Ninety years after its founding, the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s Hal Tyrrell Trailside Museum is still drawing visitors to River Forest.
The museum opened on May 22, 1931, with the mission to educate the public about and to exhibit plants and animals found in Cook County. The 16-room Victorian Italian Villa style mansion at the corner of Thatcher and Chicago avenues had served as the first headquarters of the Forest Preserve District since 1919.
Irene Flebbe, assistant director, said the museum and grounds attract all ages from near and far, including senior citizens, bird watchers and school classes from grade school to college.
She said visitors include tourists and “a lot of locals,” illustrating the museum’s relationship with River Forest residents.
“River Forest is proud to be home to the Trailside Museum,” said village President Cathy Adduci. “For 90 years, residents of River Forest have taken advantage of all the educational and recreational programs available right in our backyard.
“During this year of celebration, I encourage anyone who hasn’t visited the museum to take an afternoon to visit and learn about local wildlife and the environment.”
Although the recent pandemic led officials to close the building and change the programming format from in-person to Zoom and Facebook Live, Flebbe said they observed an increase of visitors to the grounds.
“We noticed that during COVID the one safe thing people could do was take a walk,” she said. “We were so glad that we were a place where people could go to de-stress.”
In addition to closing the building “for a few months,” Flebbe said the pandemic led officials to cancel the annual spring festival in 2020 and 2021 although the museum’s other two annual events, the Migrating Monarchs Celebration in September and Halloween Hoot n’ Howl in October, were held in 2021.
“Both of those outdoor events were very well attended by people from our area who were so happy to have free outdoor family events and enjoyed a sense of returning to normality,” she said, adding that officials are planning to hold them again this year.
Trailside officials not only brought the Spring Festival back this year but made it even more special by celebrating the museum’s 90th anniversary.
The museum building was built in 1876 by Abraham J. Hoffman and his wife, who purchased the land from the Thatcher family. Mrs. Hoffman established two private schools in the home, the River Forest Young Ladies Institute in 1878 and the River Forest Institute, a boys’ boarding school, in 1881. The schools were closed and the home sold to Hugh McFarlane, a wealthy carriage maker, who lived there with his family until selling the house and land to the Forest Preserve District in 1919.
Mary Cooper Black, the first curator of Trailside Museum, created the first educational displays, collections and animal mounts in the museum, with assistance from the Field Museum and the Chicago Academy of Sciences. The Field Museum’s artist Gordon Persall, the second curator, painted the “Local Reptiles” exhibit that still hangs in the museum today and published a booklet that listed all plants and animals found in the Forest Preserves.
Virginia Moe became the third curator in 1941 until her death 50 years later in 1991. She inspired many people to care deeply about wildlife. She also shifted the focus of the museum to wildlife rehabilitation. For many years, Trailside Museum was the place to bring injured and orphaned wildlife in Cook County, a practice that ended in 2005. She wrote a book called “Animal Inn” about her experiences working at Trailside Museum.
In the 1980s, Forest Preserve District officials were facing the need for extensive repairs to the building and considering closing the museum. A grass-roots movement not only kept Trailside open but also led to a $500,000 addition and renovation. Harold L. “Hal” Tyrell, who served as a Cook County commissioner and Forest Preserve District commissioner, was instrumental in securing funding for the extensive renovation that materialized in 1990 and 1991. His name was added to the museum’s name after his death.