Gazette Article by: Jane Lord
Appeared in the Gazette: Winter 1997
Max Meyer: Civic Leader and Winnetka’s First Banker
Few would have forecast in 1875 that 13-year-old Max Meyer, chore boy at Robert Moth’s general store, was destined to become one of Winnetka’s most outstanding business and civic leaders. The Meyer family immigrated from Putbus, Germany, in 1872. Settling in Winnetka, hard challenges and tragedies overshadowed their life in the “land of opportunity.” Home was a log cabin located east of Sheridan Road at Tower. When his employer’s business failed, Meyer’s father lost his job as brick maker and resorted to work as a woodcutter. Before long he contracted tuberculosis and died. There was no option for young Max but to drop out of school and work to help support the family. His first job at the general store paid $5 a month. A year later Max was promoted to delivery boy. Moth made him store manager at 18 and sold the store to Meyer and Frank Gage two years later in 1882. Meyer’s interests expanded into finance when he founded the Winnetka Building and Loan Association in 1886. The bond between the Meyer and Moth families became permanent when Max married Robert Moth’s daughter, Nellie, in 1888.Meyer’s reputation for integrity was legendary. Once he walked several miles to return a 25-cent overpayment to a customer.
Acquiring a safe for the general store shaped the direction of Meyer’s career. It was the only safe in town, so residents prevailed upon Meyer to keep their important papers. So many people used the safe as a repository that Meyer began operating a bank, Winnetka’s first, in the store. In 1894 he named it the Bank of M. K. Meyer and moved it to a building just west of the general store, and Meyer replaced them with a limestone building dedicated solely to banking. Although he continued to operate a coal and lumber business at a yard on Green Bay Road, Meyer spun off his other businesses to concentrate on banking.
In 1917 the bank was incorporated and renamed the Winnetka Trust and Savings Bank.
Many Winnetka institutions benefited from Max Meyer’s civic interest and commitment. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Winnetka Park District, Winnetka Relief League (precursor of Family Services of Winnetka-Northfield), the public library, and the Winnetka Historical Society. Meyer fought for village street and sidewalk paving and the building of the water and electric plants. He was active in village government, serving on the zoning board and plan commission. He also was a leading supporter of private finding for the construction of The Skokie School. From 1886 until his death in 1937, he was treasurer of Winnetka’s Fourth of July celebration, and for many years it was Meyer who selected films shown at the Winnetka Community House.
Commenting on Meyer’s role in the growth of Winnetka, his grandson Robert K. Humphrey said, “Most towns in their development stage had one man who spearheaded everything as needs came up. In Winnetka, it was my grandfather.”