Virginia Moe was the personification of Trailside Museum, according to Jane Morocco's book. | Courtesy Jane Morocco

Naturalist and local legend Virginia Moe dedicated over 50 years of her life to River Forest’s Trailside Museum of Natural History, where she rehabilitated wildlife and educated the public as its curator. She lived on the premises, inspired countless children to care for the natural world and even authored a book on the museum, called “The Animal Inn.” So devoted was she to her Trailside, that those who had the pleasure of working alongside her cannot recall her ever taking a vacation.

 But for all the former curator’s time and commitment, only a picture and a plaque hang at the museum in honor of Moe, who died in 1991 at age 83. Those that remember Moe are demanding better from the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which oversees Trailside. Supporters will be staging a peaceful protest April 11 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Lake Street. The goal is to have the museum renamed as the “Virginia Moe Trailside Museum.”

“A lot of us really feel like the county is trying to erase her memory,” said Jane Morocco, who is spearheading the renaming efforts.

Virginia Moe | Provided

Morocco and others were moved to action last year, after the Chicago Tribune published an article celebrating Trailside’s 90th anniversary. That article failed to mention Moe’s name even once, despite her being the museum’s curator for over half of its existence. The group embarked on a campaign to see the museum, officially known as the Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum of Natural History, renamed after Moe. 

A thoroughly filled-out formal application was submitted. Letters in support of the change were written by several prominent figures, including River Forest Village President Cathy Adduci, and over 1,000 people signed the online petition started by Morocco. 

The application was passed from county committee to county committee before ultimately being rejected last month. In a letter dated March 16, Forest Preserves of Cook County General Superintendent Arnold Randall said the name would not be changed as the forest preserves did not find any justification for removing the name of former Cook County Commissioner Harold “Hal” Tyrell. 

“Hal Tyrell was a committed representative of the Forest Preserves and his name is not associated with perpetuating inequities,” Randall wrote in the letter. 

Wednesday Journal has reached out to the forest preserves for comment. The letter, and the reasoning it provided, cut no ice for Morocco and her contemporaries, who will be out picketing the ruling this Tuesday. All are welcome to attend the protest. Morocco will be bringing extra chairs. 

Like many other people of a certain age who grew up in the western suburbs, Morocco spent much time with Moe during her childhood and teenage years. She would often visit the museum and wildlife rehabilitation center with her family and began to volunteer there at age 12. Morocco remembers riding her bicycle from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, where she lived as a child, to Trailside every day in the summer and on weekends. 

“It was just the coolest place in the world,” said Morocco, who also wrote a book on Moe and started a scholarship program in her name. 

Morocco and her family moved to River Forest when she was 16, shortening her commute to Trailside. She worked there all through high school, with Moe paying her out of pocket. When Morocco went off to college, she would return to Trailside to help out during holiday and summer breaks. 

She shared a special relationship with Moe, as did so many other kids in the area. Moe never had any biological children, but she was always taking kids under her wing. Many of those kids would have been considered at-risk by today’s standards, said Morocco. Moe welcomed the kids, cared for them and put them to work. 

“We used to fall all over each other just to clean bird cages and sift sand out of them,” Morocco said.

Moe, Morocco recalled, had a knack for identifying a spark within children and kindling it. If a kid showed even the slightest interest in botany, Moe would stake out a space for her and the child to plant a garden. For kids interested in wildlife, she got them studying animal biology. She taught kids to build and fix animal enclosures. Together, Moe and her young crew kept Trailside going.

“We ran the museum,” Morocco said. “The forest preserves in those days never did anything.”

When the forest preserves announced in 1989 its plans to shutter Trailside, which was in need of expensive repairs, those kids, who had since become adults, came out in full force against the closure. Morocco was there, as was her friend Diane Carter. Carter’s son, now 41, was one of several kids marching alongside the grownups. Carter remembers kids carrying bandaged stuffed animals to symbolize the care wild creatures received from Moe at Trailside. 

 That grassroots movement, inspired by the elderly Moe, kept Trailside open. Beyond that, their efforts led the Cook County Board of Commissioners to shell out $500,000 toward museum renovation and the building of an addition. The county board also serves as commissioners of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Tyrell became one of the commissioners appointed to oversee the project. Tyrell died in 1990, one year before Moe. 

The museum was later officially renamed in the late commissioner’s honor, as Tyrell was instrumental in securing funding for the renovation and addition. His contribution, many believe, does not compare to that of Moe, who spent 52 years at Trailside, working right up until her death. And they’re not ready to give up the fight to see Moe properly credited, even if their protest doesn’t yield the results they desire.

“If the forest preserves administration doesn’t change the name, we hope that the next administration that takes office will,” Morocco said. “We also plan on going over their heads right now to each and every Cook County commissioner.”

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