Some grocery stores are named after their founders, upstanding, god-fearing businessmen like Bob Mariano or Bernard Kroger. Others have stitched their names together from well-worn consumer buzzwords words like “value,” “shop,” and “save.”
But it’s safe to say that not many grocery stores—in fact, perhaps not more than one in the world—are named after radical hobo nightclubs.
The Dill Pickle Co-op (2746 N. Milwaukee Ave.) holds that distinct honor. Because while it’s natural to assume the store is named after the simple pickled deli cucumber, the name is, in fact, a reference to the Dill Pickle Club, a bohemian speakeasy and theater in Chicago that operated in the 1920s and ’30s as an important meeting place for labor activists, anarchists and free thinkers.
The club closed its doors during the Great Depression and has since drifted almost entirely into obscurity. But it turns out its spirit lives on in some surprising ways—including at your neighborhood grocery store.
Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside
The Dill Pickle Club (sometimes spelled Dil Pickle) was founded in 1914 by John “Jack” Jones, a former Canadian miner and union organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Jones lived on Chicago’s North Side in a bohemian neighborhood then known as Towertown, near the Chicago Water Tower, and was a fixture in the local anarchist community, according to the Newberry Library, which houses a small archival collection of materials from the club.
Jones hosted regular meetings at a local bookstore to discuss labor and social issues, and when interest in his talks outstripped the venue’s capacity, he decided to establish his own club in an old barn in an alley off State Street called the Dill Pickle.
To reach the Dill Pickle, patrons were “told to climb through a hole the wall at 859 N. State St. and walk down Tooker Alley to a doorway under an orange light marked ‘Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside.’”
Inside, visitors might encounter anything from a lecture on women’s rights to one-act plays, readings and jazz concerts. The club quickly became famous with its its eclectic mix of “hoboes, prostitutes, and gangsters as well as leading scholars, literary figures, and social activists,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Dill Pickle regularly held readings by authors and playwrights—such as Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and William Carlos Williams—as well as talks by local professors and radical intellectuals like Dr. Ben Reitman, physician to the poor and proprietor of Chicago’s “Hobo College.” The club was also famous for its masquerade balls, where Chicagoans from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds mixed and mingled in disguise.
The Dill Pickle Club continued to evolve in the years after its founding. It operated as a speakeasy during prohibition and became more of a cultural attraction, and less political, as its popularity grew. The Depression hit hard, however, and tax issues and other mounting difficulties caused the club to close its doors in the early 1930s.
‘Wouldn’t the Dill Pickle Be a Great Name?’
While the barn in Tooker alley is long gone, the Dill Pickle Club continues to play a role as a colorful if little-known chapter in Chicago’s history. It has occasionally attracted the interest of historians, journalists and others sifting through the city’s past—including two young artists who learned about the club during a visit to the Newberry Library in the early 2000s.
Kathleen Duffy and Jennifer Karmin first met in the Buffalo, New York indie music scene and later reconnected in Chicago, where they got involved in social and economic justice issues and co-founded an activist art group called Anti Gravity Surprise.
The two friends were enjoying the Newberry’s exhibit on the history of radical and social justice movements in Chicago when they stumbled across materials from the Dill Pickle archive.
“We were really excited about this idea, that there was this time in Chicago when there were all these anarchists, poets, and hobos getting together,” said Karmin, a poet and Truman College instructor who now lives in a Humboldt Park housing co-op.
At the time, Duffy had been working on the idea of starting a food co-op near her home in Logan Square. As the two looked through the exhibit’s materials, it suddenly clicked for Karmin.
“They had tons old posters with these giant pickles on them,” she said. “I turned to Kath and said, ‘if the food co-op thing really happens, wouldn’t The Dill Pickle be a great name?’”
‘You Can Control What is Happening in Your Neighborhood’
Duffy’s vision for the co-op turned out to be more than just a passing idea.
According to the Dill Pickle’s website, Logan Square at the time offered very little in terms of access to fresh produce and other healthy foods. Residents instead had to trek across the city to shop at stores in more affluent neighborhoods, which Duffy didn’t think was right.
“A food co-op would allow us to build and own a store, stocking the products we want to purchase, lower household food bills for all of us, support each other locally instead of the bloated corporate structures we have now, and build our community all at the same time,” said Duffy in a 2005 email to friends.
She set to work building support and recruiting members—a process that came naturally to her given her organizing background.
“Kath was an important member of the Logan Square community,” said Karmin. “You can’t always control what happens in D.C., but she showed you can control what is happening in your neighborhood.”
Duffy also worked for many years for the Campaign for Better Health Care, a grassroots coalition focused on increasing access to quality, affordable health care for Illinois residents. As someone who battled breast cancer for over a decade, the issue of health care was deeply important to her, said Karmin, and healthy food was a part of that.
“She was very open about it, and about what it meant to be an uninsured woman living with breast cancer,” said Karmin. “She was posting on blogs, writing about her experiences navigating the health care system.”
A Nod to Chicago’s Leftist History
As Duffy’s vision drew closer to reality, it was time to decide on a name.
The group considered several options—the Windy City Co-op, Chicago Neighborhood Co-op—but when it came time to vote, the Dill Pickle won out.
“It’s a cool name and kind of a wink-wink, nod-nod to Chicago’s radical, leftist history,” said Karmin. “A lot of organizing is about people coming together, whether it’s a food co-op or a bohemian anarchist club…that’s sort of the through-line.”
“Plus, even for people who didn’t know all the history, the logo is a big pickle,” she said.
Duffy always thought it was appropriate that her longtime friend Karmin, a poet, was the one to come up with the name.
“Like a lot of poets, of course I stole it from something else,” Karmin said.
Expanding into the Universe
In 2005, the Dill Pickle Co-op incorporated in Illinois as a not-for-profit and, following several years of recruiting and fundraising, leased its first 1,300-square-foot location on Fullerton Avenue in September 2008. The co-op later moved to its current, larger location on Milwaukee Avenue in 2017.
Duffy continued to serve on the board of directors during this time and remained an advisor as the co-op grew from 500 owners to more than 2,000, according to the Dill Pickle Co-op’s website. She also stayed active with the Campaign for Better Health Care, which worked hard to support the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2013, as well as the Caring Across Generations movement.
Meanwhile, she continued her fight with cancer, which had become increasingly difficult. Eventually, she moved into hospice care, where she requested that friends continue to support her vision for the co-op’s expansion. Sadly, she passed away shortly before the store’s new location officially opened.
“Kath Duffy expanded into the universe on July 20, 2017,” reads the page dedicated to her on the Dill Pickle site. “It was a peaceful transition into time, space, and eternal love. Kath devoted 100 percent of herself to the projects and people she cared about.”
“Kath was very important to me and many, many people in the co-op community,” said Ally Young, a Dill Pickle Co-op board member and staffer. “It was incredibly special to celebrate her life and legacy with her family… who were able to hang out in the co-op café and see how Kath’s vision came to life in such a big way.”
Today, Duffy’s legacy and her vision for the Dill Pickle continue to live on.
“The Dil Pickle Club’s uniquely Chicagoan legacy of revolutionary thought and radical inclusion that Kath and our founding owners brought to this work lives at the core of our enterprise,” Young said.
The co-op holds weekly $5 community dinners, she said, and has several initiatives focused on providing equitable access to healthy food, including a LINKMatch program that allows people who purchase groceries with LINK cards to earn $25 per day to spend on local produce.
The name itself also continues to resonate. While Young said the co-op sometimes fields questions from people who think they’re a pickle store, its tie to the historic club does surface from time to time.
“How great to have this name that makes people want to go and find out more,” said Karmin.
Featured photo: Lauren Dixon