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PARK DISTRICT INFORMATION
District Info: Mission, Inclusion, and History
To enrich the quality of community life and promote activities through creative programming for people of all ages and abilities, while protecting open space and natural resources for future generations.
The Wilmette Park District stands against racism, hate, discrimination, prejudice and intolerance. We are committed to providing a safe, equitable and inclusive environment where all are welcome and treated with dignity and respect. We believe that providing this opportunity for all is core to our mission.
Wilmette Park District History
The Early Years
The Wilmette Park District has come a long way since its first meeting was held February 17, 1908. Louis K. Gillson was elected president of the new five-member Board of Commissioners at that meeting—other members included Rev. Edward J. Vattmann, David Maney, Horace G. Drury and Peter J. Cuneen.
The Park District was created at the suggestion of Col. Robert McCormick who, in 1907 while serving as president of the Sanitary District of Chicago, noted the excavation of a drainage canal connecting Lake Michigan with the North Branch of the Chicago River would result in about 22 acres of “made land” dumped into Lake Michigan between Washington Avenue and the canal inlet. Under state law, organized Park Districts could take possession of unoccupied “made land” to be used for park purposes at no cost.
Citizens promptly petitioned for an election to organize a Park District. An election was held in January of 1908 and the first Board of Commissioners was designated. Of the 211 votes cast, 174 were in favor of establishing a park district and 37 were against. The Park District, a distinct and independent municipal body,
Citizens promptly petitioned for an election to organize a Park District. An election was held in January of 1908 and the first Board of Commissioners was designated. Of the 211 votes cast, 174 were in favor of establishing a park district and 37 were against. The Park District, a distinct and independent municipal body, encompassed the entire Village of Wilmette—which had a western boundary at the center line of Ridge Road. A portion of northeast Evanston was also included but later chose to be annexed to Evanston.
The new Park District immediately set out to acquire the canal’s “made land” and established a goal of creating a continuous lakefront park stretching north from the new harbor basin. Although the Park District did not officially acquire the canal acreage until state legislation was passed on May 25, 1911, a combination of purchases, property condemnations, lease agreements and a gift of land from Northwestern University soon resulted in one nearly continuous stretch of land between Lake Avenue to 70 feet north of Forest Avenue—including all riparian rights.
The first park development was begun in 1910 between Lake and Forest Avenues with the grading and installation of drainage, planting of trees and sodding of a bluff area which at the time was being eroded by waves. Street lights and sidewalks were also installed. Later construction of a pier for the Wilmette Harbor and placement of shore protecting bulkheads gradually developed a sandy beach area of 10 acres where only one and a half acres had originally been obtained. In 1916 the park on the bluff was named Ouilmette Park in honor of Wilmette’s first citizen, Anton Ouilmette, whose residence was located near the intersection of Lake and Michigan avenues.
The Park District discovered the acreage created by the canal excavation was almost exclusively an impervious blue clay. It was not until 1917 that the first trees could be planted in soil which had been coaxed into existence through a series of cow pea and mullet plantings which were plowed under to create humus matter. This area became known as Washington Park.
Between 1911-1914 the Park District purchased a total of 11 lots to create West Side Park, known today as Vattmann Park. In 1914 the Park District began purchasing land east of Michigan Avenue between Washington and Lake avenues in hopes of creating a continuous lakefront park. The Park District acquired the “Church Triangle” at the intersection of 11th Street, Lake and Wilmette avenues in 1916 and leased Bateman Park (Sheridan Road and Michigan Avenue) from the Sanitary District of Chicago the same year.
The canal right-of-way at the east end of Greenleaf Avenue became the site of the first public ice skating rink in Wilmette and the present day Wallace Bowl was used as the Village dumping ground for eight years. In June of 1916 the Wilmette Woman’s Club was granted permission to establish public bathing facilities along the lakefront at the foot of Lake Avenue and north about 300 feet. The Wilmette Beach was thus established. After one year of successful operation by the Woman’s Club, the Park District purchased the beach equipment and opened a municipal beach—taking over responsibility for the maintenance of the facility.
Slow, Steady Growth
Following its founding in January, 1908, the Wilmette Park District, under the leadership of President Louis K. Gillson, began a slow, steady growth designed to acquire and preserve land for the recreational enjoyment of village residents.
In 1917 the first trees were finally planted in the impervious blue clay that made up the landfill now known as Gillson Park. The years between 1912-1915 had been spent almost exclusively in attempts to get the 22 acres of landfill in a usable condition—teams of horses pulled grading equipment across the clay to establish a topography. Plank floats and block and tackle were employed as needed to rescue teams that became mired up to their backs in sticky blue clay sink holes.
When the Village of Gross Point merged with Wilmette in 1924, its residents did not favor joining the Park District, so the Park District only encompassed the area up to Ridge Road. A referendum in 1946 expanded the Park District to Hibbard Road, and by 1956 it finally included the entire village.
Because the early Park District did not cover the entire village, a referendum was held in 1926 to create a Playground and Recreation Board, under the jurisdiction of the village, which levied an annual recreation tax and provided limited recreational programming to residents for 47 years—until 1973 when the Recreation Board merged with the Park District.