Many Homer Glen residents knew Leo Wagner Jr. lived alone in the woods, that he often carried his groceries down Parker Road, waving by most who would stop to offer him a lift.
His quiet life on a 40-acre tract of land that has been in his family for six decades led many to believe that he was homeless. Rumors still persist today, nearly four years after his death, that he left millions of dollars on his property and no next of kin to collect it.
"You talk to the people around there, and you know they think he carried around gold bullion in his little nap sack," Wagner Jr.'s nephew, Wolfgang Wagner, said.
The truth is that Wagner Jr. did leave behind a valuable possession, his 40-acre sprawling property that his nephews are trying to sell and is valued around $1.3 million. The fate of the estate, which holds no finished houses or other development, has the interest of Homer Glen officials and neighbors, many of whom would like to see the land remain open space.
Wagner Jr. lived on the former horse pasture, with old-growth oak and hickory trees providing a stark and shadowy contrast to the Erin Hills subdivision that grew up to the property's eastern gate.
He was skilled in masonry and built a one-bedroom shack on the property and lived there before it fell down. Then he lived in a blue van on the land. He had frostbite on his foot at the time of his heart attack and eventual death of cancer in a nursing home in Joliet, his nephew said.
Today the land he lived on, which his parents left to him and his brother, is surrounded by houses at all its boundaries. Most of the development pressure is in the east, which Wagner Jr. saw built up in the 1970s and 1980s.
John Lobick has lived on the western boundary of the Wagners' forest since 1953. But Lobick said he never met the man whose presence was known only from his outward appearances: the bindlestiff, the walks around town, his deafness and seclusion.
"I really can't see your normal, run-of-the-mill subdivision coming in here and clear cutting it," Wagner said. "Why buy it? You could get a field anywhere."
But for Homer Glen, the land's sale represents more than one man's family legacy. It will test the limits of the work Homer Glen's leaders pieced together over the last decade to value open space.
Wagner Jr. lived alongside residents who fought to save the town from outsiders who wanted pieces of the lands Homer Glen resident's cherish.
Margaret Sabo, a village trustee and chair of the environment committee, moved to town shortly before a flurry of incorporation attempts in the 1990s that would mark the next decade.
Homer Township had long appealed to people who wanted small farms or horse stables, or simply to live away from other suburbs that have been divided and subdivided into smaller and smaller lots.
"When we moved in in 1989, I began to see this utopia that I thought existed had problems," Sabo said. "One of the problems came from what other towns wanted to do to Homer Township."
Surrounding towns wanted to annex parts of Homer Township, Sabo said, so they took parts of the township for commercial land. Before that a plan for a third regional airport threatened to bury Homer beneath concrete before plans fell through in the 1960s. Highway and other road projects persisted for decades.
Residents knew why they'd come to Homer — its forests, marshes and openness — and they wanted to protect their boundaries.
Homer Glen was incorporated in 2001 without a police force or parks and public works departments. It set up an environment committee and later a parks and recreation committee, and included trustees and residents on the boards, all united under the towns' motto: "Community and nature in harmony."
Homer Glen will never evade the subdivisions that pockmark various parts of town that were undeveloped through the early 1970s. So upon its incorporation, the town moved to create ordinances and guides to manage how it would inevitably expand.
Residents now watch with guarded reserve over commercial or residential developments, making sure they fit in line with a 2005 Comprehensive Plan to allow the town to grow without crippling its natural resources.