From The North Shore Weekend newspaper.
On November 18, 1901, the farm town made by German immigrants was incorporated as Shermerville, Illinois.
Long before that, it was Indian territory. Years later, it would become Northbrook, home to great athletes, a racehorse, paved roads, an upscale shopping center, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and a water treatment company started by a man named Emmett Culligan.
In its early days, Shermerville earned a reputation for partying amid heavy drinking in several saloons.
“People from [Chicago] would get on the train and come here to party and they would sleep in Shermerville’s parks,” explained Judy Hughes, president of the Northbrook Historical Society and History Museum. To mitigate the bad reputation, the town changed its name to Northbrook in 1923.
By then, its history—chiefly made by the Sherman family and an immigrant named Schermer—was cast. Northbrook resident Hughes, who served on the school board and co-wrote Northbrook, Illinois: the Fabric of our History and Arcadia Publishing’s Northbrook volume, tells the tale like she’s told it a thousand times.
“Until the 1950s, we were a very small, rural town,” she said. “In 1920, there were 545 people in town. By 1940, there were 1,000 and there were still farm fields in 1962 when I moved here. I think a lot of the same qualities are still here. Northbrook has people from all over—there are quite a few observant Moslems, which had more of a Bosnian congregation when it was founded, and the population has certainly aged.”
Allstate retains a large center in unincorporated Northbrook and UL, founded as a product testing center in 1894, is one of the town’s largest employers. The Culligan water company established by Emmett Culligan and his brothers, headquartered in Northbrook for 71 years, moved to Rosemont years ago.
The farm town on Chicago’s outskirts, with its groves, railroads and, later, an expressway, is an early part of northern Illinois progress.
“Shermer Road used to be called Telegraph and it went all the way up through Deerfield,” Hughes said, noting that Northbrook used to have more paved roads per square mile than any other town in Illinois. “There was a good roads celebration on August 25, 1925, on the very first Northbrook Days. There were about 2,000 cars [on Waukegan Road].”
Enthusiasm for being the best fits the town’s heritage, which began in earnest after an Indian treaty opened the area for land grants. “The first settlers probably jumped the land grant in the late 1830s or early 1840s,” Hughes said.
Some were land speculators, according to Hughes. Among Northbrook’s pioneers: the Shermans of Newtown, Connecticut.
There were several generations; grandfather Ezra, his son Silas Wooster Sherman, who became sheriff and laid out Milwaukee Avenue, which he made more than a wagon trail, his brother Francis Sherman, who became the owner of a Chicago brickyard and, later, mayor of Chicago. Francis Sherman also created one of Chicago’s top hotels, the Sherman House hotel, demolished in 1973 (where the James Thompson Center exists).
The Shermans bought a thousand acres and settled in Northfield Township.
Francis moved to Chicago and kept property in Northbrook as a summer home. Silas later ventured to Chocolate Bayou, Texas, to buy more land. Hughes said that’s where Silas died.
But Silas Sherman’s son, Joel Sterling Sherman, stayed in what’s now Northbrook and worked the land with his brother, Ezra (named after his grandfather). Eventually, Hughes said, Ezra, too, left Northbrook.
This marks a turning point—from the predominant Shermans, who were English, to German Frederick Schermer, to whom Ezra Sherman sold his property. Schermer (1817-1901), who was born in Altenhagen, Hessen in Germany, was 29 years old when he came to America with his sister and her husband.
“Germans tended to come in groups,” Hughes explained. “They were Lutherans. Frederick Schermer was an immigrant farmer who married several times. He did not have children until he was quite elderly and, then, he had two children with his last wife.”
Being what some might describe as indiscriminately generous with the Lutheran church and his stepchildren, whom he helped to raise, he lost his wealth. After a farm depression in the 1870s-1880s, Schermer lost his home—but not before having an impact on the town’s future.
Amid the economic instability, Schermer, who later dropped the ‘c’ in his last name, bought what’s now Northbrook’s Village Green and, though Hughes hasn’t been able to locate the deed, she believes that he may have donated the land on which the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad built the town’s first train station—a milestone for Northbrook as a future source of transportation, growth and progress.
Schermer died in Bensenville when he was 84. He’d had three wives, was twice widowed and died just before the new town was named for him. He is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery on Shermer Road, where the wives—Justine, Dorothea and Adelheide—are also buried.
Northbrook’s growth continued with recognition of its origins—18 Northbrook streets are named for 18 of the original farmer-founders—and newcomers followed. Jews came north after the Chicago fire of 1871, opening a congregation. The non-denominational Hope Union Church followed. Moslems opened a mosque in 1976—the year that the modern, new shopping center Northbrook Court opened.
Artists and athletes came to Northbrook, too, from Cubs’ shortstop Don Kessinger and hockey legend Bobby Orr, who once played on the Blackhawks, to director John Hughes (no relation) whose Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the stuff of local legend. Famous athletic residents include the Bears’ Jim McMahon, who owned a palatial Northbrook home, and the Bulls’ Michael Jordan, who lived in a Northbrook condo early in his career.
At one time, Judy Hughes said, Northbrook was a top training center for speedskating, with Olympic bronze, silver and gold medal winners—six 1972 medalists trained in Northbrook—and Hughes said that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lived in Northbrook. Glenbrook North High School’s William A. Edelstein was on General Electric’s team that developed Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology.
High achievers fit Northbrook’s model for driving advancement based upon thinking ahead.
“Most people don’t know that we are the only community offshore that draws its water from Lake Michigan, which is how Northbrook [was able to] grow,” Hughes observed. “Our leaders had been buying their water from Glencoe and their capacity was too small. Prices kept rising, so Northbrook decided to build our own water plant, getting rights from the North Shore Congregation of Israel to go out into Lake Michigan and go underneath the lake and the Edens Expressway.
“They got a little piece of land and went under the highway to the new water plant, which has served the community since 1963. Bert Pollak was the village president—he was a volunteer and an attorney—and they built this plant which allows Northbrook to control how we grow.”
Being a self-determined crossroads has made for notable stopovers, contrasting the days when saloon drinkers slumbered in town parks. Some VIPs, such as Bill Clinton, who visited Northbrook as president of the United States, stayed for a short time. A few, such as Jordan, Kessinger and McMahon, stayed a bit longer and then moved on. One—a lightning fast harness racehorse named Greyhound—attracted instant, global attention.
“Col. Edward Baker, who had a big horse farm in St. Charles, had [the 485-acre] Baker’s Acres here in Northbrook [at Sanders and Willow Roads], where the world famous trotter Greyhound lived in the stables,” Hughes said. “Visitors came from all over the world to see him.”