When I talk to some of my genealogy friends they’re very adamant about one concept – Will County is the most challenging county to conduct research. Take a look at Reclaim the Records’ laundry list of county public records which have been made inaccessible to researchers.
It’s a sizable list of birth certificates, education records, marriage applications, military records, probate and property records, and naturalization records. Nearly everything a genealogist needs, and researchers do not have access to the greater part of these public records. For a genealogist diving deep into this area of research, it’s a frustrating and disappointing road block.
Not a lot of museums I’ve visited has a research center. I’ve been to a few which offer assistance by appointment, pulling books or documents from closets, cellars, attics, or other hidden places for a short perusal. Others have sent photographs and scanned copies of items to my inbox via email, preferring to keep the handing of their collection to experienced staff.
So it is a wonderful experience to walk through the front door of the Will County Historical Society Museum (after an excellent lunch at Public Landing), receive a greeting from a friendly volunteer and be swept into the extensive genealogical collection housed in the research room.
On my first visit to the museum several years ago, I quickly fell in love with the building, exhibits, and friendly volunteers who dedicate their time to the organization. On this visit, I spent a large part of my time perusing the unique historical and genealogy collections with WCHS Director Sandy Vasko.
In my capacity of a librarian, I field several hundred genealogical queries a year. I used to think I knew quite a bit about Will County resources, but the visit to the WCHS museum research center really opened my eyes to the amazing array of records housed at their facilities. What is especially useful to visitors is the searchable computer indexes which provides quick access to the collection. Each entry provides a summery and document location details, which assists visitors and staff in locating the original documents housed on site.
The research center currently has the following searchable indexes available:
Will County Common Law Books
Includes dates, names of plaintiffs and defendants. Very helpful in locating information on striking miners suing for back pay
Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railroad (EJE) Records
While most of the EJE records were destroyed by the company, three small books found their way to the WCHS collection. Each book contains an account of EJE railroad employees from the 1880s, and includes personal details such as age, place of birth, citizenship status, employment date, and next-of-kin information.
Will County African-American Vital Records Collection
This meticulously researched collection documents births, marriages, and deaths in the African American residents living in Will County from 1878 onward. Pulled from a variety of public and private sources, searching this one of a kind collection should be a first stop for anyone beginning their journey into this area of research.
Will County Insanity Registers
While most local and state mental hospital records may be inaccessible due to HIPPA laws, Will County’s insanity registers do not contain patient case files. The registers were donated to WCHS and are available to researchers. There are five books in this series, and the registers themselves date from 1897 to the 1960s. The searchable index provides non-personal details such as an individual’s name, the name of the person requesting bringing an insanity charge, witnesses, which party is paying for hospitalization or treatment (private or county), the hospital location where an individual was placed into care, and the date an individual was released/discharged/paroled.
Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal Documents
The WCHS building was the original headquarters for the I&M Canal, and when WCHS took up residence on the site in 1972, a huge collection of documents from this historic waterway came under the long-term care of the society. While passenger lists for the I&M canal do not exist, the documents housed at WCHS are an excellent resource for tracing ancestors who provided contract labor and services. The collection spans a whopping 20,000 original documents, with another 15,000 more if the original canal leases are included in the tally. Anyone with ancestors located near the I&M Canal should check out this massive collection of items.
The Will County Historical Society also houses substantial collections such as:
- County plat maps
- Cemetery books
- Sanborn Insurance Maps
- Farm Bureau records
- Obituaries from Wilmington, IL
- A selection of Will County vital records
There’s so much more here than what I’ve highlighted! Ask for a tour of the vault during your visit, and you’ll find a hidden world of records and documents from family bibles, historical documents, and bounty letters and photographs.
You don’t have to have Will County ancestors to volunteer at the WCHS! All you need is some time to spare and a love for history! The society accepts volunteers for a variety of projects from indexing their collection and research assistance to providing guided tours and assisting with special events. The WCHS oversees the buildings and events at Heritage Village located at 249 W. 2nd Street in Lockport. This collection of historic buildings from around the county is free and open to the public during the summer months. Volunteers are needed to provide public tours, assist at the visitor’s center, and give demonstrations on pioneer skills such as spinning, weaving, knitting, carpentry, and soap making.
Donations are always welcome at the Will County Historical Society Museum and Research Center, as the organization operates almost exclusively on donations and volunteer assistance. Donations can be made in person when visiting the museum, mailed to the organization directly, or can be online through the WCHS Facebook page. Lookout for special fundraising events such as the Lincoln Funeral Rose Dinner on Saturday, February 16, 2019. Tickets are still available by calling (815) 838-5080 or e-mailing email@example.com.
The Will County Historical Society Museum and Research Center is located at 803 S State Street in downtown Lockport. The museum is closed through February 22 while volunteers prepare for a new lineup of exhibits. The building will open February 23, 2019 with its regular hours of Noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For more information call (815) 838-5080.
See you at the museum!
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