Mike Bortel’s mom was a Monahan. He figures that was what landed him the seat of honor in the vehicle that will bring him down Lockport Street as the grand marshal of the 2014 Hometown Irish Parade.
That might have swayed the selection committee, but mostly it was Mike’s tireless commitment to Plainfield, particularly its remarkable history, that made him this year’s choice. Among the myriad benefits the village has reaped from Mike’s antiquities activism is its recognition last fall for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places– a very big deal indeed.
Although he has called the village home for barely a dozen years, Mr. Bortel, 66, has become more thoroughly familiar than almost anyone with the characters, buildings and stories that comprise the community’s fascinating past.
Chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, Mike moved here in 2002, the same year he retired after a 31-year career at Thornridge High School in Dolton, where he taught history and geography, also serving as director student activities for more than half of that time.
He got involved a decade ago in advocacy for his adopted hometown, after discovering some of the intriguing details behind select structures and sites in the area. Since that time, Mike has spent countless hours in the basement headquarters of the Will County recorder’s office, poring through records stored there in long metal drawers. Among his current projects is exhaustive research into all of the lots in the oldest part of town, from 1834 to the present day. All of them.
“It’s so interesting – more to me, because I don’t know it. I’m learning it, bit by bit,” he said. “Plainfield history is really quite fascinating when you consider by the 1850s, probably 50 or 60 percent of the population were related to one another.”
He’s learning a lot of tidbits, and retains nearly everything – thanks to the combination of his passion for the past and his gift for razor-sharp retention of detail. He can tell you, off the top of his head, that Franklin Mathers spent $200 for each of the 160 acres that would become home to the 96 lots known as East Plainfield. He knows it was 1911 when the village’s sewer system went in.
Mike puts his energy behind his passion, working to save buildings from the wrecking ball whenever it’s possible and makes sense. He understands that not every old building can, or should, be saved – but he sees immense potential in the future for many of the village’s architectural treasures from the past.
“We’ve got as much to offer as Galena, or St. Charles, or even Geneva,” he said, adding, “I always have ideas. I just have to find people to pick up on them.”