The Evanston Historical Society’s annual flea market has always been a pretty good reason to roll out of bed on a Saturday morning. First there’s the allure of all that serendipitous stuff–donated by folks moving out of big old Evanston houses, assiduously collected by the ladies of the Guild of the Evanston Historical Society all year long, washed, boxed, and squirreled away in the far reaches of the mansion until the single fall day when, in one fell swoop, it’s all offered up for sale. Then there’s the site: the fabulously overdone Charles Gates Dawes lakeside chateau, with its swollen towers and ornate arches and profusion of odd outcroppings (chimneys, dormers, pinnacles)–a 100-year-old fairy-tale castle that’s a hoot of a place to hang out in. The whole thing has an orgiastic quality that screams “Too much! Too much!” and is completely irresistible.

This year there’s an added reason to be there. Since the first flea market 34 years ago, nothing has stood in the way of this event. Although a good part of the sale takes place outside, it has gone forward in some of the nastiest weather fall can bring–driving downpours that soaked the furniture on the front lawn and turned the boxes of goods lining the driveway into retention ponds. I’ve been there when the grass squished underfoot, rivulets ran through the tents, and any bare patch of ground went to mud. Dripping customers climbed the front steps, paid a dollar each, and trekked into the house, where china, jewelry, and consignment goods were displayed under full-length portraits of Charlie and Caro Dawes and the stuffed heads of a gazelle, a moose, and a bison. Every sale has been bigger and better than its predecessor; last year there were more than 3,000 paid admissions to the house and another thousand shoppers who worked just the lawn. So it was a surprise to hear that this year’s event–scheduled for this Saturday and guaranteed to be the biggest ever–will be the last.

The sale is run by the guild, a support group created when the historical society moved into the Dawes house, in 1960. Charles Gates Dawes was a lawyer, banker, and industrialist. He was also vice president of the United States from 1925 to 1929. Described as a maverick, a dynamo, and a man of integrity with a big mouth, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping decide how Germany would make reparations for WWI, but his tactlessness turned out to be a political liability for President Calvin Coolidge. Dawes bought the house in Evanston in 1909 (it had been built in 1894 for the business manager of Northwestern University) and died there, in the library, in ’51. He left the mansion to Northwestern with the stipulation that it be made available to the Historical Society as a museum.

The society’s holdings include the second-best costume collection in the state (after the Chicago Historical Society’s) and one of the best in the country. Overseen by its own curator, it contains more than 4,000 items, most of them worn by Evanston women between 1850 and 1950. The guild, originally a women’s auxiliary, made supporting this collection its mission and created the flea market as its primary fund-raiser. But while the market was growing into a mega-event, the guild’s pool of volunteer labor gradually shrank. These days new members are likely to be working women unable to take on what amounts to another full-time job. Veteran volunteer Patt Schwartz, picking her way through a mountain of boxes in the mansion’s basement last week, said she and other guild members have been working on this sale since a week after the last one was over. In addition to the thousands of items stored in the chateau, three rented warehouse spaces–15 by 35 feet each–have been stuffed floor to ceiling with the likes of pianos, chandeliers, Victorian bedroom sets, and 600 needlepoint kits. “We’ve all worked ourselves to the end,” said Schwartz, slapping a price tag on a star-shaped rug beater ($10) and a red satin teddy ($4). “There is no more. This year everything will be priced to sell.”

The 34th annual Evanston Historical Society benefit flea market will be held from 8 AM to 4 PM Saturday at the Charles Gates Dawes House, 225 Greenwood (at the lake) in Evanston. Admission to the house is $1; lawn admission is free. Hecky’s Bar-B-Q will be selling food, and a free shuttle bus will run between the sale and the Davis Street CTA/Metra station. Call 847-475-3410 for more information. –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.