“I” is for Improvement Society

Gazette Article by: Terry Piet
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 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.”

In April 1895 Winnetka was a small village with plank walks and dusty roads. Prompted by the dilapidated appearance of the railway station, a group of citizens met with a representative of the Chicago and North Western Railway to convince him of the need for a new station. That meeting was successful, and the group met again on April 24th to discuss other village improvements. There, the Winnetka Village Improvement Association was born, electing James H. Miller its first president and a board of directors made up of four men and four women.
The group quickly expanded its scope to include improving common areas, planting trees, establishing and protecting parkways, and doing “. . . whatever may tend to the improvement of the village . . .”
Public support for the association was substantial, and membership quickly grew to 102, fostering a revolutionary, collective sense of civic pride. For the first time ways to improve the village became the special focus of town meetings.
Initially, the association placed waste receptacles throughout the village. It also consulted a landscape gardener for advice on which species of trees to plant and how to improve the appearance of Winnetka in other ways. The group convinced the village council to enact a law to protect songbirds and sought ways to involve residents in planting and maintaining trees. It created an Arbor Day in October, when prizes were given for the best trees planted and maintained by children.
In the early 1900s the organization worked with the village council and other North Shore suburbs on an extensive, successful mosquito abatement program. It also recommended the formation of a park district to oversee public grounds.
The association established an art collection in the public schools and Village Hall. In conjunction with the Winnetka Art League, it obtained and maintained art for the village, creating what some considered the best public collection in Illinois.
The Improvement Association’s most significant achievement was the idea of a village plan (Gazette, Winter 1996). Discussions begun during a meeting in 1917 led to the appointment of the Winnetka Plan Commission; the formal Plan was adopted in 1921.
Throughout its lifetime, the organization acted as liaison between residents and village government, suggesting ways that the community could operate more efficiently. Many present-day village boards are the result of its ideas. With the creation of these boards, the association had accomplished its goals; it was dis-banded in the 1920s.
Today Winnetka residents can see the results of the group’s tireless efforts. The village boasts abundant trees, open spaces, and parks, retaining much of the character that citizens in the 1890s so valued.
Winnetka has always been a community filled with civic pride. The Winnetka Village Improvement Association harnessed this pride into policy, procedure, and results.

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