Gazette Article by: Betsy Landes
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2003
What do Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, the Skokie Lagoons, Marian Anderson, the Key West Highway, and Winnetka’s railroad tracks all have in common? Distinguished Winnetkan Harold LeClaire Ickes is the link. He was born near Altoona, Pennsylvania, on March 15, 1874. After his mother’s death in 1890, he was sent to live with relatives in Chicago. Virtually penniless, Ickes worked his way through the University of Chicago, then took a job as a newspaper reporter, which brought him into contact with the colorful and corrupt world of Chicago politics at the turn of the last century.
Ickes returned to law school at the University of Chicago, graduated in 1907 and began practicing law in Chicago. From the time of his graduation from college, however, he had become deeply involved in the reform movement led by Raymond Robins, head of the Northwestern University Settlement House, Jane Addams of Hull House, and other progressive Chicago leaders. By 1903, Ickes had established a foothold in the progressive wing of the national Republican party led by Teddy Roosevelt, serving as Cook County campaign manager for Roosevelt during his unsuccessful 1912 run for a third term as President, as the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party candidate.
Harold Ickes married Anna Wilmarth Thompson in 1911. Her considerable wealth, and their mutual interest in progressive causes, facilitated Ickes’ continued participation in politics. The couple first settled in Evanston, but soon purchased seven acres of woodland in Hubbard Woods and began to build a house. Over the next four years, Ickes was deeply involved in the details of the design and construction of the house that still stands at 900 Private Road in Winnetka. Under the supervision of architect Dwight Perkins and with a budget that expanded from $25,000 to a final total of $75,000, the large and gracious home was completed by 1916. That spring, Ickes held a luncheon for Theodore Roosevelt and a group of prominent state and local political figures as part of his unsuccessful effort to persuade Roosevelt to run for President again that year.
Excluded from military service in World War I by a loss of hearing in one ear, Ickes joined the YMCA, bringing supplies and entertainment to the troops in France. He returned from overseas to Winnetka, where he helped fend off Chicago magnate Samuel Insull’s efforts to take over Winnetka’s independent electric power plant. Ickes continued to promote progressive ideas within an increasingly conservative Republican Party in the 1920s. With Harold Ickes as campaign manager, his wife Anna won a seat in the Illinois state legislature in 1928, representing Winnetka and the surrounding area. She was reelected in 1930 and 1932.
In 1932, Harold Ickes played a crucial role in gaining support among progressive Republicans for the Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Roosevelt’s election, Ickes was rewarded with the post of Secretary of the Interior. In 1933, Ickes left Winnetka for Washington, D.C., to begin what was to be the longest tenure of any cabinet member in United States history. In that position, Ickes was an astonishingly productive, effective, and somewhat combative and controlling administrator, who earned the nickname “Honest Harold” because of his unwaivering integrity. As Interior Secretary, Ickes (a dedicated conservationist) managed a dramatically expanding National Park System, cleaned up a corrupt and incompetent Bureau of Indian Affairs, controlled a vast array of natural resources, oversaw the governments of U.S. possessions, such as Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, and ran a huge and diverse federal bureaucracy of agencies and institutions. Perhaps most significantly, he helped form and then direct the Public Works Administration (PWA), a massive New Deal construction program. During the six-year span of the PWA, he supervised almost 20,000 projects from the construction of hundreds of schools, sewerage systems, bridges, and hospitals, to the building of the Boulder (Hoover) Dam on the Colorado River, New York’s Lincoln Tunnel, and the Key West Highway, linking the Florida Keys to the mainland.
Ickes also proposed a drainage project for the Skokie swamp. Known today as the Skokie Lagoons, the swamp included the lowlands on the west side of Winnetka that had long plagued the Village with intermittent flooding, mosquitoes, and even smoky peat fires. In another move greatly benefiting his former neighbors, Ickes was also instrumental in securing a federal grant to fund 45% of the cost of Winnetka’s “Big Ditch” project that lowered the railroad tracks and rid the Village of its dangerous grade crossings.
Ickes was perhaps the first and most vocal member of Roosevelt’s government to recognize the threat of fascism and the horror of Nazi prosecution and to urge United States action. In addition, he was an outspoken supporter of civil rights. He had headed the Chicago NAACP in 1923, and as Interior Secretary, he fought for minority hiring on construction projects, desegregated his own agency, tried to improve the lot of Native Americans, opposed the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, and appointed the first African American federal judge (the federal bench in the U.S. Virgin Islands was under his jurisdiction). After African-American singer Marian Anderson was refused permission to perform at Constitution Hall in 1939, Ickes helped arrange her famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial and he introduced her to the crowd of 75,000 who had gathered to see her.
Harold Ickes served as Interior Secretary until 1946, when he submitted his resignation to then President Truman in protest of Truman’s appointment of an oil magnate as undersecretary of the Navy. He did not return to Winnetka, but divided his time between Washington and his Maryland farm. He continued to write and advocate for progressive causes and against political corruption until his death in 1952. This irascible, outspoken, dedicated political crusader had an immense impact on the quality of life for citizens across America, and he left a lasting legacy in Winnetka.