Trails and Tales: How a woman and her curious son started the Lake County Forest Preserves
A 33-year-old spontaneous homemaker with drive and determination, coupled with her son's desire to explore nature, sparked the start of the Lake County Forest Preserves a little more than 60 years ago.
Ethel Untermyer moved to Lake County from Chicago in 1952. She wanted to take her 3-year-old son, Frank, and her other children out to explore the woods at a forest preserve and asked a friend where the closest one was. Untermyer was shocked to learn there were none in Lake County. At the time, Cook County had already protected a great deal of land.
"My mom loved nature," Untermyer's daughter, Amy Likover, said, adding that her parents raised her and her four siblings on 11 acres in what is now Riverwoods. "We all grew up playing in nature. My mom taught us to ice skate between the cattails on the wetlands behind our house," said Likover, 67.
It was important to Untermyer that others also enjoy nature, so she organized a countywide referendum to create the Lake County Forest Preserve District. The Roosevelt University alumna typed up a petition on her little IBM typewriter and began circulating it around the county. It was a rough start, and just four people attended her first meeting. She didn't give up and drove her Studebaker around the county to speak with groups and gather support.
To gain a quick education in politics and rally others to the cause, she sought out local leaders and other residents. In those days, Lake County's population hadn't reached 300,000, but people were already shaking their heads about the loss of open space and the fast pace of development.
The first organization to endorse the referendum was the Lake County Farm Bureau. Public support grew. On Nov. 4, 1958, the referendum passed with an overwhelming 60 percent of votes. About 20 days later, the Lake County Forest Preserve District was legally established in circuit court.
An advisory committee of citizens was formed, with Untermyer serving as its chair.
And in 1961, four years after her son asked for a place to explore, the first preserve in Lake County was created: Van Patten Woods in Wadsworth. It was 162 acres. It's now 973 acres.
As principal guardian of Lake County's open space and natural areas, the Lake County Forest Preserve District now manages 30,867 acres of natural lands and 203 miles of trails.
Ethel's Woods Forest Preserve in Antioch is named in honor of Untermyer. The preserve is a lasting symbol of the difference one person can make for the benefit of many.
Untermyer passed away in September 2009, at the age of 84.
"My mom was efficient, focused, intelligent and driven," her daughter said from her California home. She also described her mom as courageous, inspiring and loving. "She taught us to keep your eye on the task at hand and to accomplish the goal," said Likover, who works as a teacher.
Her son Frank, 65, describes his mother as involved, passionate, determined and unique.
"I believe that all those characteristics were put to use in the founding of the Lake County Forest Preserves," he said.
Likover added that their father was very proud of Untermyer's accomplishments. He was also drawn to nature and taught political science and constitutional law at Roosevelt University.
Their children have vivid memories of the family's deep connection to nature. There were wildflowers everywhere, and her mother enjoyed planting bulbs, Likover said. She recalls collecting hickory nuts from the yard, sitting on the driveway with her siblings and using a hammer to crack the solid shells open and then assist in making hickory nut cake. "We were so lucky," she said of their upbringing.
In addition to teaching her children to "love nature," Likover said their mother taught them to achieve their goals.
"All five of us assumed leadership roles in our lives. That's because of my mom."
Frank, an accountant and attorney, now lives on 10 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where his passion and curiosity for the outdoors continue to prosper.
"I thrive on silent sports. I regularly kayak, canoe, bicycle, swim and walk," said the corporate executive. "I feel that I still carry some of my mother with me."
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.