By Helen Weaver
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2018-2019
Winnetka has long been associated with education: as the home of nationally renowned New Trier High School, and the incubator of the Winnetka Plan, progressive educator Carleton Washburne’s experiment in individualized ungraded learning. Less well known is the fact that Winnetka’s founding as an incorporated village in 1869 was motivated by educational concerns.
Though Charles Peck, a real estate investor who speculated in land along the proposed route of the Chicago and Milwaukee railroad, is often named as the “father of Winnetka,” it is Artemas Carter, a merchant from Leominster, Massachusetts and Peck’s fellow congregant at Unity Church in Chicago, who orchestrated Winnetka’s founding as a corporate entity.
Carter came from a family of public education supporters. His older brother, James Gordon Carter, a Harvard educated teacher and member of the Massachusetts State Legislature, founded the Massachusetts Board of Education of which famed educator Horace Mann was first secretary. Artemas Carter served on the board of Ohio’s Antioch College where Mann was president. In the late 1840s, Artemas and James both came to Chicago where Artemas entered the booming lumber business and James died unexpectedly at age 54 in 1849.
Artemas, encouraged by his fellow Unitarian Charles Peck to invest in property in the new community of Winnetka, built a house on Sheridan Road at Elm Street in 1858. A few months later Carter was elected director of the fledgling school district and assumed duties as clerk. He wrote in the minutes of the three-year-old district that his “impression when he saw the school was there was a great want of order, discipline, government; and that this defect was so serious as to materially mar the teacher’s success.” He wrote of the students: “They do not progress rapidly, and not as fast as they should.” In the interest of improvement the citizens of the district voted in 1867 to authorize the school board to build a new schoolhouse, with the levying of a tax to finance its purchase.
But, by the winter of 1868, the people of Winnetka (population of 400-500) were neither satisfied with the progress of education in the district nor the growth of the community itself. Artemas Carter described the situation in his address to the Village Council in 1872: “When a large number of older residents met at the residence of Mr. Wright, in the winter of 1868-69, to consult together and agree upon a charter, the interests of education became very prominent in their consideration. There was a feeling, shared by all, that the legitimate and proper growth of the place had been hindered, more than all things else, by the absence of any advantages here over and above one very respectable school district.”
Carter and his associates had watched the Methodist founders of Northwestern University lead development of the town of Evanston in 1851 and the Presbyterian founders of Lake Forest set up both a college and a town in 1857. The largely Unitarian Winnetka founders hoped investing in a similar “educational institution of a high grade” would lead to the growth of their own community. In order to take out bonds for financing their institution, they would have to incorporate as a village.
A small group of citizens including Judge J.P. Atwood, Jared Gage and John T. Dale (another real estate investor) joined Artemas Carter in writing the charter. On March 10, 1869 the Governor of Illinois signed the charter for the Village of Winnetka, granted by the general assembly of the state of Illinois. Artemas Carter was elected first village president and served four years.
One of the first acts of the village council was to move forward in building a new institution of higher learning. As Carter described in 1872: “land has been
purchased, and first a college building; then a dormitory have been built. Bonds have been issued to pay for this land and these buildings, and the full cost up to this time has been the net proceeds of the sale of twenty-five bonds, each of one thousand dollars.”
Unfortunately for Artemas and the citizens of Winnetka, the job “dragged”, and the building was not ready for use for several years. Though the Village
negotiated with what became known as “The Old University of Chicago” to run the new college, the university itself was facing hard times. The (Old) University of Chicago never took over the lease of Winnetka’s college building, going out of business itself in 1886.
Artemas Carter died in 1877 and the “Academy” building was rented for two or three years to private schools, then taken over to meet the increasing needs of the public schools. After Horace Mann School was opened in 1899, the lower level of the Academy building was used as the Village Hall and the upper level was used as an assembly hall for clubs, societies, and dances. In 1925, after the new Village Hall was built, the Academy building was renovated to house the fire department where it remained until a new public safety building was constructed in 1966 (later renovated in the 1990s.)
Though the founders’ original plan to create a college town never came to fruition, the village charter they created (with many amendments) has held up for 150 years. Although many municipalities gave up their special charter status after the Cities and Villages Act was put in place in 1871, Winnetka is one of the few that have not. One of the reasons was, as longtime Village Manager Herbert Woolhiser described in 1930: “that the charter provides that members of the village council shall serve without pay. It is believed that this requirement has been of material effect in maintaining the strictly non-political and public spirited type of government which has been a tradition in Winnetka.”