Wilmette is a village in New Trier Township, Cook County, Illinois, United States. It is located north of Chicago's downtown district ( from Chicago's northern border) and had a population at the 2010 census of 27,087. Wilmette is considered a bedroom community in the North Shore region. In 2007, Wilmette was ranked as the seventh best place to raise children in the U.S., according to Business Week.
Before European settlement, a Potawatomi village was located on "Indian Hill", currently the site of a golf course in nearby Winnetka. The village is named in honor of Antoine Ouilmette, a French-Canadian fur trader married to Archange, a Potawatomi. For his part in persuading local Native Americans to sign the second Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1829, the U.S. government awarded Ouilmette of land in present-day Wilmette and Evanston.
German Catholic farmers from the area of Trier began settling the area in the 1840s. They named their village, which was centered west of Ridge Road, Gross Point. In 1848, Ouilmette sold his land to farmers and developers.
The Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad tracks were built in 1854, facilitating the settlement of what would become the North Shore. In 1857, John G. Westerfield built pickle and vinegar factories in the area. Other early commercial development included a cooperage, a brick kiln, and an icehouse.
In 1869, the Chicago & Milwaukee constructed the first station in the area. Within a few years, the village of Wilmette was incorporated, on September 19, 1872; the village of Gross Point was incorporated on September 19, 1874. September 19 is celebrated locally as Charter Day.
Wilmette was nearly annexed by its neighbor to the south, Evanston, in 1894 and 1897. Proponents wanted to take advantage of Evanston's then superior fire, police, and water works. One annexation referendum lost by a vote of 168 to 165; three others also failed.
Gross Point's municipal revenues were dependent on the 15 taverns in town. With Prohibition, these revenues disappeared and the village went bankrupt. It was annexed in two parts by Wilmette in 1924 and 1926.
A naval gunboat, named the USS Wilmette, was commissioned in 1918. The vessel was originally the SS Eastland, a passenger ship which in July 1915 rolled over in the Chicago River, resulting in the deaths of 844 passengers and crew and marking the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck in Great Lakes history. The gunboat served as a training ship for naval reservists in the 9th, 10th, and 11th Naval Districts and later trainees from the Naval Station Great Lakes. The gunboat was decommissioned in 1940. During August 1943 the Wilmette was given the honor of transporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Admiral William D. Leahy, James F. Byrnes and Harry Hopkins on a 10-day cruise to McGregor and Whitefish Bay to plan strategies for World War Two.
In 1942, Wilmette annexed No Man's Land, an unincorporated triangular shoreline area bordering Kenilworth, in the vicinity of the present day Plaza del Lago, that had been the subject of numerous municipal disputes and the site of a failed club hotel complex.
The oldest surviving Bahá'í House of Worship was constructed in Wilmette between 1920 and 1953. See "Attractions" below.
Wilmette was also the site of a significant fireworks explosion. According to the 'Wilmette Life, an explosion occurred on March 24, 1978, at 1221 Cleveland Avenue. The owner of the home, George Murray Yule, "had an illegal fireworks factory in the basement of his home." As the newspaper notes, the house was destroyed and "Yule died two weeks later of burns and injuries suffered." Homes in the immediate vicinity were damaged. The sound of the explosion could be heard several miles away, as the author of this entry can confirm. Yule, a 54 year old heating technician, had been illegally manufacturing fireworks in his basement. He was eventually linked to an interstate fireworks ring and was the owner of a warehouse in Chicago from which 10 tons of chemicals were seized. He was, furthermore, linked to a fireworks explosion at a warehouse in McHenry, Illinois, in which five people were injured.
In 2012 Random House published Kurt Andersen's third novel, True Believers. The novel's three main characters grew up in Wilmette during the 1960s. The book is a gold mine of mid–twentieth century Wilmette history, including a reference to a Woolworth's store once located in the Eden's Plaza shopping center—as well as a prominent Encyclopædia Britannica sign once displayed on Wilmette Avenue.