My cousin Kevin recently moved to town from his native Madison, Wisconsin. As a 52-year-old lawyer, Kevin has spent a lot of time in Chicago because his firm has an office in the Gold Coast – but since his messy divorce and resulting lawsuit a year ago, he decided that he wanted a slower-paced life for his kids. So he chose Gurnee, having heard me talk about what a great place it was to grow up. Luckily, his contract allows him to work remotely, so he can continue his trial work with his firm – and, in fact, much of his case load is in Chicagoland.

Kevin is a history buff – which means I’ve spent a lot of this summer taking his kids to historic places around their new home! One fascinating place that (I’m ashamed to admit) I didn’t even know about is the Cook House in Libertyville, Illinois. Built in 1878 by Ansel Brainerd Cook, this mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places is now the headquarters of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.

The home is open to the public in the summer, Sundays 2:00-4:00p.m. We toured through many rooms that are decked out in Victorian décor. Other rooms house museum displays or store Historical Society records of early events, organizations, businesses, churches, and schools. It is a beautiful example of old architecture – but that’s just what’s visible to the naked eye. More of the beauty lies in the history of the man who built the mansion.

Connecticut native Ansel Brainerd Cook was born in 1823 and moved to Illinois in 1845. He married Helen Maria Foster in 1849, then relocated his family to Chicago in 1853 to begin working as a building contractor for several important historic city buildings, including the old Cook County Court House and the historic Water Tower on north Michigan Avenue that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. After the fire, he became one of the area’s most successful contractors and builders.

Cook was active in local politics, being elected to the Illinois State Legislature in 1863 and was re-elected in 1865 and 1869. He served as Alderman of Chicago’s 11th ward and President of the Chicago City Council. Cook also married three times – with not one divorce!  The first Mrs. Cook was killed in a railroad accident in 1881. The following year, he married another of the fairer sex, Annie Barrows, who died in 1891; he was then married to her sister, Emily Barrows, until the end of his life in 1898.

Cook’s dedication to his community and his sense of public service lived on after his death. In his will, Cook deeded his home to be used as a library. Upon Mrs. Emily Barrows Cook’s death, 30 real estate lots were also bequeathed to the library to be held to meet any future contingencies. The Alpha Club established a library in 1910, and Cook Memorial Library opened in 1921.

 

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