Beth Raseman, a member of the Barrington White House Steering Committee, with Chet Busse, senior manager at Pepper Construction. (Samantha Ryan photo)

Barrington’s Story, 150 Years in the Making

On the eve of their town’s sesquicentennial celebration, Barrington residents are reflecting on their past, even as they step forward into a new chapter. See what’s in store for 2015.

Beth Raseman, a member of the Barrington White House Steering Committee, with Chet Busse, senior manager at Pepper Construction. (Samantha Ryan photo)
Beth Raseman, a member of the Barrington White House Steering Committee, with Chet Busse, senior manager at Pepper Construction. (Samantha Ryan photo)

The White House in Barrington’s village center has been a local symbol since its construction in 1898.

When the 14,000-square-foot home was built by Fred Lines for John and Julia Robertson, the local banker and his wife hosted many cultural events, social gatherings and celebrations. Now, in 2015, the historic homestead will once again serve as a main gathering point, this time for the celebration of Barrington’s 150th birthday. The festivities officially kick off the weekend of Feb. 14-16, and continue through the year.

“The White House represents a link to the beginnings of Barrington and to the future,” says Beth Raseman, a member of the Barrington White House Steering Committee, a group that’s working to renovate the structure. “It’s a symbol of what’s been and what will be for Barrington. As the town grew, and it became more than just the people who grew up here, and all sorts of people became attracted to what Barrington had to offer, this house served as a connection for the different groups in the growing community.”

Barrington’s first settlers arrived around 1834. Growth was slow and steady, generally paralleling the development of railroads from Chicago. By 1863, Barrington’s population had reached 300, and villagers were ready to incorporate.

“In November 1863, they submitted a request to incorporate, but because of the Civil War, the charter wasn’t approved until Feb. 16, 1865,” says Debbie Villers, sesquicentennial committee co-chair. “In fact, Barrington celebrated a centennial in 1963, though that wasn’t the correct official date.”

Barrington’s 150th birthday celebration is less about historical events and more about stories of Barrington’s past and present inhabitants. The Barrington Area Library is capturing these living memories with oral and video interviews of longtime residents.

“We’re encouraging people to tell their stories in recorded interviews, to help to remember these important pieces of Barrington history,” says Rose Faber, head of adult services at the library. “It’s a wonderful way to preserve our local history for future generations and to make history alive for them. These interviews bring their stories and history to life.”

To help the library tell Barrington’s history, Faber is gathering information about major local happenings, but there’s a greater focus on the stories, photos and details of everyday lives. For Faber, an avid genealogist, it’s important to capture this kind of information for posterity, even for current residents.

“We may not realize it, but we’re all making history right now,” she says. “It’s so much easier to start collecting today, rather than wait 50 years from now and try to gather the pieces then. We’re doing for Barrington what I wish would have been done for our own family.”

Faber points to a few examples of the stories published so far on the library’s website: videos of local historian William Klingenberg and longtime Barrington residents Bob and June Shuldes; an audio interview of fourth-generation Barringtonian Bruce Grabenkort; a growing collection of photographs and other physical items, available for view online and in the library.

“We’re collecting as much history of the Barrington area as we can, and making it as accessible as possible,” Faber says. “Over the last couple of years, when it would come to my attention that someone had photos or documents, I’d scan as many photos as I could, and get permission to put them online for everyone to view. The sesquicentennial committee held an open house event at the White House this past Memorial Day weekend and encouraged people to bring in whatever they had. We brought a scanner to capture as much as we could, and were able to collect some interesting items.”

So far, the library has created almost 260 online photo albums on Flickr, together containing more than 35,000 photos. Some were donated by 93-year old Paul Thompson, who has lived in Barrington since 1939 and whose 90-year-old wife, Lorraine, is a lifelong resident. Back in 1989, Thompson was told by his doctor that he needed to take walks to help to recover after surgery.

“After the first day, I figured, if I’m going to be doing all this walking, I might as well do something constructive with the time,” Thompson says. “I decided to bring my new camera with me. It intrigued me, so I kept going.”

From that day forward, he turned his keen eye and lens on the rich canvas of Barrington architecture. Along the way, he’d stop and swap stories with the residents of the buildings he photographed.

“I was a carpenter, so I was intrigued by the ornate cornices on the buildings in town,” he says. “I enjoyed talking to the old-timers and hearing their stories. I would write some of the details on the photos in my albums.”

For 23 years, from the late 1980s through the early 2010s, Thompson walked, talked and cataloged the Barrington area, no matter the season. All told, Thompson submitted 1,474 photos in five albums to the library’s collection.

“These pictures aren’t worth a lot now, but in 100 years, people are going to be very thankful they have them,” Thompson says. “They’ll be happy to remember the people and their stories.”

As villagers look back on their town’s past, they’re also reflecting on some of the area’s lesser-known historical happenings.

In 1934, Barrington was the scene of “The Battle of Barrington,” a gunfight between FBI agents and Baby Face Nelson, a notorious Chicago gangster and friend of John Dillinger. The shootout along U.S. Route 14 claimed the lives of two federal agents and fatally wounded Nelson, in what is now a parking lot at the Barrington McDonald’s.

Locals may also be surprised to learn that at least 87 houses have been moved to new locations, says Thompson, who has pictures of most of them. And, near the railroad that runs along Route 14, there’s a tunnel that was built so that the Barrington farmer who owned the land on either side of the tracks could safely get his cows from one field to another, says Faber.

Few people recall that Barrington had one of the highest numbers of Illinois volunteers in the Civil War, or that Barrington was the first community in Cook County to have curbside recycling.

As Faber continues to gather stories and little-known facts, she’s also filling in details on items she’s already collected for the sesquicentennial celebration.

“Now we’re working on identification of all the photos we’ve received,” Faber says. “We were trying to gather as much as we could for the celebration, so I wasn’t worried about having them identified when I first started getting them in. But now we have to go back and do the hard work of finding out names of the people in the photos.”

Soon, the library will be hosting “Identi-TEAs,” identification parties for people to gather, go through the photographs and put names with the faces – all while enjoying refreshments and snacks. Faber encourages Barrington residents to attend to help fill in the details, so that everything is ready for the birthday celebration. She’s also seeking items that can fill in some of the gaps.

“We have a bit of a gap in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and we could use more World War I-era photos,” says Faber. “We’re trying to make everyone aware of the history all around us, and we’re hoping we’ll get more people to see that what they have is valuable and worth saving. Any kind of club or group might have photos, documents, or even the minutes from their meetings. These things may not seem valuable now, but they will be 100 years from now, when the future people of Barrington are looking back on their history.”

The yearlong Barrington Sesquicentennial celebration officially begins the weekend of Feb. 14-16 with “Happy Birthday, Barrington” parties hosted throughout the village.

“But we’ll be having a cake-cutting ceremony at the Village Hall on Monday, Feb. 16, because that’s the real birthday,” says committee co-chair Villers. The cake-cutting will be followed by a “Back to 1865” festival and a village-wide celebration on April 25-26. By springtime, many items from the library’s collection of historic photos and documents are expected to be on display.

“Starting Memorial Day weekend and going through the summer, we’ll be having walking tours of the business district, with signs in windows showing what the buildings used to be,” Villers says.

The week of Independence Day brings a parade that includes representation of all 15 decades of Barrington history. The festivities are expected to coincide with the reopening of the White House, which is undergoing extensive remodeling. Funded by a public/private partnership, the project is transforming the home into a cultural and community center – a new public gathering place.

“Our plan is to have our grand opening on the Fourth of July weekend,” says Raseman, a member of the White House Steering Team. “Our sesquicentennial celebration has a theme – A Place to Share – so we’re using that theme to celebrate and reintroduce people to the White House. We’ll also have a history of the White House and of Barrington that will be on display throughout the entire first floor, from July through December.”

In its first year open to the public, the White House will be used for sesquicentennial-related activities, as well as cultural and community gatherings.

“After 2015, it will continue to be used for cultural events, but it will also be rented out for weddings, meetings and other celebrations,” says Raseman.

As the White House is a symbol of Barrington’s birthday, it’s also been indicative of the most recent chapter in Barrington’s history. Prior to restoration work, the White House had fallen on hard times. But now, it’s symbolic of a greater renaissance.

“The restoration and reopening of the White House gives everyone a sense of revitalization,” Raseman says. “It’s a great positive for the village, and people have a sense of pride in it. So many things had to be put on hold over the recent years, and this project is such a positive for the community.”

The White House is also in the process of being added to the National Register of Historic Places, and now awaits the final approvals. Raseman hopes that the building’s ongoing revitalization may inspire its neighbors to re-examine the beauty surrounding them in Barrington.

“There is such a huge wealth of different types of architecture in and around the area surrounding the White House,” she says. “I think this will continue to spur reinvestment in the historic district and the surrounding community. You’ll see revitalization of the whole area and a resurgence of walking tours though the downtown area, with the White House serving as an anchor point for the walks and for the town.”

The celebration will continue into the fall, with a Civil War re-enactment on Sept. 18 at Citizens Park, tie-ins to the Barrington High School Homecoming festivities and a Scarecrow Fest on Halloween that officially closes the birthday party.

By design, there’s still much to be done for the sesquicentennial celebration.

“We didn’t want to go out too early and have people working on this project so long that they get burned out and lose interest,” Villers says. “We were waiting to develop interest, and we’re waiting longer than towns normally do in these situations. What’s happened is that people are now starting to come to us and ask how they can help. It’s helped to keep the excitement level high, and people come to us thinking it will be a lot of fun to help out.”

At the same time, there’s still much to be done before the White House is ready for its rebirth.

“I hope everyone would consider making donations to our restoration efforts, no matter how big or small, because we want everyone to be a part of it,” says Raseman. “We’re excited to bring it back for community use and have it at the center of town. This is really the community’s house.