THE HISTORY CENTER is turning 50 and several golden opportunities to share local history are underway. Landscape designers working in Lake Forest in the 1920s were more than artists plying their creativity atop soil and lawns.
“They were the rock stars of their day,” History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff President Katie Hale claims, alluding to the North Shore city’s lush gardens of national historic significance, including those that adorned the various McCormick family estates, as well as the Ryerson, Armour, and Schweppe family estates.
Too few people know that the oldest African American church in Lake County—the First Baptist Church—stands in Lake Forest. It first welcomed parishioners in 1902. Not enough people are aware that Lake Forest benefited economically and socially from the small, strong community of African American residents, who were a consistent part of the community beginning in the late 1800s.
The History Center, also known simply as the Museum of a city (Lake Forest) and a village (Lake Bluff), wants to change that. They have worked hard to build strong partnerships that help bring history outside the doors of the museum and into the community. Currently the team is working with Craig Bergmann Landscape Design and local garden clubs to create a new outdoor exhibit (five gardens, ringing the Center) that will tell the history of garden design in Lake Forest. That project will likely break ground in 2024. And this summer, the museum will collaborate with Ragdale Foundation and the First Baptist Church to tell many stories of African Americans in Lake Forest, through performances at Ragdale, lectures at the museum, and a self-guided walking tour. The kickoff event will be at the Chicago History Museum on June 25th.
“Lake Forest’s history has such a rich diversity, filled with stories that need to be shared,” says Summerfield, a Highland Park resident who, since the start of her tenure as the Center’s ED in October 2018, has broadened the focus of the programs, exhibits, and education to include a more diverse narrative, showcasing how local stories are emblematic of national themes. “How many people in our community realize Lake Forest’s schools have been integrated since the 1870s?
“Our garden initiative,” she continues, “will tell stories, too, including the evolution of the designed landscape, from historical Native cultivation of the land with plants as way-finding and boundary markers, through modernist gardens that created a balance between natural and cultivated grounds.”
Each garden segment will consist of accessible walking paths, sculptures, ironwork, interpretive signage, and benches. But the long seats planted among the artistry of landscape design won’t just serve as resting spots; they’ll also allow frequenters to look around, to marvel, to appreciate history. The History Center expects the gardens to be a permanent and perennial draw for local and regional visitors.
Its full roster of summer and fall programs, walking tours, and exhibitions will be a reintroduction for the public to the museum, after a long closure through the pandemic. But the staff and board kept the momentum going, through planning for a 50th anniversary celebration.
More than a dozen Lake Forest College students, under the steady, imaginative guidance of History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Executive Director Carol Summerfield and Deputy Director Laurie Stein, have worked diligently on a History Center exhibit, 50 in Focus, that looks back on 50 years of history of the two communities.
The History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff can’t wait to share these stories with Lake Foresters and Lake Bluffians and anyone, for that matter, with a shred of curiosity, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary with a kickoff event at the museum on June 17th.
“Local history is a part of our culture, and our goal is to inspire people—to help develop their sense of self and place,” says Hale, who was asked to join the board of the History Center 16 years ago and created the Center’s annual signature event, Local Legends (now in its 12th year). “You can’t live in these communities and not be reminded of the past—the stories, architecture, gardens, city planning, and the people who shaped, and continue to shape our towns.
“Every aspect of our local culture,” the Lake Bluff resident adds, “is inspiration for interesting programs and exhibits.”
Established in 1972 as the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society, the History Center offers a free museum and the 25,000+ items in the archive as a resource, helping to connect people to the community’s history and to each other. Annually, the museum offers 40 programs, four new exhibits and several educational initiatives to provide audiences with a deeper understanding of how our communities develop, change, and grow.
The innovative museum boasts interactive exhibits—to capture the minds and imaginations of visitors of all ages— a storytelling booth, and a permanent exhibit gallery that can be turned into a 100-seat theater space for events.
The Center’s rotating exhibit space, The Katherine Bell Hale Gallery, was named in 2019 for the former History Center Programming Committee member and current President.
“The History Center is unique because we actively share, collect, and preserve,” says Hale, an Indiana native who majored in Art History at Ripon College in Wisconsin and is a Florence-trained artist. “We are easily available to the public. The interactive permanent exhibit boards and on-line collections feature a constantly growing library of diverse stories and information. The exhibit boards are especially fun to play with—History at your fingertips!”
Summerfield grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and majored in Creative Writing at Northwestern University. Probably nobody knows more about Chicago History than she does. One of her jobs as Managing Editor of the Newberry Library, after all, was that of editing the entire Encyclopedia of Chicago History.
“Some call Carol our ‘dreamer,’” Hale, months before the 50th anniversary kickoff, says. “She’s a dynamic director. With her, our creative staff, and our focused board and volunteers, we’re ready to roar in 2022 with a variety of crowd-pleasing events.
“The organization has seen so much growth, especially in the last 10 years, and the changes have been exciting,” adds Hale. “Back in 2006, we put together one or two shows. Now we’re planning out five years just to fit everything in!”
The Historical Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff is located at 509 East Deerpath Road in Lake Forest. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; and 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information, call 847-234-5253 or visit lflbhistory.org.