Lake Forest’s 150th Celebration: What We’ve Learned
The City, founded by newly wealthy Chicagoans around education and lakeside picturesque beauty, has reinvented itself more than once: in the 1890s, as a center for spring to fall outdoor recreation for established and newly rich elite Chicagoans; in the 1940s and 1950s, as a managerial and professional class suburb, often for corporate transferring “organization men”; and in the 1980s and 1990s, as a destination once again for newly wealthy but more socially diverse residents. The 2008 financial panic certainly created a pause, but already with signs of new ambitions for residential projects.
Population grew from a small circle of like-minded New England and Scots Presbyterian families and students into the 1890s expanded retreat for as many as 15,000 to attend horse shows at Onwentsia by the 1910s and 1920s, as seasonal rental properties and hotel accommodations proliferated, including the spectacular Deer Path Inn. For some, there was a clear distinction between the first elite and the golf and fox-hunting influx that prevailed socially and politically to the 1960s. In each wave, the entrenched elite struggled to absorb and ameliorate the impacts of the newbies. Thus, no Sunday golf could be played at Onwentsia as late as the 1910s when the Old Elm Club was founded by men (only) to fill this void across the city limits to the south. The new generations and groups and the old alike adapted and accommodated each other. Within a decade of the founding of the Onwentsia Club, Lake Forest College no longer was attended by locals, but by Presbyterians from small towns of the agricultural west, mostly Iowa and Illinois. The Depression in its own way, as properties changed hands, introduced some newly wealthy and restored wealthy (Armours) as leaders, while the old families held on, some in reduced circumstances. And everybody was squeezed by the high taxes, first income, then property taxes after World War II, and inflation.
The support communities of locals who served these wealthy, the local economic engine, changed and evolved as did their employers. African-Americans and Irish, outsiders for the Presbyterians, were encouraged with their own new churches in the early decades. But the ambitions of the children of former slaves were capped in the 1890s national backlash as the sympathetic Civil War era leaders retreated into age, and separate but equal was the rule. Yet, native and Irish small businesses flourished in the new 20th century, with the West Park neighborhood created to encourage their settling here.
Descendants of early local entrepreneurs, the Pratts and the Andersons, for example, evolved into mayors and Onwentsia members in some cases. At the same time, the children of the elite Presbyterians and newer Chicago club people went east to school and settled elsewhere, while the locals became more established. Lake Forest Days and the local memory and history depended as much on them as on the wealthier later generations.
Many readers will recall well the last quarter century since the 1986 Reagan income tax cuts and the age-old story of elite succession that has been playing out. For the Post-Civil War generation, here founders like the Farwells, further east were the nouveau riche and parvenus of Boston and New York. Novels by William Dean Howells (The Rise of Silas Latham) and Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth, The Buccaneers, The Age of Innocence). The Lake Forest version, with Chicago Protestant wealth, was recorded winningly in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic The Great Gatsby that owed not just its model for Daisy Buchanan in local beauty Ginevra King, but also its plot dynamic outlined already in the 1910s by the beyond-reach Ginevra’s own short story for Scott found in the 2005 study by James L. W. West III, The Perfect Hour. Also, summer visitor here in the 1920s and 1930s Margaret Ayer Barnes adapted The Age of Innocence for the stage and won the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Years of Grace, a saga of Chicagoans’ and Lake Foresters’ grit from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.
As the current generation’s establishment and new arrivals here play out their parts in this drama across the historical periods, the City mostly benefits, from the reinvigorated Ragdale Foundation to the movement toward consensus on the 1857-first-conserved Forest Park. But it’s too early to find this reflected in good fiction. The compelling 1976 Ordinary People novel by Judith Guest and 1980 film by Robert Redford captured the post-war middle class values and pressures here. Indeed, Ward Just’s recent novels An Unfinished Season (2004) and this year’s Rodin’s Debutante evoke the local, more-elite 1950s still as well. The story of the last quarter century will wait for its proper literary chronicler of the future. But this generation of Lake Foresters’ ability to see the present struggles, accommodations. and progress with the eye of past recorders like King and Fitzgerald, Barnes, Guest, and Just will help it preserve civility, calm, humor, and broad sympathy as well as the best of this always compelling “special place.”
—Arthur H. Miller P