Gazette Article by: Jane Lord
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 1997
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.”
William Gold Hibbard, born in Chicago in 1870 was the son of the founder of Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co., a large Chicago wholesale hardware business. He grew up in a home on Chicago’s then-elegant Prairie Avenue, attended a prestigious New Hampshire preparatory school, and graduated from Harvard College in 1892, when he joined his father’s business. He was company treasurer when he retired in 1917.
Too old to join the military during World War I, Hibbard worked for the YMCA’s European recreational program and served on the boards of several charities. In addition, he was a member of the Winnetka Plan Commission and The Skokie Preservation Association’s executive committee.
After he moved to Winnetka in 1908, “the Skokie” became his cause. “The Skokie,” west Winnetka’s large, unusable tract of marshland, extended from Willow to Dundee Roads and was bounded on the west by what is now Edens Expressway and on the east by Forestway Drive. There mosquitoes bred, and smoke from peat bogs permeated the air throughout the community. Its poor drainage also caused flooding in the west part of the village.
William Hibbard was a leading proponent of draining the marsh, and he slaved tirelessly on the project most weekends, sometimes with helpers, often alone. He engineered and directed a drainage scheme near Willow road that would create a tree-bordered, winding channel with islands and bayous. In his determination to develop the land into a forest preserve, he dredged, drained, leveled, laid roads, and planted trees and shrubs. His vision for “the Skokie” became a reality after the Cook County Forest Preserve District acquired the land. From 1933 to 1942 it was the largest project undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Sadly, Hibbard did not live to see his dream realized. He died unexpectedly in 1920, a few weeks before his fiftieth birthday. The Skokie Preservation Association called him the foremost guardian advocate, and lover of “the Skokie.” “He opened the eyes of many to the beauty of the Skokie Valley and its unique value as a public preserve. The torch of his enthusiasm has passed on to other lovers of ‘the Skokie’ whose duty and pleasure it will be to keep it burning.”
Hibbard would have been pleased to see the hiking, canoeing, boating, fishing, and other recreation that local residents now enjoy on the converted land. He deserves having one of Winnetka’s major roads and the gymnasium at The Skokie School named for him. His vision earned him an important place in village history.