The Origin of the Park Forest Historical Society and the History of the Collection and Museum and How They Intertwine.

Written by Jane Nicoll

Note: This history was written for the PFHS annual meeting of September 25, 2005, with additions made April 11, 2009.

I came to the Park Forest Public Library in August 1979. At the time, the Library had received an Illinois Humanities Council grant to do the Oral History of Park Forest Project. I was never actively involved in that project, at that time, beyond dealing with volunteers who were coming in to get reading assignments and having some conversations with Glenda Bailey-Mershon who had been hired to administer the project under Elizabeth Ohm, the administrative librarian. Elizabeth Ohm wrote the grant to the Illinois Humanities Council and directed the OH! Park Forest project. She had formed a wonderful advisory board for the project, and enlisted a number of dedicated volunteers who did the interviews on tape, and/or typed the transcripts. Charles (Chip) Shields compiled stories from the transcripts into 13 radio broadcasts aired on WCGO in Chicago Heights. The 13 broadcast texts, with historic photographs inserted, were published as the "OH Booklet". [The OH Booklet is currently out of print, but copies are available for study in the Local History collection or through the Society.] The culmination of the project was an OH! Park Forest Celebration at Freedom Hall with video footage of interviews with Philip M. Klutznick, former President of American Community Builders, and with architect of the rentals and Plaza, Richard Bennett as he walked in Park Forest and pointed out some of the design elements. Video of the program and of the interviews is available through the Society. As a result of the promotion of the project, many historical materials began to flood the Library and Village Hall.  The reference department began getting a number of questions on the history of Park Forest. As we began to research the questions, we saved our answers and our resources. A pamphlet file on Park Forest may have existed at the time, consisting of a few file folders of materials from the Star Newspaper's coverage of various anniversaries. There were some brochures put out by the village over the years. In 1981, Gretchen Falk, Head of Reference, and I, Assistant Reference Librarian, sorted the donated materials, discovering many photographs and scrapbooks from District 163 and from American Community Builders. We began to organize a Local History Collection. In 1982 or 1983, I took a one day class on organizing an archive. Material continued to be donated, and we began collecting articles on the community on a regular basis. Gretchen Falk was instrumental in supporting the work on the collection, and in allocating reference staff time to the building of the collection. Judge Henry X. Dietch, the second Village President and once the Village Attorney, began discussing plans for a Park Forest Historical Society in 1984 with the Library Director, Neal Ney. Neal had been a reference librarian at Chicago Historical Society, and was very much in favor of our having a society here. I was chosen from the Library staff to handle the negotiations and planning with Henry because I had been working on the collection since 1981. By the spring of 1985, Henry and I joined several other long-time residents in becoming charter members of the Park Forest Historical Society, formed as a sub-committee of the Friends of the Park Forest Public Library. Its mission was to promote the history of the community, to support the work on the Local History Collection of the Park Forest Public Library, and to solicit donations of materials, funds and volunteers to further that work.

Our first Vice-President was Tom McDade, a former employee of American Community Builders, who, after continuing to work with Philip Klutznick of ACB for the Urban Development Corporation, had retired to Park Forest. Both Henry and Tom encouraged many of the men who had been movers and shakers in the early days of Park Forest to sit in on the early planning sessions for the society. Bo Lawrence came on as treasurer, and Lester Vande Berg became our program planner for the first 1 ½ years or so. John North and Ray Janota, and Ross DeLue were loyal members for the rest of their lives. Ty Thompson worked with us until he moved. Roy Reid, Harold Brown, J. Ron McLeod, Lynn Brenne, John Malone, Anthony Scariano, Charles Vance, Earl Wade, William and Mary Chase, Tony and Lucille Wagener, Slim and Shirley Ellsworth, and Bud and Hope Osterling, Dewey Helmick were all early attendees of meetings and/or programs. The Dinerstiens attended when they were in town. There were very few women. I think the pioneer women were so used to the men being out at their own things while they attended to their involvements, that we missed out on a richness we could have had in the formative years. Wives came out for the programs. If I have missed anyone who came to the formative meetings, I apologize.

We had some young community members involved. Sandy Pinaire was our first secretary. She moved to Wichita, and has moved again, but still maintains her membership. Steve Ashton, a young man who had grown up in the area, designed what is still the basis for our logo. Harriet Shnoor, a cataloguer for the University of Chicago, was an early secretary.  I was often the secretary. Ray Janota was secretary for a few years ( he would write minutes, if I could type them up.)  (Yes these guys were a little sexist, but mostly they couldn't type or work copy machines-at least that's what they told me!) Ray Janota drew the logo for the Hall of Fame pin. Les Vande Berg set the mark for our programming by bringing in citizens who had been instrumental in the formation of schools and the government and pioneer citizens-the ‘48'ers-to do panel discussions for us. Our program meetings were on Wednesday nights until we realized many of our members would not come at night. We switched to Sunday afternoons. In our second year, J. Ron McLeod served as President. He brought several gentlemen to our planning sessions. Ron always said his biggest contribution was to convince Magne Olson to become our third president. It was a big contribution, but certainly not the biggest or only contribution Ron made in his presidency. Ron brought Philip Klutznick, former President of American Community Builders to Rich East Auditorium for a speaking engagement. He had Park Forest's own world-famous jazz pianist, Art Hodes perform at a fund raising concert at Freedom Hall. Magne Olson served as president for 13 or 14 years. Magne and I put together a newsletter which only had two issues, I believe. It was called "Prologue". We put it together before the days when word processors were a common thing, and certainly before either of us knew much about using one, but they contained essays on early history of the region written  by Magne, along with news of the society.

In 1989, to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Village, we formed the Hall of Fame on a suggestion from Chuck Vance.  Our first inductee was Philip M. Klutznick, the president of American Community Builders. He and his wife Ethel rode in our 40th Anniversary Fourth of July parade and he gave a wonderful speech in the Downtown. It took 5 years to get agreement on how the second Hall of Fame ceremony and award program should be set up. Finally in 1993, a community committee was formed and suggestions of people
to be inducted were generated. In April 1994, we inducted 12 leading contributors to our community.

The Park Forest Hall of Fame has now been running since 1994 with an annual induction in the spring and over 100 inductees.

I believe in 1998-1999, Magne Olson moved to Chicago. Jerry Shnay became President of the PFHS for the first time, and served as President through the planning of the 50th Anniversary.

In 1998, Gretchen Falk, Head of Reference, retired from the Park Forest Public Library. From 1998 to 1999, Nancy Owen served as Head of Reference. Nancy and then Library Director, Barbara Flynn, myself and staff member, Chrysantha Rudnik wrote a grant to the Illinois State Library for an Educate and Automate Grant. As a result, The Park Forest Public Library received $39,500 for the digital project, "Park Forest: An Illinois Planned Community".  I served as Project Director, supervising 2 staff members and volunteers in digitizing "OH! Park Forest" Oral History of Park Forest transcripts, photographs, the Plan of Town of 1946, sales brochures, news articles and some other things that still aren't edited for the public. The project was eventually transferred to servers at the Illinois State Library. It lost its original design characteristics when the State converted those projects to ContentDM management system in about 2006. After the grant period, I continued to work on the project and to direct volunteers when I could find them, in editing, scanning and adding to the project. After the conversion of the Illinois Digital Archives to ContentDM, we lost direct access to a computer portal to update and correct information in the project. This has been a big loss to us and was in direct contradiction of what the library was told about how the project would be sustained by the State Library. Scanning of photographs and articles, and editing and retyping of transcripts have continued as my time and that of other volunteers has been available. The State Library staff will add things for us and edit entries, but it takes months to get that accomplished. "Park Forest: An Illinois Planned Community"remains a wonderful resource for remote researchers to begin delving into Park Forest history, and a pathway to the Park Forest Local History Collection and Archive

In 1998, both under the hat of the Local History Librarian and as the Historical Society Archivist,I served on the 50th Anniversary Committee. I had the idea to set up a vacant rental unit, furnished as it might have been in the first five years of the village. The 50th Anniversary Chair, Therese Goodrich, approached Thorn Creek Townhomes, who consented to let us use a well-located empty unit at 397 Forest Blvd, near the corner of Indianwood and Forest for what was to be a two month display. The committee and the League of Women Voters of the Park Forest Area, Therese and I, especially, set up the 50th Anniversary House Museum which opened in September 2005. It was opened at a Park Forest Historical Society meeting on September 13, 2005. The first weekend in October 2005, it was open for the League of Women Voters House Tour. The pieces had fallen into place so nicely that we were able to keep extending the time that the museum would remain open. Volunteers went in about three times a week to open it to the public. Later it was only open Sundays from 2-5, then Saturdays from 1-3, only. After the dissolution of the 50th Anniversary Committee, ThornCreek Townhomes allowed the museum to stay open. For about a year, Larry McClellan and I worked on a plan to have a 1950s museum in Park Forest, with the museum as part of that complex. The Society voted to operate the museum, officially as part of its mission at some point in about 2001.

In 2001, Gregory Randall published his book, America's Original GI Town: Park Forest, Illinois, which had been extensively researched in our collection and which contains many photographs from the archive. It has become a textbook around the world in city planning and the study of suburbia in the 20th Century. The release of the book, the existence of the digital project and of the Society website increased our reference questions and use of the collection exponentially. Greg came to Freedom Hall to do a presentation on the book and the Society sold copies. Throughout the early 2000's the collection has been used by a number of museums for exhibits which included Park Forest. There were two at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, "On Being a Leader, Philip M. Klutznick", at the B'nai B'rith National Museum of Jewish History, later exhibited at Tall Grass Gallery in Park Forest, and "America on the Move" a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington, DC.

In about 2004-5, or 2005-6, Therese Goodrich had become President of the PFHS.

The 397 Forest Blvd museum unit remained open through May 2007 through the generosity of David Clapper and the Atlantic Associates, owners of Thorn Creek Townhomes. In the last year of operation, we had expanded into 395 Forest, as well, with more donated 1950s furniture downstairs, part of the archival collection and our office and digital lab upstairs. In May 2007, Mr. Clapper wanted his units back to convert to rental units. The Society volunteers packed the two units, hired professional movers to pack them into two PODS units and th museum went to live in remote storage in Crete, Illinois.

In the summer of 2007, Therese Goodrich, then President of the Society, negotiated with AIMCO, new owners of Central Park Townhomes rental area, for the use of a rental unit in area F-3, at 141 Forest Blvd. In October and November, we moved the basic museum into 141 Forest Blvd, with the help of many volunteers. It was open by December 1, 2007, decorated for a 1950s Christmas.

On February 2, 2008, the Society held the Museum's grand opening, with a ribbon cutting done by Jerry Shnay, President, John Ostenburg, Village President, and Pam Shanon of Central Park Townhomes. Jim Prybys of AIA-Eastern Illinois Chapter, came to present the AIA-Illinois award to the Village of Park Forest for being selected as one of its 150 Illinois Great Places.

In August 2005, after 26 years with the Park Forest Public Library, I resigned. It had not been my intention to remain so involved with the collection at the library, but no staff person there took over the Archivist or Local History Librarian duties. The Park Forest Local History Collection and Archive, which had always been a prized collection of the Park Forest Public Library, in the summer of 2005, was put in a remote storage area of the library basement. The digital computer lab was disconnected and stored there, with no access to electricity. The Society volunteers, including myself as archivist, were allowed to go in and work on the collection. We provided most of the reference service to library patrons and out of town researchers who wanted information. In the fall of 2005 an agreement was worked on and signed by the Park Forest Historical Society, the Park Forest Public Library and the Village of Park Forest to protect the collection. Any disposition of the collection has to be decided upon by the three entities, and the Society must be consulted about any withdrawals from the collection.

By late fall of 2007, the Society had gained use of the second unit at 395 Forest Blvd. They were able to move the digital lab to the second floor office at 395 Forest, and had phone and internet service to continue work on the digital project. When that unit and 397 were vacated, the Society once again had to see the digital lab put into remote storage. Along with it went several archive boxes which were transferred in January 2007 (see below). Only the photograph boxes and some select materials had been brought to the new museum for access. In January 2007, a massive flood hit the library basement. As Archivist, I directed society volunteers in packing up the collection, and worked for three solid days myself. Volunteers helped move three van loads of materials to the 395 Forest Blvd unit of the museum, and some materials were incorporated in the collection of the Adult Services department of the library. The library put the rest into storage PODS which wasin Crete, Illinois, with no access.

In April 2016, the Photograph Collection is stored at the museum, under the ownership of the Society.  the Park Forest File cabinets have been moved to the museum while they are worked on and updated, along with 4 Park Forest scrapbooks and what had been the circulating copies of the oral history transcripts.

The Park Forest Local History Collection and Archive and the 1950s Park Forest House Museum continue to be vital resources in the country for studying the history of Park Forest, Suburbia in the post-World War era, and Mid-Century Modern Architecture.  The collection has been consulted regularly by a wide variety of users. The Society and myself, still as Volunteer Archivist, receive a steady stream of emails and phone calls for photographs and reference information. 

In the past year, four books are under way on aspects of Park Forest history. Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson has been published in January 2009 by Wiley, with photographs and information obtained from our archive.

In the spring of 2009, we are very proud to say that a Park Forest History unit was introduced into use by the fourth grades in a number of Park Forest schools. Our Board Member and active volunteer, Suzanne Brown, Jean Bernstein and May Wiza, retired teachers in District 163, worked for a year putting together the unit with photographs and documents from our collection, and updated it in 2014-2015. The unit is on a CD-ROM, with additional teacher materials, which we hope to add to this website.  Anne Marie Leofanti has taken over teaching this unit in the schools and had reached 400 students by January 2016.

In the summer of 2009, the Park Forest Public Library building underwent interior renovation. During this time, part of the Local History Collection had to be stored off site. Our President, Jerry Shnay  searched the village, and found some space for several boxes, where the public and society can have access, in Hope Lutheran Church. It was to beunderstood between the Library and Society Boards that this was an arrangement only for the duration of the renovation.  However, when Hope Lutheran, then Celebration Ministries, closed, the materials had to be absorbed into our small one classroom space at St. Mary's.

In September 2009 the Society  discovered that, despite an agreement with Library Director, Barbara Byrne Osuch to the contrary, the portion of the Local History Collection and Archive stored at the Library would be totally inaccessible during the entire renovation.  Alarmingly, it was being stored in the basement of the library which has been considered unsafe for any kind of storage since the flooding of January 2007.  That had been the reason given by the Library for keeping the entire Archive in remote storage from January 2007 until the Society found a room to house it and work on it in January 2012.   

For further history on the 1950s Park Forest House Museum and on the Park Forest Local History Collection and Archive, see the Brief History buttons under each of those sections of our website.

Both of those collections are now housed in St. Mary's Catholic Church, 227 Monee Road, Park Forest, IL.  The microfilm of the Park Forest Reporter and Park Forest Star can be found at Governors State University Library, transferred there by PFPL in 2015.  Hard copy of the Park Forest Reporter is in the Archive.