A sense of place: meet Grand Marshal Nicki Alander, local historian
There was something about Plainfield that caught Nicki Alander’s eye.
As a young teacher working in Elmhurst, she often hopped onto U.S. Route 66 to drive Downstate for visits to her hometown of Springfield. Each time, the iconic highway took her through the little farm town tucked between Naperville and Joliet.
“I used to stop and drive around the town, and I thought, ‘What a lovely place to live,’” said Nicki, an avid scholar of local history who will serve as grand marshal at this year’s Hometown Irish Parade. She has now called the village home for more than four decades.
A new job in Joliet brought Nicki and her young family to town in 1965, after their work-driven journeys had settled them in various states, and for a time in parts of Africa. Two of Nicki’s three sons were born during the five years they lived on the continent.
Those were busy years back in the Midwest. Once the young family had moved into their home in the Peerless Estates subdivision, Nicki became a working mom, teaching and continuing a role she had begun in Elmhurst, where she had coached cheerleaders and a 50-member marching and tumbling group. At Joliet West High School, she co-founded the school’s acclaimed Tiger Paws.
“We had great success with state, national and an international championship,” said Nicki, 87, who coached the competitive dance team for 25 years.
The freedom to more thoroughly explore Plainfield and its history came when Nicki stepped down from her educating career in 1995. She became more active in the Plainfield Historical Society, serving on its board and volunteering to oversee the museum it operates on Main Street east of Route 59. Today she gives some of her time to the Riverfront Foundation as a board member and researcher. She compiled a photo-driven educational exhibit now displayed on the upstairs level of the Riverfront Center in the park, which lines the west bank of the DuPage River south of Lockport Street. The collection weaves together the people and developments of the past that brought the waterway to the present day.
Nicki also has helped with the creation of some of the interpretive signs that dot the village, Will County’s oldest community, to relate snippets of its long history. Among her current projects is a 4- by 8-foot sign that will focus on the river’s past and present, and the future vision for the portion that winds through town.
In addition, Nicki wrote a play about the historical aspect, titled “Along This River,” that was presented last spring, featuring a dozen local residents portraying historical figures who had roles in the early days of Plainfield. The narrative began with the native Potawatomi people who were the area’s inhabitants until the 1820s, when fur traders, missionaries and white settlers began to arrive.
“I was telling the story about some of the people and some of the instances along the river that led to the establishment of Plainfield,” she said.
She is now working on a presentation about the Lockwood family, emphasizing young widow Estella and the now-shuttered dairy she founded more than a century ago that bore the family name.
Nicki treasures the way glimpses of the village and how it came to be can be found in places like the Plainfield Township Cemetery, which stretches from Route 30 to Division Street in the southern portion of town. In 2004, she and fellow resident Linda Keene launched the Historical Society’s biennial cemetery walk, in which costumed local volunteers took on the personalities of some of those buried in the plots over the past two centuries. She thinks the re-enactments have helped visitors gain a keener understanding of how the community came to be, by giving voices to some of those who made it happen.
“The cemetery walk brought those people to life,” Nicki said.
The graveyard, and Nicki’s neighborhood to the south of it, became part of the story that brought international attention to the town on August 28, 1990, when an extraordinary category F5 tornado tore through the village, leaving 29 deaths and some $165 million in property damage in its wake. When the massive funnel cloud bore down about 3:30 that afternoon, Nicki was shopping for food at the grocery store that then operated at Robert Avenue and Division, adjacent to the burial grounds.
“I was at Parks and walked out and got into my car when it hit,” she recalled. “I was in the hospital late into the night, having glass removed.”
Along with much of the cemetery’s tree canopy and many of the older headstones, and several dozen houses in the downtown core, the Alander family home was destroyed in the vicious winds that some readings placed in excess of 300 miles per hour. It was soon rebuilt on its original site on Fern Street.
Nicki doesn’t dwell much on that dark day of the village’s recent past. An English and history major in her early undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin, she has always been fascinated by the stories of longer ago. Before she visits a new place, she makes a point of learning some of its history, driven by a voracious curiosity.
“I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot, and I’ve always researched a place before I went there,” she said.
She once envisioned working as a museum docent in Springfield after retirement, and living in the family home that she owned by then. But by that time, Plainfield was unquestionably her hometown.
“When push came to shove, I had lived in Plainfield longer than I lived in Springfield,” she said.
Nicki donates much of her time and energy to the cause of informing people about the community’s bygone days because to her, history matters. It fortifies the connections between people and place.
“I think that a sense of belonging in the community is something that everyone needs, an appreciation that this is part of your life,” she said. “It’s very important to a family.”