CHICAGO — Imagine strolling through a wooded acreage once called home by early 20th century occupants of a poor farm and patients of a tuberculosis infirmary. Imagine learning the rich history of that land — including its geology and ecology — during a family outing just 25 miles from Chicago.
That's the plan for the Oak Forest Heritage Preserve, more than 170 acres of rolling forest and wetlands in Chicago's south suburbs. If not for the Great Recession, the land might have been turned into a business park.
The site served as working farm, an infirmary and, from 1910 until 1971, the burial ground for Cook County's indigents. Planners envision an interpretive museum, trails through fields of native plants and a community garden where the county poor farm once operated.
In the first $1 million phase of the Cook County Forest Preserve project, a 1.5-mile loop trail will guide visitors through the preserve's main sites, with signs recounting land's long-forgotten stories.
Someday, if funding can be secured, visitors interested in genealogy may be able to search through records of the more than 90,000 people who were buried in the cemetery, perhaps finding traces of an ancestor's story. Handwritten volumes still exist that recorded the deceased's name, country of origin, cause of death and occupation. Those records eventually could be used to create a searchable database at a visitors' center.
For the first phase, Paul Bluestone has the job of turning what's now a mute landscape into accessible stories.
"Underneath the surface of this site lie the most incredible stories," said Bluestone, of the Chicago-based exhibit design company from Bluestone and Associates. "It's a project that really surprises you, and I think it's going to surprise the people who walk the site. It surprised us."
Bluestone's team has compiled information on the geology left by the last retreating glaciers, the hunters who walked the land 10,000 years ago and a Native American village discovered in the 1950s by archaeologists.
Fascinating to Bluestone and others working on the project has been the story of the poor farm that opened in 1910, a complex of buildings where Cook County housed the poor, elderly and disabled — and put them to work.
The county bought the Oak Forest property for $33,624 in 1908 because another poor farm site, called Dunning, had become unsanitary and overcrowded. County leaders wanted a more rural location where the poor could have a healthier environment and tuberculosis patients, who would be treated there, could breathe cleaner air.
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With thousands of residents, the poor farm was like a small city. A rail line was extended to the property. Children who lived there had their own schoolhouse and teacher.
Before the 1935 Social Security Act, counties and cities held the main responsibility for the welfare of poor people. Across the United States, counties and cities ran similar poorhouses and poor farms in the 19th century and early 20th century.
The idea was thought to be progressive at the time: the poor would build character as they supported themselves in a self-sustaining community.
"Reformers argued it would be cheaper to congregate the poor into institutions than give them welfare" payments, said University of Southern Maine sociology professor David Wagner, author of "The Poorhouse: America's Forgotten Institution."
"Reformers also — in a strong parallel to reforming welfare in recent years — claimed paupers were getting too much money and were not using their resources wisely," Wagner said in an email.
Anna Ashcraft works as Cook County's director of real estate management. She helped gather historical information about the Oak Forest property. She's intrigued by the poor farm's history and the lives of its residents.
"They grew enough food to feed themselves. They made clothing. They made shoes," Ashcraft said. "It's not something you learn about in school."
Ironically, the effort to preserve the forgotten history of the Oak Forest property may never have happened if not for an event in very recent history: the Great Recession that began in 2007.
A buyer was interested in developing part of the property as a business park, Ashcraft said, but the deal fell through in 2009. Cook County officials, who had been eager to sell the land to a developer, changed their minds. In 2010, the site was acquired by the county's Forest Preserve District for $13.2 million in loan repayment and $1.8 million in cash.
"It was a really good outcome, I have to say," Ashcraft said. "The project may be the proudest of my career here. It worked out incredibly well."