How women helped shape Itasca's history

 
By Ann Piccininni
Daily Herald correspondent
Posted10/6/2015 1:00 AM
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  • The iconic Itasca Baptist Church steeple is just one example of how dedicated women saved a landmark and helped shape the village.

      The iconic Itasca Baptist Church steeple is just one example of how dedicated women saved a landmark and helped shape the village. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • In 1971 the Itasca Junior Women's Club joined forces with Itasca Garden Club to use their collective power to get a referendum proposal approved that allowed for the purchase of 60 acres that became the Itasca Nature Center.

      In 1971 the Itasca Junior Women's Club joined forces with Itasca Garden Club to use their collective power to get a referendum proposal approved that allowed for the purchase of 60 acres that became the Itasca Nature Center. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Shirley Ketter was Itasca's first woman mayor.

    Shirley Ketter was Itasca's first woman mayor.

The towering steeple that crowns Itasca Baptist Church is just one example of how women helped shape the village.

It was a dedicated group of preservation-minded women in the Itasca Junior Women's Club who raised money to renovate the iconic building near the corner of South Walnut and West Grove streets, thereby canceling plans to demolish it.

"It was the Junior Women's Club that took the lead in saving it," said Diane Middlebrooks. "It was falling into severe disrepair."

That was decades ago, not long after the club first organized in1956.

Middlebrooks heads the Itasca Bank and Trust's Women's Initiative group, a 15-year-old organization that presents programs aimed at helping women succeed.

She recently began researching women's roles in Itasca's history for a program she plans to present at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8, at Itasca Country Club, 400 E. Orchard St.

"I thought it would be a good idea to focus on women who had a hand in making Itasca what it is today," she said. "I was just so impressed with all that they did."

In 1927, Josephine McKenzie organized the Itasca Woman's Club.

"They were in favor of improving themselves. They started to build a little library for themselves," she said. "That was the forerunner of the Itasca Community Library."

Middlebrooks said her research bears out that between 70 percent and 80 percent of public libraries in the United States were launched by women's groups with similar aspirations.

"At the beginning, they had it in a one-room rented building," she said.

When the Great Depression hit, the rent became a prohibitive expense, so McKenzie moved the library into her house.

"She served as the librarian," Middlebrooks said.

In 1952, a library committee was formed to look into building a public library. After being housed in several temporary locations, the library moved to its current location on Irving Park Road.

"The whole idea of having a library originated with the group," said Middlebrooks.

Beautification was another goal women helped Itasca reach. In 1929, Middlebrooks said, the Itasca Garden Club was formed. In the early 1930s, the group helped transform a village dump near the corner of Walnut Street and Irving Park Road into a tree garden, she said.

The Itasca Woman's Club also pitched in with aesthetics, helping to fund landscaping around several village schools. The group also raised money for park improvements, such as the installation of bleachers, Middlebrooks said.

"They wanted to stimulate knowledge and love of gardening and encourage civic planting," she said.

In the 1920s, club members circulated a petition asking for the installation of lights at the railroad station as a safety measure.

The Itasca Junior Women's Club also made efforts to improve the village's parks. The group bought playground equipment for one park, she said.

In 1971, when the Itasca Junior Women's Club joined forces with Itasca Garden Club, they used their considerable collective power to get a referendum proposal approved that allowed for the purchase of 60 acres that became the Itasca Nature Center.

The Juniors also made art a priority for the village, introducing its annual Arts and Crafts Fair in the mid-1960s.

In 1939, the Itasca Woman's Club introduced the idea of allowing children to use soap to decorate store windows in October.

"The thought was that if kids were interested in that, they wouldn't play Halloween pranks," Middlebrooks said.

Middlebrooks said she will elaborate on these and other contributions from women to Itasca's history during the program.

Shirley Ketter, the village's first woman mayor, also will address the gathering. There is no charge to attend but reservations are appreciated, she said.

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