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Thursday, July 28, 2022

Legend of the Lotus

Linen postcard of map of the Chain O'Lakes, 1949. Dunn Museum, 2016.1.112/9BH1932.

The resort era began in Lake County in the 1870s with people visiting Waukegan's mineral springs to better their health, and sportsmen finding the best hunting and fishing in the Chain O'Lakes.

Among “The Chain’s” most popular lakes for tourists were Grass Lake and Fox Lake. Early “resorts” catered to hunters and fishermen, and were run by entrepreneurial farmers, who added rooms onto their farmhouses or allowed hunters to pitch tents on their land. As demand grew, cottages were built and rented as were grand hotels such as the Mineola on Fox Lake.

Train with vacationers at Antioch Depot, circa 1910. Dunn Museum, M-86.1.62

The growing popularity of the lakes region combined with the arrival of the Wisconsin and Central Railroad passenger service in Antioch in 1886 created a resort boom. Many of the vacationers were from Chicago and were eager to escape the pollution and bustle of the city for the seemingly boundless natural areas of Lake County. 

Colorized postcard of lotus in bloom on Grass Lake, circa 1910. Dunn Museum 2001.1.23

One of the biggest lures to the lakes were the vast lotus beds with large pale yellow blossoms that bloom in late July and early August. (Note: White water lily flowers are often mistaken for the lotus, but have much smaller white blossoms). The lotus beds were especially plentiful on Grass Lake and caused a tourism sensation from the 1880s to 1940s.

News clipping from the Woodstock Sentinel, August 3, 1911.

As a marketing gimmick, resorts and newspapers fabricated a legend to promote the lotus as originating in Egypt. Depending on who you spoke to the flower had either found its way to Lake County by a bird or an early settler who had brought it back from Egypt. The legend further claimed that the flower only grew in Lake County and Egypt. 

Cartoon in Chicago Sunday Tribune August 15, 1909 with article on "Sacred Lotus Flower of Egypt" found in the Calumet River south of Chicago. 

Visitors were so enamored with the beautiful lotus that they never questioned the legend. After all, it added to the excitement. So, why spoil the fun? 

In July 1911, the Waukegan Daily Sun set out to shake-up the myth of the lotus by stating: "Cherished Tradition that Flowers are Egyptian Appears Unfounded." The paper quoted Dr. Jesse M. Greenman, Assistant Botany Curator at the Field Museum, as saying the lotus are native to the U.S. and "interesting but not a great rarity." 

The American lotus (Nelumbo lutea) native habitat includes waterways throughout the eastern United States. It is thought that the plant originated in the east-central U.S. and its seeds and tubers were used as food by prehistoric peoples, who carried it with them as they traveled. The lakes region was the traditional home of tribal nations for thousands of years, where they had villages and were sustained by wild rice, fish, water fowl, beaver and aquatic plants from the lakes.

Bess Bower Dunn visiting the lotus beds of Grass Lake, circa 1909. Dunn Museum

Among the multitudes of visitors enchanted by the lotus beds was Bess Bower Dunn (1877-1959), the Dunn Museum's namesake. Bess is often associated with the preservation of Lake County's historical record, but she was also an avid naturalist. She traveled extensively throughout the county with her box camera and spent many pleasant days taking photographs of the lotus.

Bess Bower Dunn visited the lakes region often. This ledger entry for Gifford's Resort on Channel Lake for July 4, 1901 is from the collections of the Lakes Region Historical Society in Antioch. It shows Bess Bower with a group from Waukegan, including her best friend Isabel Spoor. 
Lakes Region Historical Society

The pressure of so many visitors to these natural areas ultimately led to the decline of the lotus. People loved the lotus nearly to obliteration from the lakes.

The demand for access to the beds by boats led to dams being built on the Chain. The first dam, the McHenry Dam officially known as the Stratton Lock Dam was constructed of wood in 1907 and replaced by steel by 1915. The lakes are naturally shallow and this raised water levels, which made it easier to navigate the lakes, but damaged the lotus’ habitat. Motorboatsand boat racingtore up lotus roots and made the lakes so muddy that sunlight could not penetrate through the water.

On August 3, 1911, The McHenry Plaindealer ran a story about an "excursion to the lotus beds" on the passenger boat "Alice." The article written by the boat's Captain William Koeppe stated: "The Alice is the only propeller boat that runs right into the beds so that passengers may pick the flowers without leaving their seats."

Postcard of motorboats cruising along a channel that was dug through lotus beds on Fox Lake. Blarney Island is shown in the distance, circa 1938. Dunn Museum M-86.1.206.

By the late 1910s, residents began to see the damage that was being done. They tried to mitigate the impact by preventing lotus from being picked by the boatloads, and worked to stop refuse from being dumped into the lakes.

A leader in this preservation effort was Colonel John P. Vidvard of Grass Lake. On August 19, 1917, Col. Vidvard and other respected citizens made a plea to "protect the valuable and most beautiful lotus beds in the world located at Grass Lake." In spite of their attempts to raise awareness, by the 1950s, the lotus beds were devastated and without them the tours stopped. For more, read post Col. John Vidvard

In the last several decades, thanks to continued conservation efforts the lotus have made a comeback, although limited. Lake water levels remain artificially high, but boat traffic restrictions and cleaner water have allowed the lotus beds to grow along shorelines.

Boat tours are popular once again, taking visitors out on the lakes to view historic buildings, hear stories of the resort era, and to learn about the natural beauty of the lakes. Though its’ domain has shrunk the pale yellow blossoms of the American lotus remain a popular attraction.

- Diana Dretske

Bess Bower Dunn Collection, Dunn Museum, Libertyville, IL
Chain O'Lakes Reference Files, Dunn Museum, Libertyville, IL 
Lakes Region Historical Society, Antioch, IL 
A History of Fox Lake, Illinois, 1917-1957, Fox Lake Golden Jubilee Commission. 
"Even the Sacred Lotus Flower of Egypt Has Taken a Fancy to the Calumet," Chicago Sunday Tribune, August 15, 1909.
"Square Mile of Lotus Blossoms at Grass Lake," Waukegan Daily Sun, July 25, 1911. 
"Excursion to Lotus Beds," Woodstock Sentinel, Woodstock IL, August 3, 1911.
"Surrounded by Lotus Beds, Plea Made to Save Them," Waukegan Daily Sun, August 20, 1917. "Stratton Lock and Dam." Accessed July 28, 2022. 
Flora of North America. 


Barbara Melle Johnson said...

Hi Diana, If you want to see a huge display of American Lotus, go to Palos Preserves and hike around Tomahawk Slough. You can walk right through them on one side of the shore and they are glorious to behold. They bloom well at end of the July and may continue through mid August. Barbara Johnson

Diana Dretske said...

Hi Barbara,

Thanks so much for this tip. Wonderful!


Vern Paddock said...

Lake County, in the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s, brought many people from the city because of its nature and vastness and who can blame them. Like many tourists throughout the ages, there was an urge to bring home a souvenir from areas they visited only to be stowed away or thrown out. I for one brought home pumice stones and volcanic ash from the Mt. St. Helens region after my visit there in the summer of 1980. Today, it makes common sense to leave well enough alone and to preserve the natural state of an area. The lotus beds were a great example of this. Through the decades we know more destruction was created as people moved into the area attracted by the water. The lakes and waterways were over-used. Diana, it’s a great story and a history lesson as we look forward to preserve as much as we can for future generations. Thank you!!!

Diana Dretske said...

Vern, thank you so much for your support and your reflections on the lotus and the impact people have on natural areas. History is quite the teacher!
Best wishes,