Legendary Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously coined the phrase "All politics is local," but for dedicated staff and volunteers at historical societies across the city and suburbs, so is all history.
They are the ones who keep the flame of the stories and people in their towns and neighborhoods alive.
Some of these organizations occupy grand old houses or other buildings with unique pedigrees, some are in more humble facilities, but all provide snapshots of the lives that went into building those communities. We'll be providing our own snapshots of selected city and suburban historical societies on the the Museums page over the next two weeks.
Evanston History Center
Located in the National Historic Landmark home of Charles G. Dawes (former vice president of the United States under Calvin Coolidge), the Evanston History Center is what archivist Lori Osborne calls "a multifaceted organization. We have a lot of hats to wear. We are in this historic house that is itself a historic artifact. But we're also charged with telling the history of the whole community."
The center's research room occupies a large portion of the Dawes house basement, with files that cover what Osborne says is "every house and residential street address in Evanston. Every single house. People who lived there, architects, building permits."
The center also curates a wide array of special exhibits and public programs, including the current "Where Are We? Mapping Our Way Through Evanston History," which includes dozens of historic maps, "from the earliest Native American trails to school desegregation maps in the 1960s," according to Osborne. The exhibit dovetails with the 150th anniversary of Evanston's incorporation (evanston150.org).
Osborne says new donations of material — from costumes to genealogical information — come in often from families with long roots in Evanston. "A big goal of mine when I started was to make sure that people knew we were here to take care of these things and build that trust and relationship."
225 Greenwood St., Evanston; 847-475-3410 or evanstonhistorycenter.org. Open 1-4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday (research room open 1-4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Wednesday)
Edgewater Historical Society and Museum
Housed in a more modest location — a former firehouse — than its Evanston counterpart, the Edgewater Historical Society is no less active in preservation and outreach. In addition to displays on the earliest European settlers from Sweden and Luxembourg (who specialized in growing cabbage and celery) and the three historic districts contained within the far North Side neighborhood, the organization also offers frequent public programs.
At noon on Saturday, Patrick Steffes of Forgotten Chicago (forgottenchicago.com) presents a program on "Chicago's Shoreline Motels" — including the legendary and long-gone Edgewater Beach Hotel, which in its heyday housed celebrities, politicians and athletes — including Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, whose 1949 shooting at the hotel by a deranged female fan formed the basis for Bernard Malamud's novel "The Natural," which later became a 1984 film starring Robert Redford.
5358 N. Ashland Ave.; 773-506-4849 or edgewaterhistory.org. Open 1-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Glen Ellyn Historical Society
Formed in 1969 in honor of Stacy's Tavern (a stagecoach inn from the 1840s), the Glen Ellyn Historical Society has expanded to include the Glen Ellyn Center for Historical Research, the Glen Ellyn History Center for exhibits and educational programs, the Stacy's Corners Store and Ward Plaza, which commemorates the birthplace of Glen Ellyn at the intersections of North Main Street and St. Charles and Geneva roads. The Stacy's Tavern Museum at 557 Geneva Road reopens for tours Sunday after a winter hiatus. The history center also hosts a program Sunday from 2-4 p.m., "Daniel Burnham's Chicago," in which actor Terry Lynch portrays the man behind the 1893 Columbian Exposition who urged the world to "make no little plans."
800 N. Main St., Glen Ellyn; 630-469-1867 or glenellynhistory.org. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. "most Sundays."
Western Springs Historical Society
Allyson Zak, president of the Western Springs Historical Society, didn't grow up in the Cook County suburb — she transplanted from Chicago 10 years ago. But as a young mom, she decided to volunteer for the organization when she realized how much children's programming was available in the society's Tower Museum.
In addition to the third-floor playroom and children's museum, the recently renovated water tower (designed by Benezette and Edgar Williams of Williams and Williams in 1892 and now on the National Register of Historic Places) hosts a permanent ground floor exhibit on the 127-year-old town's founding. The role of commuter trains in building the town — you can see the water tower from the Burlington Northern Metra tracks — takes up the second floor, with an original ticket booth. Local archives are housed in a separate office building.
The society also maintains what Zak calls a "peek-in museum" — the tiny stand-alone Ekdahl House, built by Swedish immigrant and shoemaker August Ekdahl in 1887, one year after the town's founding, which eventually became an early post office. Zak says that the funds weren't available to make the house handicapped accessible, but they are able to let visitors walk around the outside and get a glimpse of the town's humble but plucky early days. And though the all-volunteer organization can't maintain extensive hours, the society's website serves as a repository of stories from Western Springs' past.
914 Hillgrove Ave., Western Springs; 708-246-9230 or westernspringshistory.org. Open 10 a.m.-noon Saturday.