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Otto: Tales from the Monkey House

An old photo shows where zoo animals were kept at a building that stands on the grounds of the Hickory Knolls Natural Area in St. Charles.
An old photo shows where zoo animals were kept at a building that stands on the grounds of the Hickory Knolls Natural Area in St. Charles.

Well I’ll be a monkey’s ... aunt?

The relationship part of that saying doesn’t really apply to this week’s column, but the monkey part sure does.

Last week, we took a crack at unlocking the secrets of the Monkey House, a shell of a building that stands about midway through the grounds of the Hickory Knolls Natural Area in St. Charles. Oral history told us that the building once belonged to the St. Charles School for Boys (aka “the Boys’ Home”), the operation that predated today’s Illinois Youth Center on Route 38. But what we couldn’t figure out was, where did the “monkey” part come in?

We put the question out to you, loyal readers, and we are thrilled with the response we received. Several of you shared recollections of the Boys’ Home and its residents, human and otherwise.

The first response came from Marvin Abramson, a St. Charles native who said the facility did indeed have a small zoo, and monkeys definitely were part of the menagerie.

“My grandmother was a great one for getting the kids in the car and taking us out,” Mr. Abramson recalled. “One day, she took us in her Model T Ford over to the little zoo at the Boys’ Home.

“I remember how the monkeys had an outside area, with a fence, but when we looked in we didn’t see any. Then we saw the door was open.”

What happened next had me laughing so hard I almost didn’t get the details written down. As young Marvin, his siblings and his grandmother turned to leave, they found the monkeys – on top of and inside of Grandma’s Model T!

“It was a warm day, so we’d had the windows down, and we were going to have a picnic, so there were sandwiches inside the car,” Mr. Abramson said. “The monkeys were probably trying to get the food. My grandmother went and grabbed her purse, and went after the monkeys to get them out of there.”

As someone who also had a grandmother who used her purse defensively, I could clearly picture the scene Mr. Abramson described. And what better proof of monkeys in the Monkey House?

But the tales of monkeys didn’t end there. Another longtime St. Charles resident, Melvin Peterson, called to share his memories of an area now known as Rainbow Hills.

“Years ago, that was called Monkey Hill,” Mr. Peterson said. His wife, Ruth, recalls that name as well. She rode past it every day on her way to high school in St. Charles from her home in Wasco.

“There was a farm there that had two monkeys,” he continued. “The barn and the house were set back, away from the road, so you couldn’t see the monkeys. But for years everyone called it Monkey Hill. It wasn’t until Cibis bought and developed Rainbow Hills in the 1940s that the name changed.”

Coincidentally – or perhaps not – these memories align with the same time frame during which Nell Fabyan, wife of Col. George Fabyan of Geneva, kept her collection of “pets” in a private zoo that included alligators, a bear and ... monkeys.

One last recollection of the zoo at the boys’ home tells a story, not of monkeys, but of another animal equally out of place in the St. Charles of yesterday – or even today.

Les Johnson lived with his family on a farm on Route 64, directly north of the road now known as Campton Hills Road and north of the Boys’ Home. He, too, remembers the zoo on the property and recalls a time when a lion cub escaped.

Since Mr. Johnson was out when I called, his wife, Margie, kindly related the story of how one day in the 1940s the Johnson family – Mom, Dad and kids – was driving along when suddenly Mom spotted an animal she thought for sure was a baby lion. Dad disagreed, and a discussion ensued. But when the animal turned and everyone got a good look at its long tail, Mom prevailed.

The family learned the manager of the Boys’ Home zoo was not supposed to have a lion cub there in the first place. But he did, and somehow it had escaped. The young cat was returned, and the Johnson family was promised a $25 reward – a lot of money in the 1940s, Mrs. Johnson noted.

“But they were never paid,” she added. “If he were alive today [Les’] Dad would still be talking about it.”

• Pam Otto, who still thinks $25 is a lot of money, is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or

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