Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How the secret decoder ring helped me find the Illinois Prairie Path

When I was a kid, if you sent your name and address to Captain Midnight, along with a wax paper disc from the top of a jar of Ovaltine, you would receive ABSOLUTELY FREE your very own Secret Squadron decoder ring, a Secret Squadron membership card, and the official 12 page instruction manual:

Captain Midnight

If you’ve seen the 1983 movie, A Christmas story, you may remember how excited Ralphie was as he dialed in the special code on his brand new decoder ring:

As you might suspect, the Secret Squadron decoder ring was a pretty successful marketing tool in the days when ALL television shows were in black and white, and most of our communication was by “snail mail”.

Ovaltine started business in Switzerland way back in 1904, where it was known by its original name, Ovomaltine. When it was exported to England in 1909, the name got shortened to Ovaltine, and in 1915, production was started in Villa Park, Illinois for the American market.

When Ovaltine Company first opened their factory in America, they needed a way to make sure their employees could get to and from work safely, no matter the weather, terrain or other issues.

Villa Park was built originally for that reason.

The company used the existing lines of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad to transport their employees. Unfortunately, the CA&E ceased to carry passengers in 1957, due to a dramatic drop in ridership stemming from the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290), and the general increase in use of personal automobiles. The right-of-way was eventually cleaned up and developed into a hiking and bicycling trail known as the Illinois Prairie Path.

The Illinois Prairie Path started operation in the 1960’s, and was the very first “rails to trails” project in the country.

The Ardmore Station is now home to the Chamber of Commerce, and the Villa Avenue Station houses the Villa Park Historical Society. The Ovaltine factory itself was closed in 1988. After several years as a vacant building, it was eventually converted into loft apartments.

When we lived in the western suburbs, I used to take long bike rides on the Illinois Prairie Path on a fairly regular basis, but I’d have to admit that I really can’t remember the last time that I had any Ovaltine.

Although there are several places that you can buy it online, I recently discovered that the Jewel store just up the street carries it.

Naturally, I bought a container of the chocolate variety the other day, and tried it out.


I no longer live anywhere near the Illinois Prairie Path, but if I ever come across an opportunity to bicycle on it again, I’ll be sure to bring some Ovaltine with me.

It just seems to be the proper thing to do.

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