Waukegan History

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2020 will be a year of Ray Bradbury, as the Waukegan-reared author of “Fahrenheit 451,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Dandelion Wine” would have celebrated his 100th birthday.

What event made a bigger impact on Waukegan? The day the country’s most popular comedian, Jack Benny, returned in triumph to his hometown? Or the day the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway came to town, feeding an explosion of new manufacturing plants? The day voters decided to move the county seat to Waukegan from what is now Libertyville, or the day legendary Robert Sabonjian was elected mayor?

Taking such issues from the academic to the fun, in 2018 the Waukegan Historical Society celebrated its 50th birthday by asking residents to vote on “Waukegan’s Top 50 History Events.”

“We set it up on our website like a tournament ballot,” said Ty Rohrer, manager of cultural arts for the Waukegan Park District and supervisor of the Waukegan History Museum. “We allowed people to vote on five sets of brackets, then on the winners from each of those brackets and so on until the final winner was determined.”

So what event proved most important (or at least popular) after 5,000 votes had been cast at www.waukeganhistorical.org? “The top event was the establishment of Little Fort Trading Post on the shore of Lake Michigan in the late 1600s or early 1700s,” Rohrer said. “The first Europeans, the French expedition led by Marquette and Joliet, had come here in 1673, and the trading post was established after that.”

When that lake shore spot became a city in the early 1800s, it at first was called “Little Fort” too. In 1849, the name was changed to “Waukegan,” based on the Algonquin tribe’s word for “trading post.”

The event that got the second-most votes, by the way, was the use of the Cory family’s home as a stop on the Underground Railroad that smuggled escaped slaves out of the South before the Civil War. Also scoring high was the 1968 racial integration of Waukegan schools, Jack Benny’s visit in 1939, Abraham Lincoln visiting, women getting the vote and Glen Rock soda pop being bottled locally.

Rohrer said 2020 will be a year of Ray Bradbury, as the Waukegan-reared author of “Fahrenheit 451,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Dandelion Wine” would have celebrated his 100th birthday.

“That will begin on Aug. 22 of 2019 as we unveil a 13-foot-high, stainless-steel statue of Bradbury on the Waukegan Public Library grounds,” Rohrer said. “The statue will show him holding a copy of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ on top of a rocket ship. A lot of other events are planned for 2020.”

The hi-tech Ray Bradbury Experience Museum also will open on Genesee Street in 2020. It will use virtual and augmented reality to take visitors inside Bradbury’s themes of space travel, freedom of expression and comics.

A Dandelion Wine Arts festival, named after one of several Bradbury novels that refer to a fictional version of Waukegan named “Green Town,” has been held every June for 20 years.

Before Bradbury died in 2012, the community created a Bradbury Walk, guiding guests along a walking tour through the city that stops at sites important to the artist’s life and writings.

Born Benny Kubelsky, Jack Benny lived in Waukegan from 1894 until 1912 until he left to earn fame as a star of vaudeville, radio, TV and movies.

One of the Genesee Theater’s most famous performances came in 1939 when Benny held the world premiere of his movie “Man About Town.” Rohrer said Benny never forgot where he came from and became Waukegan’s biggest advertisement as he mentioned his hometown repeatedly on his radio and TV shows.

The comedian also came back when School District 60 dedicated Jack Benny Middle School. Rohrer said Benny, who pretended to be a lousy violin player as part of his act, last visited the city as a guest performer for the first-ever performance of the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra.

Housed in an 1843 Victorian home, the Historical Society museum contains relics from 189 years of the city’s past, including a bed once slept in by a future president named Lincoln and the authentic reproduction of a typical family home in the 1870s.