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The Keeper of the Stories

For the last 23 years, Historical Society President Judy Hughes has helped to preserve the stories of Northbrook for generations to come.

Wonder whether anyone fought in the Civil War from Northbrook? Where the first school in town was built? What it was like to live here when the subdivisions and shopping plazas were simply farmland?

Judy Hughes probably knows. And if she doesn’t, she’ll find out.

As president of the since the 1980s, Hughes considers it her job to be a “keeper of the stories.” 

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Take, for example, the weathered tombstone that reads “In Memory of Edward Macomber, born Nov. 12, 1799.” It was once planted by the side of Willow Road at Shermer Road when Willow was a two-lane byway. Willow Road was widened, the tombstone was moved, and ultimately it was donated to the Historical Society. 

After a resident asked Hughes whether she knew anything about the tombstone that used to be along Willow Road, she went online and tracked down someone with the last name of Macomber in Illinois. She wrote the woman and told her what the Historical Society knew about Edward Macomber: He was a minister and the local poormaster, meaning he helped people in the township who were struggling financially. He lived with his family on a farm at Willow and Shermer roads.

The woman wrote back immediately, telling Hughes that Edward Macomber was her relative many generations back, and that family history had it that he was buried by the side of the road where he died. 

Hughes was able to tell her that in fact, Macomber died on his farm in 1854, according to the Historical Society’s records, and that he is still buried under —beneath four lanes of traffic traveling 40-50 mph.  

“That was one of those really cool stories that brings it full circle, where we had something that we could connect back to someone in that family,” said Hughes. 

Community Involvement Defines Her

Hughes got involved in the Historical Society in 1989, when longtime member Barbara Schulz asked her to help out with the organization’s new program for children.

“If I’ve accomplished nothing else, it's getting Judy to be active in the Historical Society,” joked Schulz. 

At the time, Hughes knew little about Northbrook’s history. She was born in Chicago and grew up in Evanston, Wilmette and Skokie before she moved to Northbrook with her husband in 1962. Much of the village was still farmland then, and the Hughes lived on the second story of a farmhouse during their first year in town. 

Although Hughes was no expert on Northbrook, she has always been interested in history because of her father, who was a pilot in the Navy. On summer vacations in Virginia, he would stop the car at every historical marker they passed, she recalled. They visited Williamsburg, the Natural Bridge in Virginia and former battlefields and military encampments. 

“I have an interest in history, but not history learning out of books, although I enjoy that now,” she said. “I just have an interest in history and how it all fits together and puts a story together.”

Community involvement is another characteristic of Hughes, who cites her father and grandfather, both Rotary Club members, as two people who inspired her to get involved. 

“I’ve basically been a Rotarian all my life,” said Hughes, who joined the local club in 2002.

Previously, Hughes was a member of the District 28 school board for 14 years when her three children were younger. She also served on the village's Plan Commission in the 1980s; was a member of the Northbrook Centennial committee, preparing for the anniversary celebration in 2001; and .

“To me, she’s just what you look for when you try to find a community volunteer,” Trustee A.C. Buehler III said at a ceremony recognizing Hughes’ service on the Arts Commission.

Once she started working with the Historical Society, Hughes was hooked. Now, it’s the stories and the people that keep her coming back. She joined the board in 1995 and has been president since 1999.

“Everybody has a different slice of this community,” she said. “It’s more like a patchwork quilt. Every pattern can stand on its own, but there’s another view when you put them all together in a quilt, and that’s what everybody’s stories here come together to do.” 

As part of the Historical Society, Hughes and others have collected those stories into two books, a volume published for the village’s centennial, called Northbrook, Illinois—The Fabric Of Our History and a book of historical photos of Northbrook, published as part of the Images of America series.

Currently, she’s working on a book about Northbrook residents who fought during the Civil War. She has done all the research and now it's just finding the time to write, Hughes said.

Preserving the Stories for Future Generations

Since the Historical Society was established in 1973, it has gone through three phases, as Schulz explains. First came putting the former Northfield Inn on a special trailer, hauling it down Shermer Road to the Village Green, rehabbing the inside and creating the period rooms upstairs. Next came the addition of children’s programs and programs for the community, including a partnership with local elementary schools. Finally came the organization’s current push--under the leadership of Hughes--to archive and to do research.

As part of that push, Hughes is launching Northbrook Voices, an initiative to record oral histories in the village conducted in partnership with the .

“People from 100 years ago would not recognize the town,” she said. “Are people in 100 years going to recognize what we are today?”

The Historical Society already has some oral histories, taped by children during the 1970s, as well as films for programs the organization has put on. But Hughes hopes to record many more, and her group is already training volunteers to do that. Fittingly, she will introduce the project on Sept. 18 at this year’s , the annual celebration of Northbrook's history on the .

“When an old person dies, a library dies with them,” Hughes said. “And the history of a community dies with them.”

The goal is to leave a trail for future generations, she said, so that they can understand what—and who—came before.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the year Hughes joined the Historical Society and the duration of her service with the Plan Commission.

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