“W” is for Women of Winnetka

Gazette Article by: Bean Carroll
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2002

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.”

Though it is sometimes heard from Winnetka men that they would like to be Winnetka women in their next life, the men would conclude it isn’t all PTA meetings and luncheons. There have been many Winnetka women who have been instrumental in the establishment of important foundations of our community.

Zeruah Patterson, otherwise known as “The Widow,” was born in 1794 and came to Winnetka from Vermont in August, 1836, with her husband Erastus and their five children: Olive, Moses, Azel, Josep and Lucia. The Patterson family settled on the hill near Christ Church and built a log structure, “The Patterson Tavern,” which was a wayside inn strategically placed on the Green Bay Trail. After the death of her husband, “The Widow” was able to keep the tavern in operation for traders and travelers until John Garland’s 1847 purchase of the inn. Though originally a squatter, Zeruah astutely waited for the government to survey the north shore territory before purchasing 57.9 acres from Tower Road to Pine Street along the lakefront. This turned out to be a wise investment.

Other capable and creative women included Sarah Russ Peck, whose initiative formed the first private school in Winnetka in 1856. Kate Dwyer, born in Winnetka in 1856, grew up in her family home located near Elm Street between Chestnut and Birch, now known as Dwyer Court. In 1930, she was the “oldest living, native born resident in Winnetka.” She had attended various private schools and District #2. After completing training to become a teacher, she began her career at the Horace Mann School and was a first grade teacher during the entire existence of the school. Dwyer taught an additional seven years in other buildings. Mary Gillespie was elected our first school superintendent in 1893 by a school board that consisted of seven individuals, five men and two women.

The Winnetka Woman’s Club was established in 1908 when ten women met at the home of Dr. Alice Barlow Brown. Issues of concern to these women are reflected in a paper read by Mrs. William A. Otis on “Some Village Needs From a Woman’s Viewpoint.” One of the programs presented in their first year was “Public Libraries.” Other club accomplishments, as reflected in Lora Dickinson’s The Story of Winnetka, were promoting home mail delivery, which began in 1912, preventing the establishment of bars and the sale of liquor within Village limits, improving garbage disposal and promoting the depression of the railroad tracks. Carrie Burr Prouty, another dynamic woman, was the first female president of the Winnetka Library Board from 1906-1945. She was also the first female president of the Winnetka Historical Society from 1937-1938 and from 1939-1942.
Lora Townsend Dickinson moved to Winnetka in 1910 with her husband and infant daughter. She was the director of the first drama club at the Winnetka Community House from which evolved the Winnetka Drama Club. She was also an author and historian. Long interested in the affairs of the Winnetka Historical Society, she devoted herself to local historical research. She published the book, The Story of Winnetka and was also president of the Winnetka Historical Society from 1942-1944.

We have mentioned only a few of the Winnetka women who helped to establish this Village. Many more were also important contributors, such as Anita Willets Burnham, artist, writer and lecturer as well as Dr. Clara Davis, the developer of a system for feeding infants and children. The history of Winnetka’s beginnings is very interesting. The fact that so many women were involved in establishing its institutions is even more impressive.

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2 Responses to ““W” is for Women of Winnetka”

  1. February 13, 2019 at 8:57 am #

    She was my great aunt. She retired to Corpus Christi, Texas, but went to spend her last weeks at my grandmother’s house. I was a little boy when she died. I remember holding her hand as she dozed. She had a beautiful, crisp accent. Thank you for this wonderful article.

    • March 1, 2019 at 2:37 am #

      Thank you so much for your comment. I love that you remember her so well – especially her accent. If you ever want to tell us more, reach out to me at curator@winnetkahistory.org. -Rachel, WHS Curator

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