Gazette Article by: Claudia Norris Kapnick
Appeared in the Gazette: Winter 1996
The dictionary defines a curmudgeon as a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old, person. Although some Winnetkans may aspire to such a title, one actually lived here and publicly declared himself as such. This figure is none other than Harold L. Ickes, political reformer and member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet. Ickes even had the temerity – or hubris – depending on one’s point of view, to title his 1943 book, Autobiography of a Curmudgeon.
He wrote, “If, in these pages, I have hurled an insult at anyone, be it known that such was my deliberate intent, and I may as well state flatly now that it will be useless and a waste of time to ask me to say that I am sorry.”
Harold Ickes was not a man who readily said that he was sorry. He was not inclined to be humble during his nearly 40 years as a political reformer in Chicago, or when appointed to Roosevelt’s cabinet in March, 1933. He was, however, a fervent believer in honest government for the community and government as a catalyst to promote social responsibility and improve the public welfare. Ickes worked to promote and advance the Progressive Party in Illinois and consequently captured the attention of advisors to the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the presidency in Roosevelt’s hands, Ickes found the opportunity to realize his dreams. In Washington he discovered a political niche that satisfied his personal ambitions.
As Secretary of the Interior, Ickes became arguably the second most powerful man in Washington and helped to change the face of Winnetka in two ways. The first was the Skokie Lagoons project; the Civilian Conservation Corps worked from 1933 to 1938 to create the hills and lakes of the lagoons. The second was the track depression. With a grant from the federal government of $1.5 million (plus funds from the village and the railroads), the project – including the construction of seven bridges over the tracks – was completed on June 15, 1943.
It was in Winnetka where Ickes’ greatest love lay. His house and gardens at 900 Private Road were a great joy and calming influence. Spring bulbs, peonies, roses and dahlias exploded in color and seemed to mimic Ickes’ larger-than-life persona. “ ‘We developed our own varieties, ‘ he remembered, ‘and every Summer…we had a great mass of glorious blooms down by the gardener’s cottage on Tower Road. People by the hundreds used to come out to see these dahlias on Saturdays and Sundays until the traffic at that section of Tower Road became a considerable problem.’”
Ickes entertained lavishly and elegantly on his estate amongst the surroundings he most loved. His home and gardens also served as the church for his wife Anna’s funeral on September 3, 1935. Anna’s coffin was placed in a bay window open to the gardens where 400 chairs had been placed to augment the dozens inside. Among those attending the funeral were Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, several cabinet members, and Ed Kelly, mayor of Chicago.
To this curmudgeon, Winnetka provided solace in his quest for equality, national security, opportunity for all, and protection of the environment.
Ickes died on February 3, 1952. His son, Harold L. Ickes Jr., who served in the Clinton administration until recently, carries on his father’s political legacy.