By Susan Whitcomb
The Fourth of July was designated a national holiday by the United States Congress in 1870, just one year after Winnetka was granted its village charter by the State of Illinois.
The oldest official evidence of Winnetka’s independence celebration is a printed program from 1873. Headlined as a “National Celebration,” it took place in the newly built Institute Hall (located on the site of the current fire station and later called Academy Hall). Winnetkans were invited for a holiday observance that began at 8pm and included music, prayer, patriotic oration, and many poetic toasts.
1887 marked the first year the Independence Day festivities were held on the Village Green. In an effort to promote “a safe and sane” celebration, a group organized a gathering of family picnics. In the early days, there was a fence around the Green and cows grazed inside it. A few days before July 4, the cows were pastured elsewhere and young boys cut the tall grass to facilitate picnicking.
By 1890, merriment encompassed the entire day starting with a gun club “medal shoot” competition at 8am, followed by organized marching, a baseball game, music, oration, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, a long list of races including a 1/4 mile horse race, and culminating in a concert at 8pm
with a group rendition of “Home, Sweet Home” at 10pm.
A committee of citizens organized the program throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, frequently incorporating new ideas. According to an interview with Frank Windes – longtime Village Engineer – conducted by Katherine Lyman in 1942, many creative events were later abandoned, including:
• A firing of Civil War army muskets to start the day
• Greased pig races (pigs were shaved, covered with lard and let loose)
• Swimming races in Lake Michigan
• Blueberry pie eating contest
• Notable speakers (including Herbert Hoover one year)
• Street dancing (which required the “waxing” of Cedar Street between Elm and Oak)
• Reenactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence
• Mock Revolutionary War battles
• Firing of a cannon on the Village Green (later stopped because boys kept stealing the cannon balls)
In the modern era, the only celebration with a program to rival the early Fourth of July parties was the nation’s 200th birthday in 1976. Winnetka’s bicentennial fun spanned three days and offered more than 20 events including a sand sculpture contest and a sailboat regatta.
A tradition that is still part of our celebration today are the races on the Village Green. For many years,
races were open to people outside Winnetka. One year, a group of young men from Wheaton College came to race. One of them took off his shirt and trousers and competed in only “running trunks and spiked shoes.” He won every race that day, but the women were scandalized by his state of undress and thought he should be arrested. Not long after that, all but a few of the races were closed to non-residents.
Amateur firework displays were offered after dark until 1909, when the Village decided to engage a professional fireworks man. He kept his munitions in a single pile under the elms, and a wayward spark set them off unexpectedly. After that, fireworks were banned for more than 50 years. They were revived in 1967 on Tower Beach and then later moved to Duke Child’s Field.