Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Looking Back Locally: Recapping Recent Visits to the Evanston History Center / Dawes House and Wilmette Historical Museum

Charles Gates Dawes House, Evanston, IL
Museum Visit Recaps

Evanston History Center
in the Charles G. Dawes House
House Tour, Permanent Collection
and Special Exhibit to March 16: Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad

Wilmette Historical Museum
Permanent Collection, Special Event: Lecture by Former Major Leaguer Mike Huff (held on n Feb. 12) and Special Exhibit to May 7: Sox vs. Cubs: The Chicago Civil Wars

I live in a condominium in Skokie, Illinois, but am so close to the town of Wilmette that Google Maps and Yahoo Weather often think I live there.

Now, and for a good part of my life--as I grew up just five minutes from where I presently live--the city of Evanston has also been just a few feet away, much closer than most of my hometown of Skokie.

Wilmette Historical Museum
I like and appreciate Skokie but have also made considerable use of the neighboring towns, including their libraries, movie theaters, CTA stations, parks, restaurants, beaches, fireworks displays and much more. 

Because of its size, diverse cosmopolitan feel and being home to Northwestern University, Evanston has been particularly enriching in cultural opportunities, including musical performances by NU students, and a variety of theater troops and venues.

I've long known of the orange-bricked Charles G. Dawes home near the beach north of Dempster Street, once the residence of an early 20th Century U.S. Vice President and now a tourable mansion housing the Evanston History Center (EHC).

But I was never inspired to visit it until the other week.

Dawes House
Mind you, in recent years, I'd visited the Skokie Heritage Center, Niles Historical Museum, Lake County Discovery Center and the Wilmette Historical Museum, which I had cause to revisit the other day (more on this in a moment).

And its not like I haven't made a point of visiting hundreds of museums, mansions, churches and other intriguing attractions, globally and locally.

Heck, before finally venturing to the Dawes House, I even discovered and visited the American Toby Jug Museum in Evanston.
But on a recent afternoon, I cajoled my mom into joining me for a history and architecture lesson, and we both enjoyed the multifaceted visit.

Tours of the house are conducted every day that it's open, and an informative docent named Bill pointed out key features of the impressive house, while giving some background about Charles Gates Dawes.

Dawes--whose Wikipedia entry is fairly intriguing--wasn't an Evanston native. He was born (in 1865) and raised in Marietta, Ohio, graduated from Marietta College and Cincinnati Law School, and practiced law in Lincoln, Nebraska from 1887-1894, where he met both William Jennings Bryan and John Pershing, the latter becoming a lifelong friend.

Married to Caro Blymer, Dawes' business interests included Midwestern gas plants, including Northwestern Light & Gas Co. in Evanston.

The home that is now a museum was designed by H. Edwards Ficken and built in 1895 for a Northwestern University Treasurer named Robert Sheppard, who our docent noted had unrealized ambitions to be become the school's president.

He put the Chateauesque style house on the market in 1908 for $150,000 and sold it to the Dawes family for half of that. Charles Dawes would live there until his death in 1951, and following his wife's passing in 1957, the home was donated to Northwestern University to house the Evanston Historical Society, which it has since 1960.

In 2009, the mansion was donated by Northwestern to the organization now known as Evanston History Center.

For a $10 admission, one can take a tour of the house--largely in the way Dawes left it, but with additional artifacts and information pertaining to him--and see permanent collections relating to Evanston's history, plus Special Exhibits (currently one of photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales along the Civil War's Underground Railroad).

Dawes worked on William McKinley's 1896 Presidential campaign--in which he beat William Jennings Bryan--and as Comptroller of the U.S. Treasury until McKinley's assassination in 1901. (Bill pointed out that after Lincoln in 1865 and Garfield in 1881, this meant three U.S. Presidents had been killed in office over the course of just 36 years.)

In 1917, in his 50s, Dawes enlisted in the Army to aid in World War I, and under his old pal General Pershing, served as Brigadier General.

Hence, prominent in the house, there are busts of Pershing, French Prime Minister Georges
Clemenceau and other WWI leaders, though notably not U.S. President at the time, Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat.

A hardcore Republican, Dawes was the 1924 running mate of Calvin Coolidge, the sitting President after the 1923 death of Warren G. Harding.

Dawes served as U.S. Vice President from 1925-1929, co-won the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on World War I reparations and was the United States' Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1929-32.

He was also a self-taught pianist and composer, and in 1912 wrote "Melody in A Major," a popular instrumental to which lyrics were added by Carl Sigman in 1951, transforming the song into "It's All in the Game." Tommy Edwards' recording of "It's All in the Game" was a #1 hit on in the fall of 1958, posthumously making Dawes the only vice president to be credited with a No. 1 pop hit.

Learning about all this, and seeing the nicely appointed house--including a kitchen with a somewhat odd ceiling--would have made for a rewarding visit in itself, with thanks again to the docent, Bill.

But the next hour at the house was just as intriguing, with exhibits on Evanston covering everything from the city's rise around Northwestern University, to the 1860 crash of a passenger steamer that took 300 lives and led to the building of the Gross Pointe Lighthouse, to a chair Abraham Lincoln is said to have sat in, to displays on Evanstonians of note.

Though I've long known of famed suffragist Frances Willard (of the Women's Christian Temperance Union) and modern acting families like the Cusacks and Pivens, I was intrigued to learn that Evanston has also been home to Tinker Toys, Orange Crush, Pelouze postage scales and Marvin Glass, inventor of toys such as Operation, Lite-Brite and Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots.

As a lover of old theaters, I enjoyed a display of artifacts from the Varsity, which still stands on Sherman Ave., although it now contains storefronts, including The Gap.

And appreciating that Evanston has long been a highly integrated suburb, I valued reading about various African-American pioneers, politicians and community leaders, such as William H. Twiggs, Dr. Isabella Garnett Butler, Edwin B. Jourdain Jr., Fred Hutcherson Jr. and the Hon. Lorrain Hairston Morton, among others.

There is also, rather chillingly--in a display with artifacts pertaining to Abraham Lincoln--a shackle from a slave ship.  

This could help but add resonance to the single gallery containing recent photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales of Underground Railroad locales and buildings employed to help escaped slaves.

Several photos are quite compelling and the small exhibit is inherently important.

But with several pictures being intentionally underlit, and rather little accompanying text provided, the Special Exhibit, Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad, isn't as extensive or informative as I had hoped.

It's worth a look for anyone who makes their way to the EHC by March 16 but perhaps not reason enough for a special visit.  

I'll post a few more photos from the Evanston History Center/Dawes House below, but also want to loop in a visit I made the same week to the Wilmette Historical Museum on Ridge Rd., a few blocks south of Lake Street.

Familiar with the museum from a nice program I attended in 2015 by a retired architect who wrote a book called 999: A History of Chicago in Ten Stories, the impetus this time was a talk by Mike Huff, a Wilmette resident who played in the major leagues for parts of 7 seasons, including the White Sox in 1991-93.

It was fun hearing Huff reminisce about his days playing at Roemer Park--a spiffy Little League field quite close to where I live and (as a museum photo shows; see below) somewhere Bill Murray also once played--and attending New Trier, where he also played QB on the football team, as well as basketball.

Currently a VP of the Bulls Sox Academy, he encouraged parents to let their kids play multiple sports, not just the one with the seemingly brightest prospects.

Huff was quite proud of having attended Northwestern--he played alongside Joe Girardi--where his education and perceived business income potential persuaded him to turn down his first pro ball offer.

Subsequently he was drafted by the Dodgers in 16th round and--per funny stories he shared--endured some grueling bus trips in the minors, for relatively measly pay, before his tendency to hit .300 and steal 30+ bases earned him a chance in "the show."

With great detail, Huff proudly recalled getting a hit in his first at bat, against future Hall of Famer, Tom Glavine.

Huff's appearance on February 12 was tied to an ongoing Special Exhibit,  Sox vs. Cubs: The Chicago Civil Wars, which was created by the Elmhurst Historical Museum and in Wilmette until May 12.

The museum, exhibit and program I attended were all free, so well worth the time and effort for me. (Note that this upcoming baseball program has a $5 fee for non-members.)

Though the exhibit has some nice memorabilia, and interactive opportunities to hear famed broadcasters, I can't say it's unique or extensive enough to be worth a really long drive. (It should pair well with writer Richard Rothschild's March 12 lecture on The Sox vs. Cubs Rivalry.)

But along with a nice but limited permanent collection--I liked the photo of Bill Murray's baseball team and artifacts from long-gone parts of the Plaza del Lago shopping area, including Teatro del Lago--the Cubs & Sox display makes more an engaging visit for those of us who live in the area.

And along with the Evanston History Center/Dawes House, the Wilmette Historical Museum reiterated the value in surveying the past within lovingly curated--and often volunteer staffed--institutions.

Rather close to home.

As promised, here are a few more photos, all from the Evanston History Center, except as noted:


Abraham Lincoln supposedly sat in this chair during a visit to Evanston.

Artifacts from extinct businesses at Wilmette's extant Plaza del Lago
Photo of a Wilmette Little League team from 1962; Bill Murray is second from the right in the back row.
Sox vs. Cubs: The Chicago Civil Wars Special Exhibit, Wilmette Historical Museum

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did Dawes House & Wilmette Museum last October. Two truly Amazing treasures; full of beauty, fun & facts!!! �� Thanks, MIKE S.