I had never really thought of myself as a history buff. In fact, I remember yawning on more than one occasion in American history class back in junior high. As I have gotten older, though, finding information, especially when it is directly related to places or people I know, has become more like hunting a treasure.
The popularity and proliferation of shows like "Antiques Roadshow" or "Cash in the attic" demonstrate that folks have even translated their curiosity about the past into actual dollars - a welcome find in this economy that coined the term "staycation."
On one recent homestead sojourn, while renovating her house, my own mother discovered such a treasure in the crawl space of her attic: an 1861 map of Lake County. Despite its age, this 2-by-3 foot document was in wonderful condition, probably because of the sturdy canvas scroll on which it was first wrought. Intrinsic value aside, it was clear that the historical data was a trove of information.
It lists, for example, that the very first school in Lake County dates back to 1836, taught by Laura B. Sprague. Since then, we've added some 232 schools and 45 school districts.
The map lists the very first store in Lake County as having been opened by Hiram Kennicott in 1835. Today there are in excess of 2,500 stores and counting. Kennicott had a cabin on the Des Plaines River in the Vernon Township near the Village of Half Day. Did you know that Half Day used to be a village not just a road, or even an 'Olde' road?
Local lore has it that "Half Day" was so named because a horse and carriage traveling south on Milwaukee Avenue (Illinois Route 21) required a half day to reach downtown Chicago. Granted, with the state of construction nowadays, one can argue that not much has changed in 150 years. In reality, the true origin of the name came from "Halfda," a friendly chief whose name in Aptakisic describes the sun at its meridian or "half of the day."
Another neat fact: the map lists the population of Lake County back in 1840 as 2,634 people. By 2006, the most recent census shows that the county's population had swelled to 713,076, a whopping 27,000 percent increase. This may sound huge but there is some precedent.
Between 1844 and 1846, Waukegan, originally called "Little Fort," had a growth spurt in its population from 150 to 750 people. "Proud of the growth of their community and no longer wanting to be characterized as 'little,' on March 31, 1849, the residents of Little Fort changed the name of their town to Waukegan, the Potawatomi word for fort or trading post," according to the Waukegan Historical Society.
There are many other fascinating facts on the map's legend that are fun to compare to what we know of Lake County today and, while I feel fortunate to have discovered such a find, I can't help but lament not having made time to look up this information sooner, especially as the resources are right at our fingertips.
One of the best places to access local history on your own is at the Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda. Accredited by the American Association of Museums, a national mark of the highest professional standards and public service, its principal functions is to preserve the heritage of Lake County.
"We try to be a full-service museum for people and to enrich their lives by helping them to understand their past so that they can go into the present more knowledgeably," said museum director Katherine Hamilton-Smith. Wisely she adds, "Understanding the community strengthens it and enables people to be more grounded when they know something about where they live."
To find more historical treasures, go to www.lcfpd.org/discovery_museum.
Lake County facts
1834 Lake County first settled in (then part of Cook County)
June 5, 1837 First Election held in the Co. at Half Day
138 Number of votes cast in first election
June 22, 1839 County Seat of Lake County located at Libertyville
April 5, 1841 The county seat removed to Little Fort (now Waukegan) by a vote of the people
1835 First saw mill erected by Hiram Kennicott in town of Vernon, called Grist Mill, by Jacob Miller on Mill Creek
1835 First store opened by Hiram Kennicott
1836 First post office established at Half Day
March 4, 1845 First newspaper, The Little Fort Porcupine & Democratic Banner, established
Jan. 1, 1855 Chicago and Milwaukee Rail Road completed to Waukegan
Source: 1861 map of Lake County, Illinois