Wilmette History

Archange Ouilmette

For those who wish to pursue the history of the Village of Wilmette in detail, here are three excellent resources:  George Bushnell, Wilmette a History (1997); John Jacoby, Wilmette at 150 (2021); and the collections of materials at the Wilmette Historical Museum, available by visits to the Museum and by the Museum’s website. A highly abbreviated account of the Village’s history is presented below.  Much of this material is taken from the Bushnell book.

The Village of Wilmette  is distinct among North Shore Communities because it was created by the 1924 merger of two older villages, Wilmette and Gross Point.  The origins and development of these two communities were substantially different and these differences are still visible.  On the east, Wilmette developed as a wooded tract bordering Lake Michigan.  On the west, Gross Point was the center of a German immigrant and farming community which spread across the open fields west of what is now Ridge Road. 

Wilmette’s Origins

The history of Wilmette tracks back to the site of an Indian settlement called “Checaugau” at the mouth of the Chicago River and the arrival in 1790 of a French-Canadian fur trader named Antoine Ouilmette.   He met and married, in either 1796 or 1797, a part-Pottawatomie Indian named Archange Chevallier.  They survived the infamous Fort Dearborn Massacre of 1812, owned one of the four cabins comprising the Checaugau settlement, had eight children and an adopted daughter, and developed a fairly prosperous farming business. But in 1826, the Ouilmettes decided to move north to build a cabin and settle down on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan at a spot near the present-day Michigan Shores Club.

Archange Ouilmette
Archange Ouilmette

The arrival of white settlers into northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin led to tension with resident Indian tribes, which was resolved in 1829 by the Treaty of Prairie du Chien.  By that treaty, the United States obtained title to huge areas west of Lake Michigan.  Among other things, the treaty provided for a grant of land to Archange Ouilmette in gratitude for her help in persuading the Indians to sign the treaty.  Comprising some 1,280 acres, the property extended south from the present-day Elmwood Avenue to Central Street in Evanston and from Lake Michigan west to the present-day 15th Street.  This land became known as the “Ouilmette Reservation”. 

Archange held the land subject to an extraordinary condition: it could not be conveyed or leased to anyone without the permission of the President of the United States. Archange died in 1840 and four years later some of her heirs filed the requisite petition .  The petition was granted by President James Polk and parcels were sold thereafter, primarily to a group of five men who, in 1869, formed a syndicate to promote residential development.  The last remaining parcel was retained by an heir for a later sale.  The sale of the “Ouilmette Reservation” set the stage for the development of the area and made possible the formation of “Wilmette Village”, as it was then named, using the anglicized version of “Ouilmette”.

While the little unincorporated community prospered in the ensuing years (during which it nearly became the pickle capital of the United States), it was in 1854, when the Chicago & Milwaukee Railroad – later to become the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad – built railroad tracks through the community and with the construction of a train station in 1871, the growth of the little settlement was assured.  The Chicago Fire of 1871 led many people to migrate out of Chicago and led to growth in what was now a recognizable and easily reachable suburb of Chicago.  That led to the next step in the village’s history: the incorporation of Wilmette Village, now renamed the “Village of Wilmette”, as an Illinois municipality in 1872.

Gross Point’s Origins

Concurrently with the early development of Wilmette, a steady stream of  German farmers from the Rhine and Moselle Rivers in the German district of Trier were moving into the area west of the present-day Ridge Road in order to escape the oppression which plagued much of the European continent.  Naming their community Grosse Pointe (later shortened to Gross Point) after the bend in Lake Michigan  north of the Northwestern University campus, these Germans were dedicated to farming and their Catholic religion.  Their community expanded and was incorporated as an Illinois municipality in March 1874 (two years after Wilmette’s incorporation to the same effect).

The Germans built their first church in 1844 and welcomed the first pastor of the newly formed St. Joseph’s Church in 1845.  In 1868, a young priest named Father William Netstraeter was ordained and served as pastor for fifty-one years, from 1872 to 1923.  A truly remarkable man, he became a leader in building a new St. Joseph’s Church on the east side of Ridge Road and served as Wilmette’s village president from 1886 to 1887 and from 1890 to 1891, all in neighboring and  largely Protestant Wilmette.

As an adjunct to their farm produce, the Gross Point farmers developed a thriving beer industry and that led to large array of taverns on and west of Ridge Road, some fifteen at the high point.  But in due course,  New Trier Township adopted restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages and in 1918 the United States adopted the 14th Amendment,  which events totally undercut Gross Point’s financial viability.  In 1919, Gross Point citizens voted to dissolve their near-bankrupt village government. In April 1924 a part of Gross Point was merged into Wilmette and in 1926 the balance of Gross Point was annexed by Wilmette.  Gross Point was now totally gone, having become the western section of Wilmette.

Wilmette’s Further Expansion and Development

In 1942, Wilmette’s boundaries were expanded when the notorious “No Man’s Land” — the triangle of land bordering Lake Michigan and Kenilworth — was annexed after years of legal and legislative battles.  After more legal battles, this time over zoning, developers constructed the several high-rise buildings which now border the lake front.  Another border expansion occurred in the 1980s, when a parcel of land at the intersection of Illinois Road and Hibbard Road was annexed at the request of the church occupying the then unincorporated parcel as a way to obtain Wilmette water.

In 1951, the Edens Expressway opened and the post-World War II baby boom led to the disappearance of the farmland which was so much a part of Gross Point in favor of  the development of west Wilmette as a residential area, with Edens Plaza as its principal commercial feature. 

Wilmette had become a mature suburb, one whose coming challenges would be more of preservation and revitalization than of growth.