Willard House Museum celebrates visionary leader’s 180th birthday with open house


Andrew Rowan

Visitors to the Frances Willard House Museum speak with museum staff. On Sunday, the museum hosted an open house to commemorate the social leader’s 180th birthday.

Andrew Rowan , Reporter

The Frances Willard House Museum commemorated the social reformer’s 180th birthday Sunday with an open house, where it showcased a selection of some of its thousands of original artifacts.

The museum is dedicated to telling the whole story of Frances Willard, said museum director Lori Osborne. She said acknowledging where Willard has fallen short “is empowering to people today, because no one is perfect.”

Frances Willard, by 1980, “was the second most well-known and influential woman in the world after Queen Victoria,” according to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

NU Archivist Janet Olson said Willard was truly a leader in all aspects: from publishing papers on how to run a meeting to how to get published in a newspaper. Willard was most known for her leadership in the temperance and women’s suffrage movements.

When the Evanston College for Ladies merged with Northwestern University in 1873, Willard became Dean of Women of the Women’s College at Northwestern University. When she resigned after disagreements with the University president one year later, she began advocating for the temperance union.

The museum currently sees about 40 visitors per month during its regular tour hours on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Osborne said.

Museum Operations Manager Cate LiaBraaten said Willard’s story is complex, which the museum tries to address through exhibits like “Truth Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells.”

“It’s a small museum but we’re doing big things here,” Liabraaten said.“We’re celebrating Willard’s leadership, but also acknowledging blind spots in her leadership too.”

Located at 1730 Chicago Ave., Willard’s house “served as an informal national headquarters for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and a boarding house for its workers,” according to its website.

The Center for Women’s History and Leadership is the non-profit that manages the museum, library, and archive within the house, which is a National Historic Place.

“Everything in this house is original,” said tour guide Kathleen Koehnke.

Willard’s friend and personal secretary Anna Gordon recognized the importance of preservation of the space after Willard died in 1898, said Koehnke. The house was the first museum in the country dedicated solely to a woman.

Recently, the Evanston Bicycle Club provided a grant to the museum for a bike rack in the backyard. Willard learned to ride a bike at age 53 as a way of combating her health decline. One of her bikes, named “Gladys” — because riding it made Willard glad — was restored several years ago with another grant from the Evanston Bicycle Club.

Within the house, the rooms have been restored to look like their original purposes. The office, which unofficially served as the WCTU headquarters in the 1890s, has several artifacts such as typewriters, pamphlets, and dictaphones, tour guide Fiona Maxwell said.

The museum has worked with different classes at both Northwestern and Loyola University Chicago, in addition to receiving residents from Northwestern’s Willard Residential College who are interested in the woman that the hall is named after.

Looking forward, the museum hopes more locals will come experience a piece of U.S. history in Evanston.

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