Sharing Stories, Understanding the Past: Welcome to the History Center
By Kim Piekos
Lake Forest is blessed with a rich history. It’s easy to overlook stories from the past that help us appreciate how this city became such a treasure.
“Many of Lake Forest’s original people saw themselves as primarily Chicago residents, but their children were highly invested in Lake Forest and felt that their identities had come out of here,” says Carol Summerfield, executive director of the History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff. “They were the driving force for collecting their families’ stories, for preserving them for future generations of Lake Foresters.”
“Imagine years from now your great-grandchildren coming in here and listening to you tell your stories," says Carol Summerfield, executive director of the History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff.
From tours to exhibits to lectures to archives, there is a lot to take in at the History Center, located in the former First Church of Christ Scientist building at the corner of Deerpath and Washington roads in Lake Forest.
“What’s fascinating is the intersection of a whole lot of essential American stories,” Summerfield explains. “It all moved through here. We have the ability to pull forward a deeper, more meaningful connection to all aspects of history.”
Residents looking to enjoy a beautiful summer day can choose between self-guided walking tours of the houses of Lake Road, bike tours of the old interurban train line and driving tours of “witness trees,” 150- year-old trees around town that have witnessed important events in Lake Forest history. Each tour on the Center’s website, www.lflbhistory.org, is geolocated and is attached to a pin that creates the tour. Social Studies students at Lake Forest High School are being encouraged to design tours of interest to them – natural history, sports, housing, architecture or other focuses – to add to the History Center website.
“The goal is to create community tools that allow others to build the resource as well as us,” Summerfield says.
History centers began popping up in the 1970s as part of a Bicentennial wave, as the country celebrated its 200th anniversary and many cities hit their 100th anniversaries.
“Collecting the mundane out of life wasn’t something that was done before,” Summerfield says. “There were collectors – Henry Ford, for example, who was a hoarder of stuff – but people tended to look forward and not back, to be focused on who we are and what we can do rather than what we have done.”
Just before the pandemic hit, the History Center launched Studio 509, a soundproofed recording studio where residents can record their personal stories of living in Lake Forest. A series of prompts gives ideas of topics to discuss. Monthly themes -- from veterans’ stories in November to favorite holiday traditions in December to how you survived winters in January -- provide focus for storytellers.
“Imagine years from now your great-grandchildren coming in here and listening to you tell your stories. It creates an incredible connection and is an opportunity for us to keep peoples’ memories alive forever,” Summerfield says. She encourages those attending Lake Forest High School reunions to schedule time to come in alone or with friends to create recordings together. “It’s an ideal opportunity for former students to share their memories before they are gone,” she notes.
Additionally, local kids can also use their phones to record their stories and upload them to Studio 509, with their parents’ permission. “Since our youth are not keeping diaries like they did in the past, they have a tool here they are familiar with to create their own records,” she says.
The History Center also offers regular exhibits and lectures. In addition to the current exhibit, Map Stories: The Hidden History in the Maps of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff, upcoming exhibits include In the Shadow of Wealth: The Working Class of the North Shore, a collaborative exhibit between five local communities and nine institutions, examining the long history of amenable relationships between the working and upper classes in this community; one on the history of travel in Lake Forest, and the creation of a permanent, exterior garden exhibit for the Center’s 50th anniversary in May 2022 depicting how Lake Forest gardens have changed over the years. Craig Bergmann is assisting with that exhibit’s design.
The privately funded Lake Forest-Lake Bluff History Center has close to 500 member families. An estimated 2,500 people a year view exhibits, attend lectures or utilize the 30,000-item archives next door. Summerfield said the most popular topics searched in the archives include house histories, genealogy, and sociological narratives, such as researching information for books or television shows. Summerfield invites residents to visit the center, sign up online to be notified of upcoming events or exhibits, become a member or volunteer as a docent.