Celebrate Twenty-five Years
By: Kathy Gemperle
In January of 1988, a meeting was held at the Edgewater Library to discuss the possibility of forming a non-profit organization to be known as the Edgewater Historical Society. About 70 people attended the meeting and voted to proceed with the necessary steps to bring the organization into existence. During the next two months, a bylaws committee was formed and applications were made to the State of Illinois and by March of 1988 the Edgewater Historical Society was formed and the first annual meeting was held.
Now, twenty-five years later, is a good time to restate the mission and remember all the energy it took to create this organization in our community. As stated in the bylaws, the mission is to involve our community in the research, documentation, collection and preservation of Edgewater history; to promote the study, sharing and enjoyment of that history; and to promote the preservation of landmarks and historical structures. This is primarily an educational institution. We gather together to learn and share information about the history of Edgewater and, with this information, we preserve the history of Edgewater, which is embodied in its people and its architecture. Our mission is not just to learn about the past, but to preserve it. So we thought it would be interesting to hear from some of the original founders of the Edgewater Historical Society.
Bob Remer, our current president, attended the meeting at the Edgewater Library in 1988, and offered his name as a board member. He explained the background to the naming of Edgewater as Community Area 77 in the City of Chicago. “The community of Edgewater wanted to gain control on the political level. Part of the strategy was to get its own identity. LeRoy Blommaert was the main intellectual force behind that. Ed Marciniak, a professor at Loyola, wrote a book about Edgewater called ‘Reversing Urban Decline.’” Bob elaborates on the beginnings of the historical society “I ran into Kathy (Gemperle) at a party at the Marciniak’s and she said that we had to get this thing going. We went into the kitchen and sat down at the kitchen table to make a list of people we thought would help.” That began a series of meetings. “At one meeting at my house, I offered a check to help get things started. Bud Wyman was doing some of the legal work to start a not-for-profit, so he received the check. Then, at the meeting at the Library, I stood up and offered the first dollar.”
Thom Greene remembers that we held our first public meeting at the Edgewater Library, when he signed up to be a board member, and he says “There should be a plaque placed there (ironically, since the building was torn down this year). Then we went forward, holding meetings and giving tours. It didn’t take long for us to see that we needed a home base. That took a lot of energy – getting the firehouse and raising the money to transform it into a community history museum. It was a very historical event.” Greene served as the architect to create the museum and shared the joy of the 10 year celebration on October 6, 2012.
Betty Mayian remembers working on the Oral History project of the Edgewater Community Council to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Edgewater. “It generated a lot of interesting history and little known facts and stories about people. Kathy said we should start an historical society and the Oral History committee said ok.” Betty joined the first board and later served as President of EHS.
LeRoy Blommaert remembers that “I was initially opposed, because I thought that history should continue to be the function of the Edgewater Community Council, just as Care For Real was. After they went ahead with the organizing, I realized that I was wrong and Kathy was right. It’s the only organization that deals with local history and it’s part of the community identity.”
Kathy Gemperle chaired the first meeting and spoke about the preservation of history: “Do not take the treasures of history from your attic to the alley; rather find out how they contribute to our idea of our community and our sense of history. It is history that gives us a sense of place and in our modern world that sense of place informs many of our decisions going forward.” In a recent interview, Kathy said “I believed it would be easy to form an historical society. Everywhere I went, people would tell me about their historical home or mention historic facts that were not well known. It just took one person to stand up and say let’s do this.” Further she stated that “The more you know about your community, the more interesting it is to you. It’s not just knowing where the grocery store is or the “L” stop. It’s about knowing a little about who came here first, who lived here.”
Sandee Remis served on the Oral History committee and, after the organizing of EHS, she stepped up to edit the newsletter. It was our strategy that, without an office, there was still a lot we could do to further community interest in history. The Edgewater Scrapbook was born and it is full of community stories and facts. Once we opened the museum, Sandee offered her talents in a different direction. “When we first purchased the property, the backyard was a mess. Then we got some help from the Gethsemane Garden Center, installing some plantings and the historic bricks in the patio. But it was largely unfinished.” She began investigating how we could create a garden and applied for a grant from the City of Chicago. “My best friend and I attended a series of workshops in 2004. Green Corps gave us a grant and we amassed a Green Team to design and plant the rest of the garden. We were overwhelmed with the response of seventy-two volunteers helping over four days. The garden is a labor of love.”
In the years after the opening of the museum, the organization got involved in marching in the Memorial Day parade, thanks to Betty Mayian. This community event has been happening at Rosehill Cemetery, co-sponsored by the VFW post, for more that seventy-five years. Now the Edgewater Historical Society marches with other community groups in honoring our veterans. As Betty says, “I have the feeling of having ownership, that I have made a contribution to make something better. I like people to come into the museum and find that the Edgewater Historical Society is a warm and welcoming place.”
These are the ideas of the five board members who have continued on the project for twenty-five years. Many others have supported the project with service on the board and on home tours and committees, with sharing their home on a home tour, with hours of docenting at the museum, and with other donations of time, objects and stories. If we had not taken the first step, none of this would have happened, so congratulations are in order. Special thanks to the first board members who charted an organization from nothing but good will to a place where people can share history, ask questions and get more historical information than anyone ever dreamed of. Special thanks, also, to the homeowners whose donation of their home for one day provided a consistent source of funds to further the mission of the society and, of course, thanks to all those who contributed to the raising of funds to create the museum as a gathering place for those interested in the history of their community. It is a welcoming place.