Gazette Article by: Jan Tubergen
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1996
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.”
Although Elm Street, running between Sheridan Road and Hibbard, may not be “Main Street”, it as been an important thoroughfare and the site of many special features of Winnetka life.
It all started in 1843, when John Happ, who named the township after his beloved Trier, Germany, established his smithy on the Green Bay Trail (now Maple Street) at the southwest corner of what is now Elm Street. Farmers from west of the village used this early country road for access to blacksmith services as well as news and mail brought by the coaches which stopped there. This access made Elm Street the logical place for the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad (later renamed the Chicago and North Western Railway Co.) depot when Walter Gurnee and Charles Peck laid out the railroad on high ground and platted the village in 1854.
Peck and his wife Sarah named Winnetka and left the legacy of tree street names. They built their huge home, Peck Place, along Elm Street where Arbor Vitae is now, not far from the railroad. They also sponsored the planting of an arcade of elms lining the namesake street. The Pecks established the first school in Winnetka in 1856 on Elm Street at the northwest corner of what is now the Village Green.
Elm Street has continued to play an important role in providing a pathway to Education. The Horace Mann School, designed by William A. Otis, stood where the post office is now an served grades 1-8 from 1899 to 1940; Carleton Washburne’s progressive and innovative junior high school, The Skokie School, opened in 1922 on the corner of Elm and Glendale. It was phased out after the Washburne Junior High School was built on Hibbard Road at Elm in 1968.
In 1869 the Pecks began another Winnetka tradition when they donated the land for the Village Common, bounded by Elm, Maple, Oak, and Cedar. Today Elm Street’s west end is an entrance to Winnetka’s largest park and recreational area.
It was the railroad depot that made Elm Street flourish commercially. In 1855 R. M. Graves rected the first general store on the corner of Elm and Green Bay Road across from the depot. In 1874 Robert Moth, and in 1884 his son-in-law Max Meyer, also operated a general store there. It later became The Winnetka Bank-now First Bank. Meyer and his descendants helped to develop this main business district on Elm Street, anchored by easy access to the railroad.
Elm Street also continued to be a desirable residential street. Peck Place may be long gone, but a number of vintage houses still stand on Elm. One of these, the house at 594 Elm, was built in 1872 by Samuel Shackford, father-in-law of William A. Otis.
Today many of the signature elms have disappeared, but a drive down Elm Street is still a scenic reminder of the many facets of life in Winnetka that make it a desirable place to reside.