Back In The Day: When Winnetka’s best-known restaurant was part of a national story

This article originally appeared in the April 30, 2018 issue of the Winnetka Current as Back In The Day: When Winnetka’s best-known restaurant was part of a national story

By Peter Butler

During the depths of the Great Depression in 1934, Harvey and Clara Klingeman opened the Indian Trail Restaurant on Chestnut Street, where the recently closed Taste on Chestnut restaurant was located.

Some thought it was a sign that the economy was improving because they signed a three-year lease. When they opened the restaurant, it had 30 seats. A dinner of steak, potatoes, spiced pears, rolls and two fresh veggies could be had for $1.

For 54 years until its closing in 1988, the family-owned restaurant mastered outstanding and elegant comfort food highlighted by fresh, hot rolls and very rich desserts. They often shared their recipes with their customers. It grew to a seating capacity of 300 and served 320,000 meals annually by the 1970s. Rock Hudson and Charlton Heston, both of whom lived in Winnetka, were regulars, and Colonel Sanders became good friends with the Klingemans.

For most of its life, the restaurant was really the only true dinner option in Winnetka.

In 1986, the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” brought national attention to the restaurant by prominently displaying its exterior as the movie traversed much of Winnetka.

A darker story that brought the restaurant national attention takes us back to 1967, when unbeknownst to Indian Trail, the future killer of Martin Luther King Jr., James Earl Ray, spent almost two months as an employee at the restaurant. This was also just two years after Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the Village Green before a crowd of 10,000.

The FBI’s investigation and subsequent interrogation of Ray created an itinerary of James Earl Ray’s days preceding and following King’s death. After escaping from a Missouri prison, Ray arrived in Chicago by bus, and on May 3, 1967, he took a job at Indian Trail as a dishwasher under his assumed name, John L. Rayns. His salary was $103 a week. Although the Klingemans considered him to be quiet and preoccupied, they were pleased with his work and promoted him to become a food server with a $117 weekly salary.

He was living on North Sheffield Avenue in Chicago but moved to Lunt Street on Chicago’s northwest side on June 17. He left the Indian Trail job during the week of June 19. From Chicago, his stops included far ranging places such as Mexico, California and Canada, before heading to Alabama and eventually Memphis, where he took King’s life on April 4, 1968.

Following the shooting, Ray fled to Atlanta, then Toronto, and finally London before he was caught on July 19, more than three months after the shooting. Although he initially pleaded guilty, he spent much of his life trying to reverse his sentence, and his motives remain something of a mystery. As he was approaching his death in 1998, Martin Luther King’s son, Dexter, visited Ray in prison and actually suggested he believed Ray and that he should be released.

After learning of Ray’s identity, the Klingemans felt terrible about having brought an accused murderer into the restaurant to work side by side with other valued employees. They said at the time, “If this man had been given proper guidance and some kindness and concern, instead of kicks and rebuffs from the time he was a child, who knows? Our country may have been spared the irreparable loss of Dr. King.”

The Winnetka Historical Society promotes awareness of Winnetka’s heritage through artifact preservation, public access to their museum and Schmidt-Burnham Log House, and enlightening programs, exhibits and publications.


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