This article originally appeared in the November 12, 2019 issue of the Winnetka Current as Back in the Day – Winnetka Treasures: 15 Decades, 15 Objects
By Holly Marihugh
Harry Potter books personally signed by none other than J.K. Rowling. A large weathered door that washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan. A farrier knife used to trim the hooves of the workhorse, “Old Jim.” All of these items illustrate the history of the village in large and small ways, says Rachel Ramirez, curator at the Winnetka Historical Society.
The three items above are included in a collection of artifacts featured in the new exhibit, “Winnetka Treasures: 15 Decades, 15 Objects,” opening on Nov. 16. The special exhibit marks the 150th anniversary of Winnetka’s founding and spotlights an artifact from each decade of the village’s history.
“One of the interesting things about this exhibit is that these artifacts are representative of some really big moments in history, and others are about tiny little local stories,” Ramirez said.
The weather-beaten door dates back to the 1860s, during Winnetka’s first decade. It was originally mounted inside the steamship, the Lady Elgin, which was rammed by a schooner and sank in Lake Michigan along the North Shore. Three hundred people drowned, and the shipwreck still holds the record for most lives lost in open water in the Great Lakes. Some of the 98 survivors were sheltered at the home of Winnetkan Jared Gage on Whitebridge Hill Road.
“The door is one of the original artifacts in our collection,” Ramirez says. “We’ll tell the story of the Lady Elgin in the exhibit. It’s a local story, but the tragedy affected a lot of people from Milwaukee, too.”
The signed Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling represent a recent decade in Winnetka’s history, the 2000s. Local retailer, the Book Stall, which often attracts national and international authors, hosted J.K. Rowling at the height of “Harry Potter” fever. Of course, there was a line of kids and adults out the door and down the street, waiting to meet her.
A Winnetka resident loaned the books for the exhibit.
“This mom brought her kids to the Book Stall,” Ramirez says. “They met J.K. Rowling and got their books signed. No doubt, the kids still remember it.”
A hyperlocal story is attached to the circa-1930s farrier knife in the exhibit.
“A farrier knife is for trimming horses hooves, and this one was used on the very last workhorse in Winnetka,” Ramirez says. “His name was ‘Old Jim.’”
Old Jim hauled loads for the Winnetka Coal and Lumber Company located at 594 Green Bay Road. By that time, the demand for workhorses was dwindling, and Old Jim held the last license issued for a workhorse in town.
“These small local stories reveal careful attention to the details of our history,” Ramirez says. “A Winnetkan thought of keeping this knife that was used for Old Jim. It shows that people were passionate about local lore.”
Some artifacts connect people with worldwide history as well. In the WHS collection is a handmade poster from WWII, encouraging Winnetkans to plant a Victory Garden.
“When we hear about big events in history they can seem very distant to us,” Ramirez says, “such as when we learn about WWII in school and see images that are horrible. But people don’t connect to history if they don’t have something that’s from next door or from their own community. A local artifact, like the Victory Garden poster, helps people realize that WWII did affect everyone in Winnetka. And telling these local stories now helps reconnect people with the past.”
Exhibit hosted at Winnetka Historical Society, 411 Linden:
• Member Preview on Thursday, Nov. 14, 4-8 p.m.
• Public Opening on Saturday, Nov. 16, 1-4 p.m.
Back in the Day is a monthly column by The Winnetka Historical Society.