Grayslake History and State Bicentennial

The Grayslake Historical Society and the village’s Heritage Center and Museum work together each year to bring an aspect of local history to those who visit the lovely park across the street from the Grayslake Village Hall.

Beginning this summer, the partners will bring the public a weatherproof exhibit called “From Statehood to Center Street: Grayslake & Illinois History” which will likely be on display until mid to late-2019, said Michelle Poe, interim director of the Grayslake Heritage Center and Museum, and Charlotte Renehan, president of the Grayslake Historical Society.

The five-panel exhibit details how the northern portion of Illinois, from the southern edge of Lake Michigan northward, was not originally part of Illinois. Those 8,000 square miles were slated to become part of Wisconsin instead. But access to Lake Michigan was deemed extremely important, so the state line was moved northward in 1818, setting up all of Lake and Cook counties (and 12 others) to become part of Illinois.

It also gives information about the arrival of William M. Gray to Illinois during the 1830s; his homesteading of land along the lake that would eventually be dubbed with his name; and then the incorporation of the growing community nearby in 1895.

State parks, state capitols and the Sears Tower landmark in Chicago are then covered, alongside corresponding information and photos of Grayslake’s historic commercial highlights like the Grayslake Gelatin Factory, the Wisconsin Condensed Milk Company and the first village hall.

Additional panels cover tragedies throughout the state like the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, a huge mine fire in 1909 and changes in the flow of the Mississippi River, which altered the location of the state capital; as well as local disasters like fires at the Wilbur Lumber Company, deaths at a village lift station and major floods in 1938 and 2017.

The last two panels cover notable state and Grayslake buildings and icons/symbols, as well as latter day development that brought interstate highways to Illinois and made Grayslake much more accessible to Chicagoans and those living in other suburbs.

Exhibit viewers will notice that Grayslake and Illinois histories often paralleled. For instance, in the spring of 1881, deforestation along the Mississippi River had dire consequences for Illinois’ first capital city, Kaskaskia. The lack of trees weakened the river banks and, after a large rainfall, the river altered its course. Water surrounded Kaskaskia, flooding much of the city and turning what remained into an island.

Grayslake as also experienced major flooding. In 1938, heavy rainfalls filled low lying areas with water and caused Grays Lake to overflow its banks. The water was so deep that residents could fish for carp on Center Street.

Another parallel can be seen with one of Illinois’ greatest tragedies that happened in 1909 at the St. Paul Mine Company in Cherry, Illinois. A kerosene lamp ignited a nearby hay cart, causing a major fire that filled the tunnels below with smoke and fire. The first wave of rescuers lost their lives. Of the 480 workers present, 259 died.

Grayslake never had a mining disaster, but four public works employees perished in 1974. The men, friends who regularly ate breakfast together before work, tried to help each other escape the village lift station but were overcome by toxic fumes. A plaque at village hall honors their memory.

“We want the public to think about Illinois’ Bicentennial this year, so there was no question about what our annual outdoor exhibit would cover,” Renehan said. “The Heritage Center put together the state part of the exhibit and the Historical Society handled the Grayslake history.”

“I expect that people will zero in on the disasters panel, because that is what people generally do,” she added. “But I hope that they will now understand the role that Grayslake played in the development of the whole state of Illinois.”

“All of us in Illinois are part of one big community and we also want everyone to see this and understand how Illinois’ various treaties and laws have impacted Grayslake throughout its history,” Poe added.

If you are interested in learning more about the rich history of Grayslake, visit the Grayslake Heritage Center, a joint effort of the Grayslake Historical Society and the Village of Grayslake, at 164 Hawley St.

The Heritage Center is open from noon to 7 p.m., Wednesday and from noon to 4 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. It is also open by appointment and during major downtown Grayslake events. Good will donations are gratefully accepted.

For more information, contact the Heritage Center at 847-543-1745 log onto; or phone the Grayslake Historical Society at (847) 223-7663 or visit