Named for Andrew Dunning, who purchased 120 acres of land after the Civil War in hopes of starting a village and nursery, this area was slow to attract new residents. The most likely reason for this was the fact that Dunning's property was just south of Cook County's poor farm and insane asylum. After a single-track rail line was extended to the facilities in 1882, "the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul “crazy train” brought patients, supplies, and medicines" to the facilities. The county also built a station, naming it for Dunning, a name that became synonymous with the insane asylum.

In his book Challenging Chicago. Coping with Everyday Life, 1837-1920, Perry R. Duis writes: "For many generations of Chicago children, bad behavior came to a halt with a stern warning: 'Be careful, or you’re going to Dunning.' The prospect sent shivers down the spines of youngsters, who regarded it as the most dread place imaginable… Dunning … evoked images of gloomy institution walls, the cries of the insane, and the hopeless poor peering from its window."