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Historic preservation a passion for Will County woman

VirginiFerry holds plaque recognizing her years service Will County Historic PreservatiCommission.  |  Susan DeMar Lafferty~Sun-Times Media

Virginia Ferry holds a plaque recognizing her years of service to the Will County Historic Preservation Commission. | Susan DeMar Lafferty~Sun-Times Media

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Ferry’s feats

As a young college graduate, Virginia Ferry had hoped to make her mark in Hollywood. Instead, she returned to Joliet, where she has become a celebrity of sorts in her hometown. She not only has preserved historic places, but the lives of many as well, through her work with MorningStar Mission for homeless families, and the Lamb’s Fold Center for Women and Children, in Joliet, for homeless women and children and victims of domestic violence.

She often tells stories about how she invited in the prostitutes who would hang out behind her home — the landmarked Jacob Henry Mansion — to get them in off the street. She consistently helped the less fortunate in her community.

Ferry continues to be involved in MorningStar Mission, as she has been for more than 40 years, and was instrumental in raising money to build a new 72-bed shelter to house men and women. She also helped launch Lamb’s Fold Center.

While living in the Jacob Henry Mansion on Eastern Avenue, Ferry and her husband Alan participated in a neighborhood organization to bring that area back to life, she said.

“I loved everything I did,” she said.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed:

In 2012, she was presented with the De La Salle Award for extraordinary service and leadership in the community by Lewis University.

In 2011, Ferry was inducted into the Hall of Pride for the Joliet Will County Project Pride Organization.

In 2009, she received the Peter McCarthy Award from MorningStar Mission, where she helped raise funds for a 72-bed shelter.

In 2008, she earned the J.D. Ross Extraordinary Service Award from Joliet Junior College.

In 2007, the city of Joliet acknowledged her outstanding contributions to the city’s quality of life and the National Association of Realtors’ Magazine gave Ferry the prestigious Good Neighbor Award for her work at MorningStar Mission.

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Updated: June 5, 2014 6:13AM



There are many old homes, schoolhouses, farms, cemeteries and bridges that tell the story of Will County’s rich history.

The Soldiers’ Widows’ Laundry House in Wilmington, the Fitzpatrick House in Romeoville, the one-room Schmuhl Schoolhouse in New Lenox Township, the Rathje Mill in Peotone and the Beecher Mausoleum all reveal details about life in the 24 townships that have comprised Will County over time.

Virginia Ferry — one of the original members of the Will County Historic Preservation Commission and its chairman for all but its first seven years — also loves to share stories of the county’s history and the urgent need to preserve it for future generations.

Ferry recently retired from the all-volunteer historic commission, where she served from 1992-2013, but her passion for preservation will never wane.

“Virginia has become an icon in Will County,” Will County Executive Larry Walsh said. “She has been a tireless advocate for historic preservation, and her dedication is only surpassed by her love for Will County. Even though Virginia is retiring from the county’s historic preservation commission, I am confident she will remain committed to preserving our rich history for many years to come.”

A former realtor, Ferry developed this passion for history at an early age.

Growing up in Joliet, she often would pass the “gorgeous homes” on Eastern Avenue, “Silk Stocking Row,” she said.

Later, on a high school graduation trip to Washington D.C., Ferry visited the homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and thought, “This is where we came from.”

As an adult and as a realtor, “the more I traveled, the more buildings I saw, and the more I realized we were losing them and how important it was to save them,” she said. “I loved the older homes. I would always say, ‘Someday I will live in a house like this.’ ”

Ferry and her late husband Alan became a living part of history when they bought the Jacob Henry Mansion at 20 S. Eastern Ave. in Joliet, which now is on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was here that she invited people to create the Joliet Historical Society and later develop the Joliet Historical Museum.

But after the economic “crash of 1979,” Ferry said, they were forced to sell the mansion. There were those who wanted to dismantle it — and remove the beautiful fixtures and the walnut wainscoting — but Ferry wouldn’t allow it.

“I would not have my name attached to the destruction of one of the most historic homes in the area,” she said. It eventually was sold to someone who has preserved it.

In 1991, a year before the commission had its first meeting, a 140-year-old barn in Naperville was demolished just hours before the city held a public hearing to annex it. To local preservationists, that reinforced the need for a historic preservation ordinance and a commission, which the county board adopted a year later.

When Ferry was asked to serve on the commission, “I said, ‘Yes, definitely,’ ” she said.

One of their first landmarks was designated a few years later — the Old Brick Tavern in New Lenox.

That was another wakeup call, Ferry said. The tavern itself, on U.S. 30, at the entrance to what is now the Bluestone Bay subdivision, was demolished by the developer during the night.

“We were horrified,” she said. A monument made of bricks from the old tavern now marks the spot.

As Will County has grown so rapidly, historic structures have been threatened or destroyed to make way for new developments. Preserving 47 sties has not been easy.

Up until a few years ago, Ferry said, she and others would drive around and “shake the bushes” looking for landmarks.

The Interstate 355 tollway claimed a few historic farmsteads and homes, and one historic marker — the John Lane monument in Homer Township — disappeared during construction but since has been reinstalled, according to Ferry.

“Preservation is a big battle,” she said. “Sometimes it is difficult to convince owners of the significance of preservation, because they are not sure how it works.”

The county does not interfere with interior alterations but wants to be assured that, on the outside, the historical character of the structure in question will be maintained in a way that is compatible with history and the property owner’s needs.

As a realtor, Ferry believes that a landmark status enhances the value of the property. Some owners may be eligible for a tax assessment freeze, tax credits or grant funding to enhance the property.

The commission has completed surveys of rural structures in 18 of the county’s 24 townships and has inventoried and identified all rural buildings and structures 50 years old and older.

Survey work, which started in 1988 and is now being updated as grants and funding allow, has found 343 structures to be “potentially significant.” Those surveys can be viewed online by visiting willcountylanduse.com/historic-preservation/.

It’s an indication that the commission’s work is just beginning.

Ferry urges interested property owners who appreciate and love historic buildings to contact the Will County land use department.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” she said. But for her, it has been fascinating “to see how people lived. I always appreciated how people lived back then as well as the beauty of what they made.”

She points to Schmuhl School, the one-room schoolhouse that serves as a living history museum for the New Lenox Area Historical Society, a place where today’s students can learn about school life years ago.

“My dad went to school in a one-room schoolhouse,” the 78-year-old Ferry said.

“You can’t tell where you’re going until you see where you came from,” she said. “Thank God there are young people who are interested in what happened back in the day. That is how you learn.”



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