Historic collections at Dunn Museum in Libertyville tell Lake County's story
Many from Lake County have vivid memories of visiting Glen Rock Beverage Company in Waukegan, before a party or family gathering, to fill up a wooden case with an assortment of bottles of cream soda, lime, black cherry, grapefruit (lovingly called "gray pop" by locals) and other flavors of soda.
These clear bottles of brightly-colored beverages and the small store on Glenrock Avenue are part of a story that bring people back to their past, much like a photograph does. The case of still-full, unopened bottles is a charming part of the vast historic collections at the Dunn Museum in Libertyville.
"Every item in collections tells a story. As humans, we love stories," said Diana Dretske, curator at the Dunn Museum, which is operated by the Lake County Forest Preserves.
In the museum's exhibit galleries, 1899 W. Winchester Road, objects from the collections are rotated on and off of exhibition to tell stories about the county. When not on exhibition, the collections, which comprise nearly 20,000 artifacts and 1,000 linear feet of archival materials, are securely housed in a modern, environmentally-controlled care and storage facility in the museum's lower level.
Ranging in date from 420 million years ago to today, these treasures help convey the past and inform the future.
"Every piece in the collections tells a story. Many of the items are the things that people needed to live. Years ago, people were making their own food, living off the land," Dretske said.
A wool blanket from the mid-1800s was made by a Lake County woman who raised and sheared sheep, carded and spun the wool, and wove it into a blanket at the family's cabin in Benton Township.
"It tells the story of a different time in Lake County, when possessions were made or bought only through hard work, and all were precious," Dretske said.
Other items from the collections tell stories about the people who emigrated from other countries. James Cole and Nancy Swetnum Cole left Ireland with their children in 1837. They landed at Quebec, Canada, and proceeded to New York, where they lived for a couple months before moving to Lake County. Among the items the family brought with them to America was a wooden couch that looked more like a bench with a back on it.
"It is remarkable the family brought such a large piece of furniture across the Atlantic from Ireland," Dretske said. "Perhaps the couch was considered useful for their journey since it included a storage compartment."
The couch remained in the family's possession until it was donated by the family, 126 years later, to the Dunn Museum in 1963.
"The donors wanted to ensure that the family's immigrant history would be preserved and shared with future generations," Dretske said.
Another wooden piece tells the story of Charles Warner's immigration in 1908 to Mundelein from Prussia. Warner was 13 when he taught himself to read and write English, and later worked as a carpenter for American Steel and Wire in North Chicago. After his retirement, he took up woodworking as a hobby.
In 1955, he began hand-carving wooden cathedrals with a jackknife and jigsaw. The cathedrals he created were made in remembrance of his childhood in the Old World, and to teach his children about their heritage. His daughter donated five of her father's folk-art cathedrals to the museum in 1982.
A stringent process is in place for when the museum receives requests to donate items. A collection committee reviews items, which are gauged as to how they represent the people, places and events of Lake County through the years; whether the museum already has something similar; the potential for research; and other criteria.
To preserve the county's historical heritage for future generations to discover and enjoy, the irreplaceable collections are protected with precise temperature and humidity control, security and fire suppression capabilities.
"The storage facility assists us in the preservation of the significant collections the museum holds in the public trust," Dretske said.
The collections and how they are maintained contributed to the museum gaining national recognition. The museum is among an elite group of 3 percent of U.S. museums that are accredited.
"Through a rigorous process of self-assessment and review by our peers, the Dunn Museum has demonstrated it is a core educational entity and a good steward of the collections and resources we hold in the public trust," Dretske said.
Those interested in researching the county's heritage are also able to utilize the collections and archives by appointment.
"You can study Civil War era documents or diaries and learn about life in the 1860s, investigate your town history and view photographs that show how it changed during the early 20th century, or examine plat maps that show property owned by early European settlers. These are all treasures we are charged with preserving and with providing public access," she said.
Some of the museum's collections have been digitized to make them accessible 24/7 at LCFPD.org/museum/collections.
History from nearly 50 Lake County schools, collections from Fort Sheridan, and other topics are hosted on the Illinois Digital Archives with direct links on the museum site.
The historic collections align with the Forest Preserve's 100-year Vision for Lake County.
"We engage the community to consider new and innovative ways to continue to communicate the importance of preserving Lake County's past, while inspiring future generations to care for the collections for the long term," Dretske said.
• 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.