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Friday, January 14, 2011

Bess Bower Dunn (1877 - 1959)

Bess Bower Dunn has made appearances in previous posts, but I've never featured her until now. And she is so deserving of her own post!

Bess, also known as Bessie, was a woman of firsts. She was one of the first women in motion pictures, the county's first woman historian, the county's first assistant probate clerk, and one of the county's earliest genealogists.

About 1896, Bess (at right) and her friend, Isabelle Spoor, were asked by local inventor, Edward Amet, to help him with his new invention. When the women arrived at the inventor’s home on North Avenue in Waukegan, Amet handed each a pair of boxing gloves. Bess recalled, “We whipped those long skirts out of the way and had a fine old time.” For several historic minutes, the girlfriends punched each other while Amet filmed. The stars of Amet's film titled, "Morning Exercise," became the first women in motion pictures.

In 1899, Bess was hired as the county's assistant probate clerk, and in her spare time assisted people with their family research. If you happened into the probate office at the first half of the 20th century, Bess would  happily assist you in your research by looking in county records, and offering to visit local cemeteries to verify the correct spelling of surnames and dates of birth and death. 

Bess was one of the founders of the Lake County Historical Society (now defunct, but the Society's collections are held by the Lake County Discovery Museum and Lake Forest College). In 1909, the  Society placed a 7-ton memorial rock near the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue (Route 21) and Aptakisic Road just west of the Des Plaines River to commemorate the county's first permanent non-native settler, Daniel Wright.  Bess standing next to the Wright Memorial Rock, 1909. 

Bess promoted Lake County history by giving lectures and through the efforts of the Lake County Historical Society, and also preserved the history with her own documentation of the county's heritage. She was an avid photographer, and traveled throughout the county looking for historic sites to capture on film, and meeting early settlers. 

Bess sitting near an unidentified lake with her box
camera on her lap, circa 1905.
Bess posing with Native trail marker tree in
Lake Bluff, circa 1910. 
After several years of courtship, on November 21, 1918, Bess married Ronald R. Dunn, who became the advertising manager of the Globe Department Store in Waukegan. Ronald was the son of Byron A. Dunn (1842-1926), historian, author, Civil War veteran, and newspaper man. Sadly, just ten years into their marriage, Roland died following an appendicitis operation. Bess never remarried. 

This photograph is believed to be a gathering of the Lake County Historical Society, circa 1930. The location is unknown, but may be Lake Forest. Pictured are: (back row) Josephine Aiken, Betty Rice, Jannette Aiken, Elizabeth Osgood, Barbara Lindsay; (front row seated) Bess Dunn, Mrs. Zoehler, Mrs. E. Herberger, Mrs. Jannette Aiken, Mrs. Leary, Mr. William Whigam, Mrs. M.J. Fleming, unidentified, Mrs. John Bohn, Mrs. Sarah Hall, Mrs. Tyler Gilbert. 

You may have noticed that there is only one man present in the photo—William Whigam. He was the grandson of Daniel Wright, the county's first non-native settler. Mr. Whigham also attended the Wright memorial rock dedication in 1909, and passed away in 1933. 

Just before her death in 1959, Bess was awarded the title of Lake County Historian by the Lake County Board of Commissioners. She is the first person in the county's history to have the title. She was also honored for her 60 years of service as an employee of the county from 1899 to 1959, which made her the longest county employee on record.

The day after her passing, the courthouse flags were at half mast in memory of Bess and the County Recorder of Deeds Gustaf H. Fredbeck, who had also passed away.

Bessie with Millburn friends, Florence Stewart, Mrs. White, Maud White, Mrs. Stewart, Mrs. Armbruster, and Mrs. Strang, pictured on July 12, 1897. 

Bess is one of my most admired Lake County citizens. Without having met her, all I have are photographs and articles to tell me about her, and from those items it's apparent her life was full of joy and purpose. I think she'd be pleased that her efforts in preservation are appreciated to this day. 


Linda Gardner Phillips said...

Thank you so much for this post about Bess. I've often wanted to learn more about her, as she seems to have been so connected to many people in Lake County and so instrumental in the preservation of its history. Great piece!

Ruth Lilian said...

Born in 1921, I was resident in Waukegan soon after end of World War II --- between about 1947 to 1956. We had baby son, and moved in with my husband’s parents on Grand Ave. There were no places to rent, in those times of demobilization of our military husbands (US Navy); Nearly a year later we felt lucky to rent a small apt:in “FARNSWORTH’ remodeled from military barracks & located on the grounds of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, where my husband’s Dad was civilian Transportation Manager. After our first daughter was born in 1948. we moved to a tiny house on Fairfield Circle.
It was a surprise and a pleasure to find this site & learn so much about Bess. Her first name: “Bess” was all I remembered, besides her unique box-shaped, black electric car and her devil-may-care style of driving! Searched for: “Bess+Waukegan + "electric car". Have vivid memories of "Bess Dunn" driving her black electric car about 15 mph, as though there was no such thing as crossroads, stop signs or other cars driving on the roads of Waukegan! Other drivers were warned to watch for: this traffic hazard: Bess Dunn --- driving along in her black electric car stopping for nothing --- and to remember that “BESS DUNN always has the right-of-way! Never heard of Bess having any accidents, or getting any traffic tickets, either. R Filstead

Anonymous said...

Great article about Bess Dunn. I don't think I've ever heard of her before. I'm grateful, now, though, for all she did.
And regarding the comment above me from Ruth, I'd like to know more about all that- hadn't heard of Farnsworth.

Nancy Llynd said...

I am trying to find information on a place I lived for 8 years, 1946-1955, which was part of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. i grew up in refurbished Navy Barracks called Farnsworth somewhere in the North Chicago area. I am trying to find the location of it. There was a building at the top of the hill which had been the grocery store and I believe a school also. It was within walking distance of the building I lived in at 3205 Farnsworth. Any information would be appreciated.

Diana Dretske said...

Hello Nancy,
I found a Chicago Tribune article that mentions Farnsworth barracks. Please email me and I can send it to you.