A Classic Town
The Story of Evanston
By Frances Willard
488 pp. Woman’s Temperance Publishing Association. $32 on Amazon.
The first thing you’ll see when you open Frances E. Willard’s A Classic Town: The Story of Evanston is a hairy old white man, his wispy silver comb-over avalanching into a proto-Marxian beard and his sunken eyes transfixed, apparently, by the bow-tie that seems to be choking him. The daguerreotype is captioned, “ORRINGTON LUNT, discoverer of Evanston.” This may not seem like a huge accomplishment, but remember, it is very difficult to “discover” land that people have been living on for over 1,000 years. Perhaps it’s a fitting introduction for one of the first written histories of Evanston, a book dedicated in large part to the overhyped travails of white (mostly male) settlers. So I took a shot of Fireball and walked the book out of the library, its 125-year-old pages as old and crumbly as Willard’s vision.
Willard published A Classic Town in 1891, eight years before her death and four years before her riveting memoir, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle (actual title). This book is just as over-the-top as the title of the other memoir suggests Willard is. She claims University President Henry S. Noyes, a man of “temper-perfect and physique phenomenal in power,” died under the strain of running the university. “What wonder under such pressure, his health began to break!” she writes. (Almost every page has an exclamation mark.) She draws a cartoonish Little Dipper to close a passage on the Dearborn Observatory. In her wildest flights of fancy, she declares Evanston “the Western Athens.” Clearly she never stepped into Burger King at 1 a.m.
But casting Evanston as a “Western Athens” was the whole point of her book. Willard was part of one of Evanston’s founding families, the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the namesake of Willard Residence College (and the giant keg-fueled parties that used to take place there). Evanston was a “classic town” because it was, in its founders’ eyes, a utopian vision of the model American suburb, free of vice and definitely free of liquor. Willard casts herself in the role of “a pilgrim pioneer in this human oasis” and Evanston’s “affectionate and loyal daughter.” And, as Mary Barr documents in Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston, Willard’s utopian vision was free of Black people. She and other temperance leaders promulgated racist stereotypes of drunk Black men raping white women in order to secure support for their cause. “Alcohol and other vices were associated with foreign-born immigrants, blacks, and the poor; banning one effectively banned the others,” Barr writes. “Willard all but admitted this when she wrote, ‘The freedom of our town from saloons also does much to render it unattractive to thieves and thugs.’”
I don’t know about you, but my vision of Athens is filled with epic tales of Orpheus, Odysseus and philosopher kings dueling it out in Sophocles’ academy. Not so in this Western Athens. Here, the most riveting tale is about the university’s founders bouncing between tracts of grass looking for suitable land for campus until they found a place that Lunt says “continued in my dreams all that night.” Another gripping tale is how the waterworks system arose out of the annexation of North Evanston into Evanston proper. The heroes are men like Bishop Randolph S. Foster, “the fitting temple of a great soul.” There are no villains in Evanston. Willard writes “There is a celestial Evanston, there is terrestrial Evanston and there is diabolical Evanston,” and she notes “celestial Evanston is the ascendancy.” Now, I have no idea what “celestial Evanston” is (Dillo, maybe?) but the diabolical is the drunk and its embodiment in Willard’s other writings is the Black man.
She writes that the “profane ones” called it Evanstown and ignored “the rare discernment that invented a name not then borne by any town and since then by but one – Evanston, Wyoming – doubtless named in honor of our own.” (It wasn’t. Entirely different old white man with last name Evans.) She continues her overblown praise, describing campus as “a grove of massive oaks amid which stand the noble buildings of the university.” You’ll forgive her on this count; University Library didn’t appear until 1970.
There is a trope present in almost all literature, commonly called “conflict.” But while almost everything that happens in Evanston from 1851 to 1891 is recorded here, nothing exciting takes place. Even the Civil War is glossed over: “No town in America met the shock of Civil War more bravely than our own.” The war is over in six pages. It’s all “John Goodrich this” and “Henry Noyes that.” It’s a shame, because Evanston has a story to tell – but it ends exactly where Willard thinks it began. “We will not try to penetrate the legendary period still more remote, when Indians skimmed the great lake in their skims,” Willard writes. “It is the pioneer who built a home and tilled the peaceful acres his industry had won with whom all actual history begins.”