Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, but judging from the museum dedicated to him, it seems that the city may have had a greater affinity with him than he with it. When you think of Hemingway, after all, Key West, Paris, and Cuba come to mind. But the Village of Oak Park, Illinois? It comes as a surprise even to some of us locals. That’s because he left after graduating high school, embarking on the life we’ve come to know, as he traveled the world and wrote about it. You can follow his path through the exhibits here, even if you haven’t read his books.
Housed in a former church that’s now an arts center, the modest museum is filled with photographs, unpublished writing samples, book covers, movie posters, and other snippets that give hints into the life of the famous storyteller, as well as shedding light on the history of Oak Park. There are a couple of different videos, including a recently acquired 4-hour long Hemingway video produced by the BBC. The items that interested me most were those that gave insights into the slightly bizarre viewpoint of the Hemingway family. For example, his mother, Grace, buried a time capsule when the family moved to a new house, filling it with her baby shoes and a newspaper article about a recent San Francisco earthquake. Those little offbeat pieces of trivia give some fun insight into the forces that shaped the author.
The Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home ★★ is a block and a half north, at 339 N. Oak Park Ave. The lovely Queen Anne house—complete with wraparound porch and turret—was the home of Hemingway’s maternal grandparents, and it’s where the writer was born on July 21, 1899. Its connection to Hemingway is actually pretty tenuous—he spent most of his boyhood and high school years at 600 N. Kenilworth Ave., a few blocks away (that house is still privately owned). And according to the volunteer who led my tour, about 99% of the furnishings are not original (the exceptions include a couple of chairs, a sewing kit that Ernest used, and his sister’s toy chest), but it has been fashioned to replicate what it looked like back in the early 1900s. Still, the tour is fascinating (and included in the museum price), thanks to dedicated volunteer guides who are Hemingway scholars. I walked out of it feeling like I’d learned some great family lore. Such as the fact that Ernest’s mother raised him and his older sister, Marcelline, as though they were twins, styling their hair the same and putting them in matching outfits (some days they wore dresses, others pants) until the school demanded that she stop. Fans of historic house tours will also really enjoy this visit, whether they’re Hemingway devotees or not. Tours are offered on the hour during the museum’s hours. Last tour begins at 4pm.