Winnetka Way: Gordon Smith

Gazette Article by: Gordon Smith
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2005

Remembering Some Seventy Years Back

Winnetka Way articles are written by guest columnists who have been asked to share their memories of an aspect of Winnetka that they remember fondly. Winnetka Way articles debuted in 1994 and continue to the present.

I was born in Winnetka at 511 Provident Avenue, between Elm and Oak streets. My son is now living in the house. My father was also born in Winnetka, I’m not sure exactly where.

Growing up in Winnetka was quite different back in the 1930s and 40s. The pace was a lot slower. People walked up to the store to shop. Cars were not as plentiful. Not every family owned one and those that did mostly used it to visit someone on weekends, mainly out of town. Winter was a different story. After a big snow, traffic was scarce for a few days. No one had plow service back then—the plow service was a strong back and a snow shovel. If the driveway was long it sometimes took a good day or two to shovel it out. By that time roads were plowed. Residents learned to live with the conditions of winter and took it in stride.
My early days I can remember going fishing with my dad, kite sailing after we made the kite, playing marbles on the living room rug, playing checkers, playing catch, going to ball games at Skokie Playfield where I got a treat when the candy man came by, a candy bar. Can’t say treats were very plentiful back in my early days.

My first school was kindergarten at Horace Mann School—where the post office is today. Next was Sacred Heart School, then on to New Trier High School. How did I get there? Grammar school I walked most of the time along with others, until I was able to ride a bike, roller skate, sometimes ice skate, sun, rain, sleet or snow. Rides to school were the real treat. Rarely got one.
After school some of us usually got together and played some kind of game. If the weather was nice it was generally some kind of baseball or football in front of the house, providing we could get some players. Cars being scarce, we played a lot in front of the house in the road. The manhole cover in the middle of the road was home plate. We also played checkers, chess, Monopoly, cards, tag, red light/green light, kick the can, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. We could listen to the radio serials if the weather wasn’t too bad and the battery was good. Orphan Annie, Tom Mix, Jack Armstrong, Captain Midnight…they were great for getting into something exciting and then saying “tune in tomorrow and find out what happens.” Weekends we could go for bike rides, hike in the forest preserves. Another favorite spot was the beach, conditions permitting. In the summer we first went to the golf course to caddy, or another job before we got to play.

Paper routes in my day were delivered by school kids on bicycles. Older ones may have had an old jalopy. Papers had to be delivered by 7 a.m. Nice days it was a pretty nice job. Can’t say the same for rainy and snowy days. On snow days I had to get up a lot earlier to get done, and even then a few times I’d be late for school.

During the morning paper route, when the weather was nice, the store owners would be out washing the store windows and sweeping up in front. Most of the stores were owned by Winnetka residents who knew your parents. From what I remember, back then it was business with a more friendly atmosphere. They were your friends beside being businessmen.

In the early years Winnetka had a real nice mix of stores. Rapp Brothers, National, A&P, Voltz, Schlossers, Demma’s, Jewel & Liebschutz were all grocery stores. There were a couple of delicatessen stores that carried a small amount of items for emergencies and they were open when others weren’t. Other stores were hardware, pharmacies, clothing, dress, shoe, jewelers, car dealers, service stations, paint, lunch counters and restaurants, banks and boutiques. All your shopping was pretty much done locally, no shopping malls back then.

Some things I feel kept people more neighborly was that there was no TV, computers or air conditioners. Neighbors were outside more and did their own yard work and saw one another to talk to. Kids weren’t involved in so many after-school activities and mom didn’t have to be a taxi to make all the schedules.

The North Shore Line was a great way to get downtown and fares were cheap. Trains ran often—every half hour and early morning till midnight, if I remember right. Things began to change when people got cars. People who used to take the train, took their car instead. Traffic was light and they could park close to the office and come and go without a train schedule. Later years traffic got heavier and people got older and didn’t like the hassle, so they went back to the train—only to find that the service was not the same, because it didn’t have all the riders it used to. There was also the Chicago Northwestern, now the Metra, that is still running.
Can’t say I like all the changes over the years. The quaintness of Winnetka has changed drastically. Maybe if I hadn’t been brought up in this area it wouldn’t concern me as much. There used to be a mix of homes, but now they build them all as big as can be. I guess that is progress, but I don’t have to like it.

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