Mundelein-area historical society celebrates 60th anniversary

  • AT DAILYHERALD.COM/MORE: Hear from Dottie Watson, curator of the Fort Hill Heritage Museum in Mundelein.

    AT DAILYHERALD.COM/MORE: Hear from Dottie Watson, curator of the Fort Hill Heritage Museum in Mundelein. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Clothing from the early 1900s is on display at the Fort Hill Heritage Museum in Mundelein.

    Clothing from the early 1900s is on display at the Fort Hill Heritage Museum in Mundelein. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • The Historical Society of the Fort Hill Country is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

    The Historical Society of the Fort Hill Country is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz speaks as Fort Hill president and curator Dottie Watson, left, and Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran listen during a patriotic celebration in Mundelein.

    Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz speaks as Fort Hill president and curator Dottie Watson, left, and Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran listen during a patriotic celebration in Mundelein. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • This intercom phone from 1909 is on display at the Fort Hill Heritage Museum in Mundelein.

    This intercom phone from 1909 is on display at the Fort Hill Heritage Museum in Mundelein. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • This caboose was built in 1890 and is on display outside the Fort Hill Heritage Museum in Mundelein.

    This caboose was built in 1890 and is on display outside the Fort Hill Heritage Museum in Mundelein. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/11/2016 12:21 PM

An organization dedicated to preserving the Mundelein area's past is celebrating its own history this month.

The Historical Society of the Fort Hill Country -- the volunteer group that runs the town's Fort Hill Heritage Museum -- recently marked the 60th anniversary of its founding in 1956.

 

However, the exhibitions inside the museum at 601 Noel Drive go back much further than 60 years. They include a model of a 1900s-era schoolhouse, pioneer tools, antique maps of Lake County and other artifacts from the region's past.

"It has so much of the Fremont Township and Mundelein history in there," said Fremont Township Supervisor Diana O'Kelly, who once served on the Fort Hill board. "It's a little local treasure."

'I love history'

The historical society took its name from a prominent hill near Peterson and Alleghany roads in Fremont Township. Longtime president and museum curator Dottie Watson doesn't know exactly when in 1956 the first meeting of the Fort Hill Society occurred -- apparently, none of the founding members thought to make note of it.

So, at some point many years ago, members simply selected July 4 as the date to mark the anniversary.

Watson joined the group in the 1960s, not long after moving to Mundelein.

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"I love history," she said. "It (helps us) relate to what was back then."

The Fort Hill Society's chief responsibility is operating the museum in Lions Field, a two-acre park east of Countryside Highway near Fairhaven School.

The Mundelein Park & Recreation District owns the building and maintains it, but the historical society owns the materials inside.

The building itself is an interesting historical remnant. The small, one-story structure is a former train depot that once served as Mundelein's stop on the Soo Line Railroad. A train caboose from the late 19th century also sits on the grounds.

The building had been located along the railroad tracks near Park Street in downtown Mundelein. That rail line now is part of the Canadian National Railway.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The structure stopped being used as a depot in the early 1980s and fell into disrepair. In 1983, the historical society raised more than $20,000 to move the depot about one mile southeast to Lions Field and establish the museum there.

After an extensive renovation, the museum opened July 4, 1987. Watson has been the curator ever since.

"To be a part of this in Mundelein, it means a lot to me," she said.

A diverse collection

Many of the pieces in the collection were donated by Mundelein-area residents. Quite a few came from families with deep Lake County roots, families with names like Rouse and Ray and Wirtz.

Among the items on display are women's ornate hats and dresses from the early 20th century; photographs of the village's namesake, Cardinal George Mundelein; authentic weapons, uniforms and equipment from World War II; and antique dishes and glassware.

There's even some Soo Line memorabilia, including an old wooden whistle.

Watson's favorite piece in the collection is a large, two-wheeled hose cart that was the Mundelein Fire Department's first piece of heavy equipment. It would've been pulled by horses or an automobile, or by men if the fire was a short trip from the station.

The diversity of the collection reflects the museum's mission: keeping local history alive.

"This is a place where people can come and see treasures and enjoy what their ancestors had," Watson said. "You have to give the past a future."

Historical societies also operate in Wauconda Township, Ela Township, Warren Township, Island Lake, Libertyville, Lake Villa and other Lake County communities.

Katherine Hamilton-Smith, the director of public affairs and development for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, said such groups help people connect with the places where they live.

By collecting and maintaining stories and objects, historical societies can teach people about who lived in an old house, how a railroad helped a town develop, the origins of a school and countless other events that shape communities, said Hamilton-Smith, whose agency oversees the Lake County Discovery Museum near Wauconda.

"(They) make those connections real to people," she said.

Village recognition

Mundelein Trustee Ray Semple is among the Fort Hill museum's biggest fans. He's particularly fond of the photographs depicting the village in its early years.

"My favorites are of the model farm, which was built by Samuel Insull to promote the use of gas and electric by farms in rural areas to help him expand his utility offerings," Semple said.

Semple lauded Watson for running the museum for so many years.

"(She) has done a fantastic job of keeping up all the neat artifacts and pictures and always keeping her eye open for 'new' old stuff that longtime residents may still be holding on to," he said.

Semple's peers on the village board are grateful for Watson's work, too. Earlier this month, the board honored Watson and the historical society with an official proclamation.

"The Fort Hill Historical Society provides a valuable service to our community," Mayor Steve Lentz said. "I'm especially grateful to Dottie Watson for her 29 years of service in leading the historical society. She really is a community gem."

Watson appreciates the praise, but it's not going to her head.

Maintaining a record of local history is an important task, she said, because eventually, the people who experienced the events firsthand won't be around to tell younger generations about them.

"If we don't do that," Watson said, "there's nothing for us to remember."

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