Cook Park

written by C.E. Carroll


[This essay was written ca. 1955 by one of the original members of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.]

Cookpark1We do not know where George Vardin came from and we do not know where he went. We are not quite sure just when he came here, but we do know, from Walter Morse's account, as recorded in Elijah Haines' first history, that he was here in 1835, when Morse, out looking for a suitable site for a smithy, came up the trail, which is now Milwaukee Avenue, from Kennicott's mill down on the Des Plaines River, south of Half Day.

Morse told Haines that Vardin was living with his wife and small daughter, in a log cabin, in "the grove" and that is what Cook Park was in 1835. A grove of fine, big oak trees, and this grove extended back to the lake. There are still some of the big, old oaks back there, some of them probably between two and three hundred years old.

There is something odd and unusual about this grove, for the west side of the river had very little timber for much of its length in Lake County, even in the old days. It was mostly open prairie and one theory is that the annual prairie fires used to burn off all the seedling trees so that no timber ever got a start. Some say that the Indians burned the prairie purposely to make better pasturage for their ponies the next year. By contrast, the east side of the river was heavily timbered, in some places all the way to Lake Michigan.

Some geologists say that where these oak groves are found there are limestone " Islands" fairly close to the surface in the substrata. We do know that these big oaks have awfully long tap roots.

But whatever the reason for our grove, it must have been a beautiful sight in that early day, standing as it did on a slight elevation with the lake, then a sizeable body of water, at its back and nothing to obscure the view of the river, to the east over a lush, marshy plain. Maybe that is why George Vardin stopped there. Maybe he appreciated the beauty of the spot for that is all it was, just a beautiful spot. It does not seem as though he intended to farm here in the grove for there were thousands of acres of fine prairie land to be had on all sides.

The History says he was an Englishman "of culture" and maybe that means he was a Naturalist, or perhaps, an Artist, anyhow he stopped here long enough to build a cabin and then went away and some of the others who came in 1835 began to call the place "Vardin's Grove."

Haines says Vardin moved away that same year (1835), the first white man to live in Libertyville.

The old "Milwalky Trace," an Indian path for hundreds of years and now our Milwaukee Avenue, bordered the Grove on the east and it was joined at the Grove by another trail which we might call a feeder trail coming from the southwest. This is our present West Church Street, a prolongation of Brainerd Avenue, the old "Mechanic's Grove Road" and which, in 1835, probably joined the Milwalky Trace at a slightly different angle than it does now. Maybe the Vardins went away that way, farther west.

The Vardins never owned the Grove. They couldn't. This was still Indian territory and had not been opened for settlement. They were just "squatters" as were all those who came before 1836 and there were several who did, many of them with families.

Some who settled west of the Grove were: Peter Shaddle, Alfred Payne, Hiram Clark, Elisha Clark, Solomon Norton and Lewis Schanck. Up north on the main trail were: William Cooley, Elconah Tingley, Tobias Wynkoop and Amos Bennett.

With the Vardins gone, the cabin in the Grove was empty but not for long. Settlers were drifting in more rapidly by 1836, nearly all coming with ox-drawn wagons up the old Indian trail from Chicago. Among those who came to settle south of our present village, in 1835, were the Steele brothers, Richard and Ransom, who took up land near the present E.J.& E.R.R. crossing. Some months later another brother, Davis, came to live near the Grove and he was followed by a nephew, Henry B. Henry and family moved into the cabin vacated by the Vardins. History says he was a big, jovial man, very popular, and that he took a very active interest in the new settlement.

After the land was formally opened for settlement, in 1836, it was considered to be a part of Cook County and continued to be such for about a year.

On July 4th, 1836, the few families then living in the area gathered at the Grove for a picnic and celebration. A "Liberty Pole" was erected and speeches were made and it was proposed to name the settlement "Independence Grove" in honor of the day, there being no point in continuing to call it "Vardin's Grove." Thus our Cook Park was the scene of our town's nativity and first public gathering.

In the fall of the same year a log school house was erected on the northern edge of The Grove, right where West Cook Avenue is now. This was the first school house to be built in what is now, Lake County. On April 16, 1837, a Post Office was established here under the name of Libertyville, since there was another Independence Grove in the state, and Henry B. Steele was made Postmaster. The Post Office was in his home, the cabin in the Grove.

In June, 1837, that part of Cook County lying north of Wheeling was set off as McHenry County and Henry B. Steele was elected as the first sheriff. In 1839, McHenry County was divided, near the Fox River, to set off Lake County and Henry B. Steele was elected sheriff of this. In May of 1839, the appointed Commissioners met at Henry B. Steele’s cabin to select a county seat for the new county and they decided on Libertyville, but they named it " Burlington." The fourth name for our town in three years and thus our Grove was the birthplace of the new county seat.

Dr. Jesse H. Foster came here to settle in 1837, the first resident physician to practice in what became Lake County. He preempted and bought a quarter section of land (160 acres) just south of the present Maple Avenue and he also bought the Grove and a strip of land west of it running back almost to the lake.

After the county seat was moved to Little Fort in 1841, the Libertyville (or Burlington) courthouse was no longer used, tho there was a store on the first floor still operating and Henry B. Steele moved in with his family and Dr. Foster moved to the Grove. He had been appointed Post Master in 1841, so he now erected a frame house in the Grove a little west of the present Library building which he used for his residence, his Apothecary Shop and the Post Office, and our Grove was again the site of the Post Office for two years.

Ansel B. Cook came to Lake County from Haddam, Connecticut, in 1845. In 1849, he married Dr. Foster's daughter, Helen Maria, and, in 1870, purchased the Grove from his father-in-law.

During the years the schoolhouse stood on the edge of the property, the frontage along Milwaukee Avenue, for a considerable depth, was used as the school yard and was known as the "Common," a term familiar to the Yankee citizens who composed most of the population and it continued to be a meeting place and the site of important events. The Civil War brought many such, and it is probable that the old Liberty Pole was a focal point on many occasions. Company I, of the 15th Illinois Infantry (The Lake County Rifle Guards), was recruited there for one thing.

Cooklibrary1After Mr. Cook acquired the Grove, he laid out a part of the area as a formal garden. An old picture owned by the Historical Society shows it, in 1873, as a park of winding paths and flower beds. About 1878, Mr. Cook erected the big house which is now the Library and this he and his wife occupied, as a summer place at first, but in later years as a year-round residence. Much of the property to the west was subdivided and sold after Cook Avenue and Brainerd Avenue (named for Cook's mother's family), were opened up and the old school house razed.
Putty Ssh Download


Mr. Cook died in 1898 and his will directed that after the death of Mrs. Cook the property should go to the Village of Libertyville, for Library and Park purposes. Our town acquired title in 1920. The house was remodeled and became Cook Memorial Library. The library started some years earlier by the Alpha Club furnishing the nucleus of the book collection. The grounds were made into the beautiful park which we enjoy today. The outstanding feature of which is the Rose Garden planted and maintained by The Men's Garden Club. The park is still the scene of all our most important out-of-door events. Band Concerts and patriotic oratory still continue the traditions of the old Grove.










(Typed from the original manuscript 8/6/1976 by Mavis Wike.)

Postcard images provided by the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.