The museum’s history illustrates how a concept can emerge, take shape, and evolve into a significant end result like a local history museum. It was founded when two teachers in Lake Bluff School District 65; Kathleen O’Hara who taught social studies in the junior high, and Janet Nelson, the District librarian, launched an idea to improve the Social Studies curriculum. They worked together and shared the belief that children would better appreciate our country’s history if it could be directly related to their local community.
In 1981, these teachers presented their idea to the school’s superintendent who enthusiastically encouraged them to start writing units for each grade. While gathering the information and material needed to assure accuracy and still be appealing to the minds of elementary students, they found a need to collect more data and artifacts. This led them to contact Elmer Vliet, one of the town’s highly respected residents. He was a retired President of Abbott Laboratories who had served the community in many ways: he had served as Village President and was well known as Lake Bluff’s historian. Over the years, he presented history slide shows to school and adult groups.
Mr. Vliet shared his photographs and documents with the two teachers while telling interesting and little-known facts about Lake Bluff’s history. After several visits and many discussions, he became enthused with the idea that his knowledge and his photographs could be made available to all school children and also be enjoyed by the community. As a result, in the summer of 1982, he donated his collection to the project and provided the school district with funds toward sustaining the project.
Two large unused classrooms in the East School were provided to house the donated materials along with the items already assembled by the two teachers … thus creating a local “museum.” In October 1982, the School Board held a formal dedication of the area and aptly named it “Vliet Center for Lake Bluff History.”
The Center’s collection continued to grow over the next 12 years, still under the umbrella of the school district and cared for by the two founders. The rooms, known locally as the “Museum”, were used for classroom visits and opened to the public on a variety of occasions. Community members used this information for research and began donating items to the collection.
As the School District’s population started to increase, the rooms were needed for classroom space. A group of citizens formed to find a new home for the museum. In 1995, the Vliet Center for Lake Bluff History became its own entity: it was incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois and was recognized by the IRS as a 501 (c) (3) organization. A Board of Directors was formed and By-Laws were adopted in July 1995. With help from the Village’s leadership, a Public/Private Partnership was formed consisting of the Village of Lake Bluff, The Lake Bluff Public Library and the Vliet organization. The partnership held a successful fund-raising drive in which over $1,000,000 was raised for the purpose of building an addition to the public library to house the Vliet Collection.
The Vliet Museum and library’s new children’s department opened in the new building in 2002. The funds came from state and local grant funds with several large contributions from residents. The School district also turned over the remaining funds from Elmer Vliet to provide for the proper maintenance of the collection. The Museum’s Board of Directors, whose commitment to its mission is demonstrated through museum displays, collections, research, fundraising and outreach events, governs a primarily all-volunteer organization.
The museum’s permanent exhibits trace Lake Bluff’s evolution from rural farm community . . . to summer resort . . . to suburban community, and link this to the “bigger picture” of what was happening in our nation as a whole.
In 2012, the library relocated its entrance so that both museum and library patrons enter through the same vestibule. While the building was undergoing that construction, the museum area was updated and the museum name was changed to Lake Bluff History Museum.
The Museum contributes to Lake Bluff through projects and activities such as its online catalog, Walking Tours, Lectures, Permanent and Temporary Exhibits, rebuilding the Lake Bluff Ice Truck, Children’s Home History, Auto Shows… and more which truly represent its mission – To Keep Lake Buff History Alive!