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); Kathy Hussey-Arntson & Patrick Leavy, Images of America: Wilmette (2012); 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.
The land originally belonged to Native Americans. They resided in the region for an incredible 8,000 to 10,000 years. Ways of life changed dramatically over this long period, and Native Americans in the area made many innovations, including inventing pottery and raising crops, while continuing to hunt, fish, and gather wild plants for many purposes. By the time of contact with Europeans in the 1600s, the Miami, followed later by the Potawatomi were the largest tribal nations in the area.
The history of Wilmette tracks back to the site of a fur-trading community 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 Potawatomi woman named Archange Chevalier. They owned one of the four cabins comprising the settlement, raised eight children, and developed a fairly prosperous trading and farming business. Between 1826 and 1829, 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.
When Archange and Antoine Ouilmette and family moved sometime between 1826 and 1829 to what is now Wilmette, they were in Potawatomi country. Because Archange was of Potawatomi descent, this was a comfortable situation. That was all to change with the signing of the 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien between the US government and the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Ottawa nations and with the federal government’s passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Together these actions forcibly removed Native Americans from the region that is today the North Shore. Click here to read a featured article on Wilmette’s early residents from the Wilmette Historical Museums 2021-2022 winter newsletter.
The arrival of white settlers into northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin disrupted Native American ways of life in a region where they had resided for more than 8,000 years. Over time, conflicts arose between settlers and Native American tribal members which led the federal government to draw up treaties between the U.S. government and tribal nations. The aforementioned 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien allowed the United States to obtain title to areas west of Lake Michigan. Among other things, the treaty provided for a grant of land to Archange Ouilmette and her children. 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 Reserve”.
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 children filed the requisite petition . The petition was granted by President James Polk and parcels were sold thereafter to real estate investors. One parcel was retained by a Ouilmette son for a later sale. The sale of the “Ouilmette Reserve” 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 & North Western Railroad – built railroad tracks through the community. With the construction of its first train station in 1869, 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
Concurrent with the early development of Wilmette, farmers from the Rhine and Moselle Rivers in the German district of Trier were settling into the area around present-day Ridge Road in order to escape the oppression which plagued much of the European continent. Naming their community Gross Point after the bend in Lake Michigan, north of the Northwestern University campus, these German-speaking immigrants 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).
They 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.
In addition to farming, the Gross Point residents developed businesses, including a 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 in 1909, and in 1919 the United States adopted the 18th 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 and some of unincorporated New Trier Township were annexed by Wilmette. Gross Point Village was now totally gone.
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 in the 1950’s and 1960’s, this time over zoning, developers constructed the 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 had been 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.
This page was updated on 01/27/22. The above content is courtesy of Wilmette Historical Museum Director, Kathy Hussey-Arntson. Visit wilmettehistory.org for more information!