In 1888, a village 12 miles northwest of downtown Chicago was incorporated as Niles Centre. This swampy land was eventually renamed “Skokie” in 1940. Skokie means “big swamp” in the language of the area’s former inhabitants, the Potawatomi tribe. After World War II, Skokie’s population boomed, explaining why a large percentage of its homes were built within a decade after WWII. With a population of approximately 62,700 people today, Skokie is somehow still called a village, and even used to promote itself as “The World’s Largest Village.”
Here are 10 sites in Skokie that best represent its history.
1. Assyrian National Council of Illinois | 9131 Niles Center Rd.
Today, this facility serves Skokie’s Assyrian community, which, with a population of about 20,000, makes up one of the largest ethnic groups in Skokie. In addition to renting out the building for banquets, the organization also uses the building to host Assyrian language classes to members of its community. However, the reason why I am highlighting this building is because it represents two prominent ethnic groups in Skokie: the Assyrian and Jewish communities. Today, about 30% of Skokie’s population is Jewish, although, in the mid-1960s, it was about 58%.
Built in 1954, the building that now houses the Assyrian National Council of Illinois originally housed Congregation B’nai Emunah. However, in 2004, B’nai Emunah sold its building and merged with Beth Hillel Congregation in Wilmette, IL. Disturbingly, the front of the synagogue was damaged by a gasoline bomb in 1956 as part of a Halloween prank. Although the building no longer serves as a synagogue, its history is still evident in the beautiful mural from Safed, Israel displayed on its façade.
2. Central United Methodist Church’s Log Cabin | 4575 James Dr.
In 1923, a physician named Dr. Melville Little wanted to build a home on the prairie lands of Niles Centre (Skokie), so he hired Finnish carpenters to design his log cabin home. It cost $45,000, which was a lot of money at that time. Regardless, Dr. Little did not end up living in the home for long, and in 1927, sold it to the North Shore Military Academy. After the Great Depression hit, the home was abandoned until the Niles Center Community Church (later renamed the Central United Methodist Church) purchased it. This Church had previously been holding services in Skokie’s Bronx Building, but wanted a building of its own. In addition to using the log cabin for its services, the Church also rented out some of the cabin’s rooms to Northwestern University and Garrett Seminary students. The Church eventually outgrew the log cabin, so built a new sanctuary next door in 1953. Today, the log cabin still belongs to the Church, but is only used for special events as well as the headquarters of a local Boy Scout group.
3. Dr. Korzcak Memorial | 9144 Dr. Korczak Terrace
Skokie used to have one of the largest Holocaust survivor populations in the world. Therefore, in 1970, a group of Skokie survivors named a street in Skokie after Dr. Janusz Korczak. They also built a monument to him on this same street in 1972. Dr. Korczak was a Jewish doctor and director of an orphanage in Poland prior to WWII. During the Holocaust, some people offered to rescue Dr. Korczak from the Nazis. However, Dr. Korczak refused to leave his orphans, so instead, went to his death at Treblinka Extermination Camp in 1942. To learn more about him and the monument, you can read my post here.
To learn more about Skokie’s Holocaust survivor history, you can read my post about the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
You can also watch an excellent 2014 documentary (found online here) called Skokie: Invaded but Not Conquered, which is about the attempted neo-Nazi march into Skokie in 1978.
4. First Mile of Concrete Pavement in Cook County | 4535 Church St.
In 1913, when horse thieves used to hide in the marshes of Skokie, construction began on the first mile of concrete pavement in Cook County (outside the city of Chicago). This paved road stretched across present-day Church St., from Niles Center Rd. to Keeler Ave. In 1961, while construction workers were widening Church St., they found a plaque from 1913 commemorating this road, so then built their own commemorative plaque. The commemorative plaque from 1961 can still be seen today. It is located in the grass slightly east of Evanshire Presbyterian Church in Skokie, near Kolmar Ave.
5. Illinois Science + Technology Park | 4901 Searle Pkwy.
Today, I believe that the Illinois Science + Technology Park rents out its space to different science labs and tech companies. However, that was not always the case. The Illinois Science + Technology Park used to be the headquarters of G. D. Searle & Company. This pharmaceutical company moved its headquarters to Skokie, IL in 1941, and became known for creating the laxative, Metamucil; the first birth control pill, Enovid; and the pill that counters motion sickness, Dramamine. Today, Searle is owned by the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, which closed Searle’s headquarters building in 2003. Although the Illinois Science + Technology Park has taken over Searle’s headquarters today, the street is still called Searle Parkway.
As a side note, the 2011 film about a global pandemic, Contagion, had some scenes filmed at Skokie’s Illinois Science + Technology Park. It served as the Minnesota Center for Disease Control in the film.
6. Oakton Community College’s Skokie Campus | 7701 Lincoln Ave.
In 1939, the Works Progress Administration built a school in Skokie at 7701 Lincoln Ave. called Niles Township High School. The Works Progress Administration was a program created in the United States during the Great Depression by President Franklin Roosevelt. Its goal was to decrease the country’s unemployment rate by providing people with jobs in construction work. Prior to Niles Township High School’s completion, high school students met at the nearby Lincoln School, which is now Lincoln Junior High School.
In 1957, Skokie opened a second high school called Niles West High School, so Niles Township High School was renamed Niles East High School. In 1964, a third high school was built: Niles North High School. The existence of three high schools in Skokie eventually led to Niles East High School’s closing in 1980. However, in 1972, before its closing, future President Jimmy Carter (who was the governor of Georgia at the time) visited Niles East High School for Abner Mikva’s political rally. Mikva was a Democratic Congressman running for reelection. During the rally, Niles East High School presented President Carter with an honorary diploma.
After Niles East High School closed, Oakton Community College made Skokie its second campus (its main campus is in Des Plaines, IL). In 1993, the Works Progress Administration building was torn down, and a new building was erected in its place. Today, only the flagpole remains from the original Niles East High School. It can be found in the back parking lot, which faces Mulford St. This flagpole was originally one of the many used at the Century of Progress International Exposition, which was the Chicago World’s Fair that took place from 1933 to 1934. You can read more about the Chicago World’s Fairs in my previous post about them.
7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s Home | 9301 Hamlin Ave. Evanston, IL 60203
Robert L. May was the creator of the book, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which eventually became the inspiration for the popular Christmas song of the same name. May used the proceeds from his bestselling book to build himself a home in Skokie. Although contemporary newspaper articles at the time (from 1950) said that May built his home in Skokie, the address today is officially listed as “Evanston.” However, May’s home is located in a confusing area of Evanston, which is often nicknamed “Skevanston.” Its residents use services from both Evanston and Skokie. For example, the children attend Evanston public schools, but Skokie picks up their trash. You can learn more about May and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in my previous post.
8. Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park | McCormick Blvd.
The land east of McCormick Blvd. in Skokie is called the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park. It has several miles of walking trails, park benches, and modern sculptures. The Village of Skokie created the park in 1988, because it wanted to revitalize this formerly neglected land that belongs to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
Flags from a variety of different countries stand at a section of the Northshore Sculpture Park where McCormick Blvd. and Dempster St. intersect. Skokie frequently rotates these flags to make sure that all of the countries that represent Skokie get flown there each year. Since approximately 40% of Skokie’s residents are foreign-born, this is not a small task. Because of Skokie’s diversity, Skokie has been hosting the Skokie Festival of Cultures annually since 1991. However, the Festival was canceled in 2020, and will be canceled again in 2021, because of COVID-19.
Near the display of international flags is a plaque memorializing former Skokie resident, Ricky Byrdsong. Byrdsong was the Head Basketball Coach at Northwestern University. On July 2, 1999, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith shot and killed the African American coach while he was walking with his children in Skokie. Afterwards, Smith wounded six Orthodox Jews, three African American men, and one Taiwanese man. He also killed a Korean university student. In response to this white supremacist, the Evanston YWCA (which is near Skokie) hosts a Race Against Hate fundraising event each year.
9. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Cemetery | 8530 Harms Rd.
In 1934, a gangster named Baby Face Nelson (Lester Gillis) became the FBI’s Public Enemy Number One. He escaped a gun battle with the FBI in Barrington, IL on November 27, 1934, where two FBI agents died. Baby Face Nelson soon died as well from wounds that he received during the skirmish. In order to prevent the FBI from continuing their search for Nelson, his friends left his dead body in front of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Cemetery in Niles Centre (Skokie). You can read more about the incident in my previous post about Baby Face Nelson.
The cemetery where the FBI found Baby Face Nelson’s body belongs to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Founded in 1881, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (formerly called St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church) is the third oldest church in Skokie. It is an offshoot of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is Skokie’s oldest church and was founded in 1867. Skokie’s three oldest churches were all founded by German immigrants, who were Skokie’s first non-Native American settlers.
10. St. Peter’s Catholic Church | 8116 Niles Center Rd.
Founded in 1869, St. Peter’s Catholic Church is Skokie’s second oldest church. However, although the church was founded in 1869, the current building that the congregation uses was built in 1894. I am highlighting this church because it shows up in the American television show, Leave It to Beaver. First broadcast on December 5, 1959, “Beaver’s Fortune” (Episode 10 of Season 3) briefly features downtown Skokie’s Niles Center Ave., including St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
Additional Fun Facts about Skokie:
- Since 2000, the Institute of Museum and Library Services has been annually awarding select museums and libraries the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. In 2008, the Skokie Public Library was one of the medal recipients, and in 2017, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which is also located in Skokie, received a medal as well.
- Skokie has two museums: the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center and the Skokie Heritage Museum. The former is the third largest Holocaust Museum in the world. The latter presents Skokie’s history in a fire station dating to 1887. It also provides tours of Skokie’s first log cabin, which was built in 1847.
- Mayfair Games, which created the board game, The Settlers of Catan, used to be headquartered at 8060 Saint Louis Ave. in Skokie. Unfortunately, I never took a picture of it before Mayfair Games closed in 2018 and sold its games to Asmodee.
- In the 2004 film, Mean Girls, some of its characters go to Old Orchard Mall in Skokie. However, anyone from Skokie knows that this scene was not actually filmed in Skokie. Old Orchard Mall is an outdoor mall, while the mall in the film is indoors.
Sources and Further Reading
Bengston, John. “Leave It to Skokie, and Beaver, and Ward’s Joke Letter.” Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Film Locations (and More). March 4, 2013. https://silentlocations.com/2013/03/04/leave-it-to-skokie-and-beaver-and-wards-joke-letter/ (accessed April 10, 2021).
Bentley, William. “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer: Surprised Chicagoan Sees His Christmas Poem Become a Legend – and a Gold Mine.” Chicago Tribune. December 17, 1950.
Buisseret, David. “Skokie, IL.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1148.html (accessed April 7, 2021).
“Central’s Log Cabin History.” Central United Methodist Church. https://centralslogcabin.wordpress.com/central%E2%80%99s-log-cabin-history/ (accessed April 10, 2021).
Corfman, Thomas A. “Skokie Seeks Aid to Revive Searle Site.” Chicago Tribune. February 3, 2005. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2005-02-03-0502030316-story.html (accessed April 7, 2021).
“The Daily Diary of President Jimmy Carter.” Jim Carter Presidential Library and Museum. November 2, 1973. https://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/assets/documents/diary/1978/d110278t.pdf (accessed April 10, 2021).
Fagerholm, Matthew. “Skokie’s Role in ‘Contagion’ Set to Hit Screens.” Patch. https://patch.com/illinois/skokie/skokies-role-in-contagion-set-to-hit-screens (accessed April 7, 2021).
“G. D. Searle & Co. – Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on G. D. Searle & Co.” Reference for Business. https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/history2/97/G-D-Searle-Co.html (accessed April 10, 2021).
“G. D. Searle & Company Building Photograph, 1987.” Illinois Digital Archives. http://idaillinois.org/digital/collection/skokiepo02/id/1834 (accessed April 7, 2021).
“G. D. Searle & Company Photograph, circa 1965.” Illinois Digital Archives. http://idaillinois.org/digital/collection/skokiepo02/id/1994 (accessed April 7, 2021).
Hall, Charlie. “The Company that Helped Lead a Revolution in Board Games is Shutting Down.” Polygon. February 9, 2018. https://www.polygon.com/2018/2/9/16996882/mayfair-games-lookout-games-acquired-by-asmodee-north-america-catan (accessed April 10, 2021).
Hanson, Amanda J. and Richard J. Witry. Skokie. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
“History.” Central United Methodist Church. https://www.skokiecentralumc.org/history.html (accessed April 10, 2021).
Illinois Science + Technology Park. http://istp.tech/ (accessed April 10, 2021).
“The Log Cabin.” Central United Methodist Church. 2012. https://www.skokiecentralumc.org/log_cabin.html (accessed April 7, 2021).
“National Medal Winners.” Institute of Museum and Library Services. https://www.imls.gov/our-work/national-medals/national-medal-winners (accessed April 10, 2021).
“Niles Township High School Nilehilite, Volume 41, No.3.” November 17, 1978. Skokie History. https://skokiehistory.omeka.net/exhibits/show/nilehilite/item/2123 (accessed April 10, 2021).
“Park History.” Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park. https://sculpturepark.org/park-history/ (accessed April 7, 2021).
“QuickFacts: Skokie Village, Illinois.” United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/skokievillageillinois (accessed April 7, 2021).
“Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate.” YWCA. https://www.ywca-ens.org/get-involved/events/rah/ (accessed April 10, 2021).
Satter, Mark and Joe Snell. “Candlelight March Highlights Assyrian Martyr’s Day in Skokie.” The Assyrian Journal. August, 2019. https://theassyrianjournal.com/candlelight-march-highlights-assyrian-martyrs-day-in-skokie/ (accessed April 7, 2021).
Schmidt, John R. “Was Beaver Cleaver’s Hometown a Chicago Suburb.” Chicago History Today. September 29, 2014. https://chicagohistorytoday.wordpress.com/ (accessed April 7, 2021).
“Skokie.” Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/skokie/m0s5n3?hl=en (accessed April 7, 2021).
Skokie Heritage Museum. “Historic Skokie Walking Tour.” Skokie Parks. https://www.skokieparks.org/assets/1/6/WalkingTour.pdf (accessed April 10, 2021).
“Skokie Heritage Museum.” Skokie Park District. https://www.skokieparks.org/skokie-heritage-museum/ (accessed April 7, 2021).
Skokie Heritage Museum. “Skokie’s Historic Bike Tour.” Skokie Parks. https://www.skokieparks.org/assets/1/6/SkokieBikeTour1.pdf (accessed April 10, 2021).
Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered. WTTW. January 24, 2014. https://video.wttw.com/video/wttw-specials-skokie-invaded-not-conquered/ (accessed April 7, 2021).
Socallymike. “Beaver Skokie.” YouTube, November 12, 2018. Video, 0:21. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkR47iKFyT0 (accessed April 10, 2021).
“Synagogue Is Damaged.” The Daily Sun. November 1, 1956. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=TDS19561101&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——– (accessed April 7, 2021).
VanTryon, Matthew. “A White Nationalist Killed a Black Coach 20 Years Ago. The Horror Changed His Friend Forever.” Indy Star. August 7, 2019. https://www.indystar.com/story/sports/2019/08/07/white-nationalist-killed-ricky-byrdsong-20-years-ago-friend-remembers/1922663001/ (accessed April 10, 2021).
Whittingham, Richard. Skokie: A Centennial History. Skokie, IL: Village of Skokie, 1988. http://skokiecentennialbook.com/chapters/acknowledgements/ (accessed April 7, 2021).
Wilson, Mark R., Stephen R. Porter, and Janice L. Reiff. “Searle (G. D.) & Co.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/2839.html (accessed April 7, 2021).