stair.” The way into the Dill Pickle Club was even more complicated. Off North State Street to the left you wedged yourself, if you were thin enough, through a hole in the wall, a narrow slit between the four-story buildings. Then, with ashcans and garbage cans making it wise to watch your step, you went over the cobblestones and bricks of Tooker Alley to No. 18, where you faced a bright green light over an orange door with three small stained glass apertures. Here you were admonished, if you aspired to enter, to “Step high, stoop low, and leave your dignity outside.” Crawling was really the best means of locomotion from there on in.

Blazed across the vestibule was the enigmatical line “This club is established to elevate the minds of people to a lower level.” There were several ways in which the Club made no more sense than that.

However, the founder, Jack Jones, an American pioneer in the field of labor education, was a powerful magnet and drew unusual personalities within his orbit. It was probably in the cards from the beginning that Jack, years later, should die alone in a third-class men’s lodging house, and his wasted and besotted body, not yet sixty-four years old, be buried in a casket, the gift of a thousand derelict men on the stem on West Madison Street.

What mattered was what Jack Jones, a flaming missionary of industrial justice, did with his opportunity in the Dill Pickle Club. At once it became the rendezvous of leading labor organizers and leaders, of radical artists too often coarse and ribald, of modern poets often equally unrefined and gross, of rising literary personages and revolutionists. It became more than a serious labor forum, it became an institution for all the arts. It opened its doors wide to everybody who had a message, a grievance, a hope, or a criticism, constructive or destructive; who wished to raise his voice against oppression, prejudice and injustice in all their multiforms. To every guest, at some time during his sojourn at the Club, Jack Jones, the ingenious, put the question, “Are you a nut about anything?”

One night in an unrestrained moment the group of the evening accepted the following credo: “We of the Dill Pickle believe in everything. We are radicals, pickpockets, second-story men and thinkers. Some of us practice free love, and some, medicine. Most of us have gone through religion and have tired of it. Some of us have tired of our wives.” This was the Dill Pickle Club in its most indulgent and unrestrained mood.

This creed did not express the main objectives of the Club. It was definitely not a place where men grow broad bellied and narrow minded, despite the fact that there were hedonists there and those allergic to purity. Through the years they did much creative work. Here experts taught dancing and other arts. Poets read their own verses. Artists, wood carvers, ornamental iron designers, sculptors and painters created and displayed their handicraft, always to an interested public. From the haymow on the second floor — the city used transportation that fed on hay — came the mingled odors of charcoal, turpentine, fixatives. Often a party of visitors stood by, waiting to be shocked at the nude subject.

In the birth and early development of the little theatre the Club must be given prominent mention. This, one of the earliest of the little theatres, presented some of the finest amateur talent. Jack, a man of varied talent, built with his own hands a splendid stage, invented and installed an unusual lighting system, wrote, directed and acted in the plays.

The open forum of the Club was stimulated by the idea that truth wholly controlled may become dangerous. Yet no matter how important the question brought before the Dill forum or how illustrious the speaker, he was thrown to the lions, as he expected to be. His message — important, crack-brained, serious or humorous — the omnipresent heckler treated the same as the last and the next. And what consummate hecklers were there! There was big John Laughman, whose biting Irish witticism, often almost sadistical, literally cowed the speaker and thrilled the audience; little Birdie Weber, hook-nosed and bespectacled, vulgar always and thunderous in his approach, confused and trapped the orator. The heckling was usually brilliant and constituted not an inconsiderable part of the entertainment.

The Dill Pickle Club drew to its platform a surprising “Who’s Who” of speakers. In my diary are listed speakers heard there, and many of them were monthly guests. There was Maxwell Bodenheim, author of Ninth Avenue; Carl Sandburg, the poet; Ben Reitman, King of the Hoboes; Ben Hecht, author of 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, editor of the Chicago Literary Times and a promising poet; Countess Luddie, who wore sandals and bobbed her hair; Paddy Carrol from Hell’s Half Acre; Aimee Semple McPherson, and a Spanish spiritualist who shaved her head and dyed it green; Morris Levine, blind, gray-haired orator; Van Cima, Dutch artist and piccolo player; Emma Goldman, the Anarchist, and Rube Menken, Russian art critic; Eugene Debs and William D. Haywood, tycoons of the labor movement; Sherwood Anderson, the playwright, and Jim Larkin, the famous Irish rebel; Harry Batters, selling socialism to the Democrats and democracy to the Socialists; Yellow Kid Weil, of high-finance fame; Clarence Darrow and scores of the more brilliant members of the faculties of Northwestern and Chicago universities. Sooner or later everybody had a chance to ex- press himself and the Club’s Sunday night doings often made Monday morning news.

One night one of the university speakers remarked seriously, “More famous people have passed through this Club than through any fifty universities in the world.” The statement was, to say the least, extravagant. It was statements like this that convinced me that I was using rather well the time I gave to them. Early in the Club’s history, Jack Jones invited me to join his staff and called me “Chaplain.” I have met few groups with such enormous responsiveness and so much in need of education of the spirit. I tried to understand when they needed praise and when they needed prayer. They always needed a friend. Jack Jones climaxed his study of labor’s problems by writing a treatise, “The Tech-Up,” a pronouncement on technocracy.

Harper Leech, co-originator of the War Insurance plan, wrote of Jack’s “The Tech-Up”: “A masterpiece of explanation of the industrial form of unionism.” It brought Jack a trip to Washington, D. C., during World War I at Uncle Sam’s expense, for conference with the Department of Labor. Labor sympathizers of the Dill Pickle type later followed the worker’s movement through syndicalism and the Worker’s Party into the Communist Party.

When the crest of bootlegging came, the Club’s cultural flame flickered low. The lawless horned in on the management of the Club and chiseling gangsters followed. Man shall not live by free love, companionate marriage, unrestrained Bohemianism, rackets, “red” Russia, alone — vital subjects though they were to the adherents of the Club. However, sincere voices raised against suppression, prejudice and injustice bring their own reward. Dill Pickle’s popular forum, little theatre, art school, social center, all often on the five-yard line in their way and day, served the cause of adult education and democracy.

And possibly society has a greater ability to reform itself than many of us thought that day.

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