Remembering Gustaf Lindberg: His Legacy to the Park District of Oak Park

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Lindberg on the cover of The Oak Parker (a community newspaper at the time) in 1928.

By Kate Lindberg-Vazquez, rental advisor for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and great-granddaughter of Gustaf Lindberg

“As perhaps in no other city, the park system of Oak Park is the monument to the ideas and labors of one man. It was Mr. Lindberg’s policy to locate small neighborhood parks about a mile apart, so that every resident would have only half a mile or less to a park or playground.” –American Swedish Monthly, 1941

Gustaf Lindberg, the man for whom Lindberg Park is named, was born in Sodermanland, Sweden, in 1890. After attending horticultural school in Stockholm, he became the landscape foreman of the Sjoholm Castle gardens.

In 1911, Lindberg and his wife, Sally Johanson, immigrated to the United States. The next several years he worked for the city of Chicago overseeing the planning and creation of new parks and becoming the protégé of famous landscape architect Jens Jensen.

Standing: Park Board Commissioners David Wick, Sandy Lentz, and Paul Aeschleman, and Park District Executive Director Jan Arnold. Seated: Lindberg’s granddaughter-in-law Sue Lindberg and great-granddaughter Kate Lindberg-Vazquez. Photo by Diane Stanke

Standing: Park Board Commissioners David Wick, Sandy Lentz, and Paul Aeschleman, and Park District Executive Director Jan Arnold. Seated: Lindberg’s granddaughter-in-law Sue Lindberg and great-granddaughter Kate Lindberg-Vazquez.
Photo by Diane Stanke

In 1913, voters of Oak Park decided to plan their own park system and 23-year-old Lindberg was hired for the job. By 1920, he was appointed the first Superintendent of Parks. Among his accomplishments in his 28-year career as superintendent, Lindberg transformed the garbage dump on the northwest side of Oak Park into the Village’s largest park (Greenfield Park, eventually renamed Lindberg Park); transplanted 10,000 rose bushes originally planted on the grounds of the Century of Progress World’s Fair; assisted in the designs for the Oak Park Conservatory; and installed exciting recreational amenities in Oak Park parks, including tennis and croquet courts, baseball diamonds, toboggan slides, wading pools, bandshells, and even a larger-than-life checkerboard.

He was perhaps most famous for dressing as Santa Claus during the Great Depression and riding into town on the Denver Zephyr train. There he was greeted by the Village President and a crowd of more than 5,000 children and paraded through the neighborhood addressing all the local businessmen by name, although no one knew who this “Secret Santa” was.

Lindberg was a dedicated civil servant until the time of his death in 1941. After his passing, Parks and Recreation magazine honored him by saying “We know the name Gustaf Lindberg will be remembered forever in Oak Park. His parks were examples of good taste, splendid design and careful, painstaking maintenance.”

Gustaf Lindberg as Santa in 1936. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest

Gustaf Lindberg as Santa in 1936. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest

Lindberg’s namesake park recently reopened after a major renovation, which included a new park shelter, renovation of the tennis courts, development of a looped trail system, a new playground, renovation of the ball fields, creation of a dedicated field solely for soccer-lacrosse, and an educational native plant area. Members of the Lindberg family were present to see Gustaf’s vision for Oak Park continue.

Lindberg Park holds particular sentimental value to the descendants of Gustaf Lindberg. His grandson Roger married his wife, Sue, in a ceremony held at Lindberg Park. Their children, Eric and Kate Lindberg, were christened in the park. In addition, memorial trees have been planted to honor the deceased members of the family: Eric Einar Lindberg (son), Betty Lindberg (daughter-in-law), and Roger Lindberg (grandson), all of whom lived in, worked in, and loved Oak Park.