History, grown locally: Touring 8 local historical societies

Legendary Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously coined the phrase "All politics is local," but for dedicated staff and volunteers at historical societies across the city and suburbs, so is all history.

They are the ones who keep the flame of the stories and people in their towns and neighborhoods alive.

Some of these organizations occupy grand old houses or other buildings with unique pedigrees, some are in more humble facilities, but all provide snapshots of the lives that went into building those communities. We'll be providing our own snapshots of selected city and suburban historical societies on the the Museums page over the next two weeks.

Evanston History Center

Located in the National Historic Landmark home of Charles G. Dawes (former vice president of the United States under Calvin Coolidge), the Evanston History Center is what archivist Lori Osborne calls "a multifaceted organization. We have a lot of hats to wear. We are in this historic house that is itself a historic artifact. But we're also charged with telling the history of the whole community."

The center's research room occupies a large portion of the Dawes house basement, with files that cover what Osborne says is "every house and residential street address in Evanston. Every single house. People who lived there, architects, building permits."

The center also curates a wide array of special exhibits and public programs, including the current "Where Are We? Mapping Our Way Through Evanston History," which includes dozens of historic maps, "from the earliest Native American trails to school desegregation maps in the 1960s," according to Osborne. The exhibit dovetails with the 150th anniversary of Evanston's incorporation (evanston150.org).

Osborne says new donations of material — from costumes to genealogical information — come in often from families with long roots in Evanston. "A big goal of mine when I started was to make sure that people knew we were here to take care of these things and build that trust and relationship."

225 Greenwood St., Evanston; 847-475-3410 or evanstonhistorycenter.org. Open 1-4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday (research room open 1-4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Wednesday)

Edgewater Historical Society and Museum

Housed in a more modest location — a former firehouse — than its Evanston counterpart, the Edgewater Historical Society is no less active in preservation and outreach. In addition to displays on the earliest European settlers from Sweden and Luxembourg (who specialized in growing cabbage and celery) and the three historic districts contained within the far North Side neighborhood, the organization also offers frequent public programs.

At noon on Saturday, Patrick Steffes of Forgotten Chicago (forgottenchicago.com) presents a program on "Chicago's Shoreline Motels" — including the legendary and long-gone Edgewater Beach Hotel, which in its heyday housed celebrities, politicians and athletes — including Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, whose 1949 shooting at the hotel by a deranged female fan formed the basis for Bernard Malamud's novel "The Natural," which later became a 1984 film starring Robert Redford.

5358 N. Ashland Ave.; 773-506-4849 or edgewaterhistory.org. Open 1-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Glen Ellyn Historical Society

Formed in 1969 in honor of Stacy's Tavern (a stagecoach inn from the 1840s), the Glen Ellyn Historical Society has expanded to include the Glen Ellyn Center for Historical Research, the Glen Ellyn History Center for exhibits and educational programs, the Stacy's Corners Store and Ward Plaza, which commemorates the birthplace of Glen Ellyn at the intersections of North Main Street and St. Charles and Geneva roads. The Stacy's Tavern Museum at 557 Geneva Road reopens for tours Sunday after a winter hiatus. The history center also hosts a program Sunday from 2-4 p.m., "Daniel Burnham's Chicago," in which actor Terry Lynch portrays the man behind the 1893 Columbian Exposition who urged the world to "make no little plans."

800 N. Main St., Glen Ellyn; 630-469-1867 or glenellynhistory.org. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. "most Sundays."

Western Springs Historical Society

Allyson Zak, president of the Western Springs Historical Society, didn't grow up in the Cook County suburb — she transplanted from Chicago 10 years ago. But as a young mom, she decided to volunteer for the organization when she realized how much children's programming was available in the society's Tower Museum.

In addition to the third-floor playroom and children's museum, the recently renovated water tower (designed by Benezette and Edgar Williams of Williams and Williams in 1892 and now on the National Register of Historic Places) hosts a permanent ground floor exhibit on the 127-year-old town's founding. The role of commuter trains in building the town — you can see the water tower from the Burlington Northern Metra tracks — takes up the second floor, with an original ticket booth. Local archives are housed in a separate office building.

The society also maintains what Zak calls a "peek-in museum" — the tiny stand-alone Ekdahl House, built by Swedish immigrant and shoemaker August Ekdahl in 1887, one year after the town's founding, which eventually became an early post office. Zak says that the funds weren't available to make the house handicapped accessible, but they are able to let visitors walk around the outside and get a glimpse of the town's humble but plucky early days. And though the all-volunteer organization can't maintain extensive hours, the society's website serves as a repository of stories from Western Springs' past.

914 Hillgrove Ave., Western Springs; 708-246-9230 or westernspringshistory.org. Open 10 a.m.-noon Saturday.

Ridge Historical Society

On the far south end of Chicago, Ridge Historical Society works to preserve the history of the Beverly Hills, Mount Greenwood, Morgan Park and Washington Heights neighborhoods, which themselves contain four historic districts, including the Ridge Historic District, one of the largest urban districts in the National Register of Historic Places.

Housed in the picturesque hilltop 1922 Graver-Driscoll House, designed by architect John Todd Hetherington for the Graver family and donated in 1972 by James Driscoll, the Ridge Historical Society maintains archives and a research room as well as ongoing exhibits and public programs. The society also provides maps and guide booklets that will take you up and down "the Ridge," which, thanks to ancient glaciers, rises 30-60 feet above the rest of the city.

Edris Hoover, president of the Ridge Historical Society, notes that it's not just the classic homes and vintage train stations in the area that draw interest; it's the story of who moved in and when, particularly in Morgan Park, which has long had large concentrations of African-American and Irish-American residents.

"One of the topics that seems to be very popular with college students is the growth and transition of this community during the 1960s and '70s and what steps were taken to make this a diverse and stable community," Hoover says.

10621 S. Seeley Ave.; 773-881-1675 or ridgehistoricalsociety.org. Open Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday 2-5 p.m. or by appointment.

Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest

Architectural gems from Frank Lloyd Wright and the boyhood home of Ernest Hemingway draw the largest share of attention in the sister communities of Oak Park and River Forest, but Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, notes that the towns have been at the crossroads of several social changes.

Housed in the historic Pleasant Home — though plans are afoot to relocate to an expanded facility — the society's collection, according to Lipo, includes such disparate items as banners from a protest against discriminatory housing policies (Oak Park passed a fair housing ordinance in 1968) to the less-honorable charter and records of the Walosas Club, a women's chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Oak Park founded in part to protest the influx of Catholics.

Aside from Wright and Hemingway, Lipo calls attention to other prominent residents, including "Tarzan" creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. But famous folks aren't the only people who matter to Lipo.

"Community is the overlapping layers of history," he says. "It's not just the treaty dates or the traditionally great men or women. It's about the range of things that people do with their lives."

217 Home Ave., Oak Park; 708-848-6755 or oprfhistory.org. Tours Thursday to Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., research hours by appointment.

Norwood Park Historical Society

Quick: What is the oldest standing building in the city of Chicago? If you answered the Clarke House (built in 1836 as part of the historic Prairie Avenue district), you'd be close — but wrong. In fact, it's the Noble-Seymour-Crippen house on Newark Avenue in the northwest community of Norwood Park, which now houses the Norwood Park Historical Society. (Clarke House may win on a technicality, since Norwood Park wasn't annexed to Chicago until 1893.)

Society historian Anne Lunde notes that the house was built in 1833 by Mark Noble, who lived for a time in the cabin of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the first non-Native American resident of Chicago. The house, like the Ridge Historic District, occupies a rise created by an old glacial moraine, and each of the residents whose names grace the building reflects a particular chapter in local history, from early farming to a separate community to part of Chicago itself.

In addition to exhibits in the historic home, Lunde says the society also offers public programs, including a "House History and Renovator Resource Day" on April 27.

5624 N. Newark Ave.; 773-631-4633 or norwoodparkhistoricalsociety.org. Tours Saturday noon-4 p.m. or by appointment.

Arlington Heights Historical Society

Society coordinator Teri Ozawa says that Arlington Heights Historical Society, housed in five buildings near downtown at Vail and Fremont, is "one of those hidden treasures in open view." The buildings all connect to the family of soda entrepreneur F.W. Muller, who was also, according to Ozawa, instrumental in bringing the railroad to Arlington Park racetrack, "which in turn promoted the growth of Arlington Heights to the size it is today."

However, it's the large collection of antique dolls — more than 1,000 donated by early resident Martha Mills — that draws a lot of out-of-town interest. (The museum's collection will be featured in an exhibit opening May 25, "A Kid at Heart: Looking at Childhood Play.") And though the Muller compound offers plenty of vintage charm of its own, the society also presents an annual House Walk and Tea featuring other notable Arlington Heights home; this year it's scheduled for June 9.

110 W. Fremont St., Arlington Heights; 847-255-1225 or ahmuseum.org. Museum tours Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. or by appointment for groups.


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