Look carefully at this photo and you’ll see the remains of the Monkey House, a structure that stood for more than a century in what is now the Hickory Knolls Natural Area.
Good Natured: Farewell Monkey House
September 1, 2023
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
This oft-cited question has been on my mind a lot lately, not because I have any designs on becoming a philosopher, but rather because a few weeks ago…a tree fell in our woods.
I wasn’t there when it happened, so I can’t address the bigger metaphysical question. But I do know that on a smaller, local level, the after-effects of this calamity are going to be felt, and heard, for some time to come.
You see, this tree-one half of a pair of conjoined and seemingly healthy white oaks well into their second century-toppled onto and literally destroyed a landmark that’s stood for over a century itself: a concrete-block structure known as the Monkey House.
For modern-day visitors to the Hickory Knolls Natural Area, this little building always seemed a sort of anomaly there in the woods. Four walls, with small rectangles where the windows and doors used to be, stood open to the elements; someone burned the roof off long ago. Inside were strewn other remnants of days gone by-several cast-iron radiators; broken slate from classroom chalkboards; fragments of once-decorative concrete.
But to old timers and students of local history, the Monkey House represented the last vestige of a collection of enclosures known locally as the boys’ home zoo and more formally as the Boys Lake Zoo.
The land that is known today as Hickory Knolls was, 100 years ago, part of a massive 1,200-acred campus called the St. Charles School for Boys. Founded in 1904 for what were then known as “neglected, dependent and delinquent youth,” the residential facility consisted of cottages, classrooms, vocational departments and recreational opportunities-including a zoo.
As described in The Boy Agriculturalist, a publication produced monthly by the school’s printing department, the animals on display included three bears, an unspecified number of wolves, an “old, sly fox with some of her little children,” plus raccoons, opossums, mink and skunks. And an alligator!
H.L. Naylor, the author of a 1923 article about the zoo, wrote, “Over some feet to the south of the bear den was a small house where could always be seen a goodly crowd of youngsters. That was the monkey house, and such sights, to see those monkeys playing tricks on each other, and hear those youngsters laugh. It was the kind of music Grand Opera can’t make. Money don’t buy that kind of laughter. It has to be lived.”
(Fun facts that have nothing to do with monkeys: H.L. “Hal” Naylor was the school’s barber, and he and his wife Loie were the officers, or houseparents, of the Harding cottage. She passed away in 1926 and he in 1952, and the reason I bring this up is they are memorialized in what has to be one of the coolest graves in the TriCities-a large easy chair positioned prominently at Oak Hill Cemetery in Geneva. The marker is so unusual, it’s earned a page on RoadsideAmerica.com, a website that bills itself as Your Online Guide to Offbeat Tourist Attractions.)
Although it’s been several decades since monkeys inhabited their namesake house, long-time area residents still recall the boys home zoo. I remember collecting some of those stories back in 2012, when we first sought to confirm the little primates’ presence. Those memories match the description Mr. Naylor penned, with many folks recalling kids of all ages crowding around the fence that surrounded the enclosure.
I also recall the first time I set foot in the structure, around 20 years ago. Living nearby but not yet working for the park district, I’d heard about this curious little building and wanted to go check it out myself. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the shorter-than-usual, narrower-than-usual (perhaps monkey sized?) doorway. Clunk! went my head on the top of the doorframe. Rrrip! went my sleeve on the door’s side. Left with a scrape on my scalp and a hole in my favorite shirt, it was an introduction I’ll not soon forget.
The Monkey House has since figured prominently into many park district-sponsored activities. Thousands of kids learned about its history during school field trips and scout outings; a majority of them posed for photos there too. (Who wouldn’t want to have their picture taken in a Monkey House?)
The building also provided the perfect backdrop for our quirky night-time event, Gone Squatchin’, where “Sasquatch” would appear and then disappear in to the murky darkness of the surrounding woods. (If I remember correctly, Squatch clunked his head, too…) It’s also a stop on our walk-and-read story board adventure, Hickory Knolls: A History of Our Home.
If we count all the people who’ve visited the Monkey House in recent years, and combine that number with all the folks who visited back when it was part of the zoo, we’re easily into six digits, if not over a million people. Factor in all the stories that have been told about the funky old structure, and the conversations its demise will generate, and you end up with a lot of chatter.
I can hear it now.
Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at email@example.com.