Records and Archives, Oh My: Researching the History of the District

Image © Prairie Club Archives, Westchester Township History Museum, Chesterton, IN
October 1909 Prairie Club of Chicago walk along Salt Creek

Brian Failing, Community Services & Education

Over the summer I had the opportunity to research the history of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Why? Well, because as an institution, the District does not have one source of information. The history of the county’s forest preserves appears in various locations from internal files at the District’s headquarters office to offices across the country.

In the end, I collected information from over 40 museums, archives, databases and institutions across DuPage County, Illinois and the U.S., revealing a history told by the land as well as organizations, towns and people who have enjoyed it over the past 100 years. The following “top 10” list is just a sampling of the stories, archives and sources I uncovered. I hope they will encourage you to research your own family, house, town or favorite forest preserve. Remember, our past is hidden in our own files as well as in holdings of institutions across the world.

10. Statement of Joseph Yackley to Joy Morton
The Morton Arboretum’s Archival Collection and the Chicago History Museum have records of the 1916 statement Joseph Yackley gave to Joy Morton. It provides a historical account of DuPage County as seen by Yackley, who belonged to one of the county’s early farm families. It’s valuable because it provides a first-person account of the area, including the land that would become Hidden Lake Forest Preserve.

Statement crop II
Source: 1916 Statement of Joseph Yackley to Joy Morton

9. Illinois Prairie Path Archives
The North Central College Archives is home to college records as well as a suburban studies archive, which includes the Illinois Prairie Path Archives. Slides from 1972 show a bridge along the path that crosses the East Branch DuPage River south of Churchill Woods. The bridge had been washed a quarter mile downstream by a 100-year flood, and Forest Preserve District employees were in a rowboat pulling it back into place. The bridge washed away for good during a second 100-year flood a day later.

IPP saga of a bridge crop
Source: Illinois Prairie Path Archives, North Central College

8. Chance S. Hill
Chance S. Hill, landscape architect for the Forest Preserve District between the 1920s and 1940s, goes unmentioned in works written on prairie style design, but in addition to doing commissions for the District, Hill worked in Indiana, Kentucky and across the region. Over the course of my research, I had the opportunity to begin a biography of Hill, a small step toward making him known.

Hill title block II
Title block from Fullersburg Landscape Plan
Source: Land Acquisition Files, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County

7. Prairie Club of Chicago and Friends of Our Native Landscape
Prior to the creation of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, there were many local and regional groups concerned with the preservation and recreational use of our natural lands. Friends of Our Native Landscape was started in 1914, and one of its goals was the creation of a forest preserve in each county in Illinois. Chance S. Hill was a member of the group in 1914 alongside other prominent individuals in the county, including Mr. Avery Coonley.

Yearbook cover edit II 

Cover of Friends of Our Native Landscape 1914 yearbook 

Source: 1914 Yearbook of Friends of Our Native Landscape, Friends of Our Native Landscape, 1914, Illinois Digital Archives

6. Jens Jensen in Our Preserves
Jens Jensen, well-known master of the prairie style of landscape architecture, was involved in the Prairie Club of Chicago and the creation of Friends of Our Native Landscape. Because the Prairie Club of Chicago had weekly hikes and Jensen was working in the area, it is likely that he attended hikes that went through future DuPage County forest preserves.


5. West DuPage Woods Map With Spring
Hidden within a Prairie Club of Chicago scrapbook are numerous images of a spring in DuPage Woods, now West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. Modern maps do not show the spring, but a 1948 map gives its approximate location. It’s hoped that ecologists will one day locate the spring again.

West DuPage Woods II
Source: Forest Preserve District of DuPage County

4. Marshall Field and Maple Grove
Prior to becoming Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the land was owned by several individuals. Maps reveal that the preserve was part of 700 acres Arthur Ducat sold to Marshall Field at the beginning of the 20th century. It is said that Field cut down many of the walnut trees on the land to manufacture of guns for World War I. Field eventually sold the land to William H. Blodgett, who then sold part of it to the Forest Preserve District in 1920.

field edit II
Source: 20th Century Atlas of DuPage County, 1904, Illinois Digital Archives

3. Judge Win Knoch and the Arboretum
Within the pages of the book “DuPage Roots” there are many interesting stories about the development of DuPage County. One such claim is that Judge Win Knoch stated in an interview just before his passing that he had advised Joy Morton to create the Morton Arboretum rather than donate his land to the Forest Preserve District.

joy morton crop II
Joy Morton

2. American Society of Landscape Architects
While researching the life of Chance S. Hill, I contacted the office of the American Society of Landscape Architects in Washington, D.C., and learned that Hill was a fellow of the society in 1941, although the group has no further information on him. If anything, the call showed how collaboration is an important component of research that helps us provide information to other institutions with similar research interests.

Chance Hill edit II
Portrait of Chance Hill, 1914
Source: Jane Oddou

1. Prairie Club Archives
Perhaps the greatest find of the summer were the archives of the Prairie Club of Chicago, which are housed in the Westchester Township History Museum in Chesterton, Indiana. The historic records include old bulletins and photo albums with pictures from the group’s early hikes in DuPage, Will and Cook counties and other parts of the region.

Salt Creek edit II
October 1909 Prairie Club of Chicago walk along Salt Creek
Source: Prairie Club Archives, Westchester Township History Museum, Chesterton, IN, 7-3-5

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