“N” is for Neighborhood Circles

Gazette Article by: Chris Fullerton
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1998

Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”

When newcomers to the village first question the meaning of “the Winnetka Way,” the answer often concludes with “ . . . that’s just the way things are here.” Although it is difficult to describe, residents begin to understand how the phrase defines the community. So it is with neighborhood circles.

A unique feature of the village, neighborhood circles were started in 1914 by Cora Gould Davies, wife of Dr. J. W. F. [“Chief”] Davies, minister of the Winnetka Congregational Church and first director of the Winnetka Community House. It was while walking to and from their home on Pine Street to the Community House that the minister’s wife realized she didn’t know many of her neighbors. With that in mind, Mrs. Davies invited the women in her neighborhood to her home to get acquainted. That first meeting was so well attended that the women decided to continue their gatherings and encouraged others to do the same.
Mrs. Davies took this idea to the Women’s Society of the Winnetka Congregational Church, which agreed to sponsor a project to develop neighborhood groups throughout the village. Using a map provided by Village Engineer Frank Windes, the women divided Winnetka into sections. A woman from each area was asked to organize her neighbors; the groups soon became known as neighborhood circles.

Their original purpose was to encourage community spirit. However, the members soon decided to devote their time to charitable causes. Each circle organized itself and selected its own social work, such as knitting for the Red Cross, sewing for needy children, or rolling bandages for the war effort. Over the years, organizations that benefited from these philanthropic efforts have been as varied as the circles themselves.

Membership in neighborhood circles has always been open to all Winnetka women. In 1914-15, when the population of the village numbered about 4,000, there were 10 circles. By 1948 the number had doubled. At that time the groups became independent from the Congregational Church and formed an executive board drawn from their large membership.

Throughout the years, new circles formed and others disbanded as neighborhoods grew and changed. When the circles celebrated their 75th anniversary in 1989, an effort was made to revive the 31 groups that once had been active. Today, however—when more women work outside the home—circle activities have waned, and only a few remain. The Hubbard Woods, Fuller Lane, Orchard Lane, Boal Parkway, and Arbor Vitae Road groups meet several times a year. Although there is no longer a central organization administering neighborhood circles, active groups inform newcomers of their circles by word of mouth.

The Chamber of Commerce would like this 85-year legacy of neighborhood spirit to continue into the next century. All it takes is one person to do what many others have done before—extend an offer of friendship to others in each neighborhood and carry on the Winnetka Way.

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