Green Town, Illinois

Christ Episcopal Church, Waukegan
Creative Commons AttributionChrist Episcopal Church, Waukegan - Credit: B Garrett
The setting of Something Wicked This Way Comes is Green Town, Illinois, a fictional yet very real place that appears in many of Ray Bradbury’s books and stories.

Green Town is based on Bradbury’s birthplace, Waukegan, Illinois. “Waukegan” is the Potawatomi Indian name for “fort” or “trading post.” The first white man through the region was apparently Pere Marquette in 1673. The Potawatomi sold the land to the Federal Government in 1829, when a small French trading post called “Little Fort” already stood on the site.

By 1841, Little Fort was the county seat. Within another two years the population had jumped from 150 to 750. Construction of the Illinois Parallel Railroad (later known as the Chicago and Northwestern) furthered the town’s interests. The citizens changed its name to Waukegan in 1849 and it was incorporated as a city ten years later.

Ray Bradbury’s ancestors were established in Waukegan before that. His great-grandfather Samuel I. Bradbury moved to Waukegan from Albany, New York in 1847, set himself up in printing and newspaper publishing, and married Mary Spaulding (whose surname Bradbury took for his alter ego, Douglas). Eventually, Samual Bradbury was elected mayor.

Though the ninth largest city in Illinois by population -- 91,452 in a 2003 U.S. census estimate -- Waukegan is a different city from what it was when Bradbury was a boy, and when most of Bradbury’s stories are set.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Waukegan, which is 40 miles north of downtown Chicago and just 8 miles south of the border of Wisconsin, was a popular destination resort for Chicagoans. It stands on a low bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.

Bradbury immortalized it as “an idyllic slice of small-town Americana,” Bradbury’s biographer Sam Weller writes, and at the time, that wasn’t far from the mark. “The barbershops, traveling carnivals, and electric trolley cars were all a part of daily life, as were the annual parades of aged American Civil War veterans marching through town.”

Waukegan went into severe economic decline thereafter, Weller continues (despite the warm remembrances it got from another native son, Jack Benny, on his national radio show). Today, the town is filled with abandoned factories and empty storefronts. Though other Chicago suburbs just to the south include some of the wealthiest communities in the nation, Waukegan sits in “decaying isolation.”

Something Wicked is sometimes regarded as the second part of a trilogy that began with the semi-autobiographical Dandelion Wine (1957), a series of stories that feature 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding, loosely based on Bradbury himself, and the people around him in Green Town. The first book is set in the summer of 1928, which would make Douglas a few years older than Bradbury would have been in that year.

Prominent in Dandelion Wine and various short stories (especially “One Timeless Spring”) is a ravine where Bradbury’s older brother Skip sometimes ditched him to put a scare into his brother. It does not appear anywhere in Something Wicked, but the real ravine has become part of Ray Bradbury Park, with a bridge across it and stairs.

The trilogy concludes with Farewell Summer, originally intended as the second half of a single book with Dandelion Wine, but withheld because the publishers thought the whole thing would be too long. Farewell Summer was not published until 2006. In Farewell Summer, set in October 1929, Douglas Spaulding has just turned 14. Though Doug and his “ideal friend” John Huff sort of correspond to Will and Jim in Something Wicked, the correspondences are not precise.

Other Bradbury stories set in “Green Town” include “The Utterly Perfect Murder,” “A Story of Love,” "These Things Happen," and "The Pumpernickel," all published in Long After Midnight; "The Screaming Woman" from S is for Space; "The Great Fire" from The Golden Apples of the Sun; "Besides a Dinosaur, Whatta Ya Wanna Be When You Grow Up?" from Dinosaur Tales; "At Midnight, in the Month of June" from The Toynbee Convector; and "Autumn Afternoon" from One More For the Road.