By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
But you must see Kenwood as I saw it when we came here in 1861. As we approached, we passed Dr. Eagen’s [Egan’s] Lodge on the corner of Cottage Grove and Forty-seventh, where Mr. Liston and his five children managed to live in the only one-roomed thatched cottage any where near Chicago.
—Annie McClure Hitchcock, “Reminiscences of Kenwood in 1859”
When Peggy Sheehan died in 1897, few of her aristocratic neighbors mourned her passing. Sheehan had for years occupied a slice of their prestigious neighborhood, living in a collection of small lean-to structures at the western edge of Kenwood. As the community transformed into the “Lake Forest of the South Side,” this Irish immigrant fought to keep a simple home for her family. As the community’s wealthy attributes were increasingly compared with Chicago’s premiere North Shore suburb, most of those lower on the socio-economic ladder had long moved on — the Sheehans however stood their ground.
Like many pre-development families, they were squatters on the land. According to the diaries of John Mansir Wing written in 1865-66, there were patches throughout the city where the Irish came and built “their seven-by-nine shanties, reared their offspring and their extensive droves of geese, hens, cows, dogs and cats” on any plot with clouded title. Apparently the rapid growth of the city and increasing property values did little to dissuade occupancy of these parcels. It was said that once settled the squatter would cling to the ground with “bulldog tenacity,” as confident in his or her right of possession as if they held the deed.
The first squatter on any plot would typically encourage immigration; Sheehan and her husband Thomas came to Chicago at the recommendation of a relative, James Liston. An unskilled laborer, Liston and his wife Mary had arrived 15 years earlier and lived in the thatched shanty at the northeast corner of Cottage Grove Avenue and 47th Street. They appear in the 1860 US Census with a 2-year old son who was born in Illinois, indicating they may have settled in Hyde Park about 1858. The Sheehans took over a lease of a relatively spacious nine-by-twelve lean-to on a soggy low-lying parcel to the south of the Liston property that was then known as “the Bailey.”
The area was named for Elisha Bailey, who as early as 1856 had purchased property between 48th and 50th streets along Cottage Grove Avenue. “Legman” Bailey can also be found in the 1860 U.S. Census. The 30-year-old teamster and his wife Catherine were born in Ireland, and their 1-year-old child was born in Illinois. Living with them were two common laborers, also Irish, and even in their modest quarters the presence of a 17-year-old domestic servant is recorded.
Into this mix came the Sheehan family. A former squatter named Parker claimed to have built the lean-to on the Bailey land, so although Liston said he had purchased rights to the house and leased it to the Sheehans, there were other claimants to the homestead.
Lively legal battles followed, but the Sheehans kept the place as their family grew. For more than 40 years, the shanty and its unwelcome tenants proved unmovable by the due process of law, as the city grew around them. By 1887 the Cottage Grove cable car lines were extended south to 67th Street. Sewers were installed by the Department of Public Works, and the village voted to keep the area free from saloons as buildings rose up and down Cottage Grove Avenue.
After Thomas Sheehan’s death in January 1889 his wife continued the fight, although continually confronted with numerous attempts to remove her. Peggy held her own until 1895, when she relented and for the two years prior to her death paid an annual rent of $40. Peggy Sheehan was one of the oldest surviving pioneers of Kenwood, squatting at southwest corner of 48th Street until death finally dislodged her.