‘Empty does not mean unloved’
Is a piece of DuPage’s farming past in jeopardy?
The bucolic Oak Cottage near Naperville was home to generations of the Greene family. (Brian Hill/bhill@dailyherald.com)

More than a year ago, the Oak Cottage farmhouse near Naperville landed on a list of the state’s most endangered historic places.

The white clapboard house seems like a pleasant hideaway in the shade of its namesake trees. Oak Cottage has stood empty for decades within the Greene Valley Forest Preserve.

“But empty does not mean unloved,” lifelong Naperville resident Jane Ory Burke said.

Guardians of DuPage County history have long called on the forest preserve district to make the cottage — the center of the home was built circa 1850 — accessible to the public. Earlier this month, the district hired an architectural firm to assess the condition of the structure.

In addition, the firm will estimate the costs of four “treatment” options: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and demolition.

“Sometimes that is appropriate if there is no interest, if there is no vision for it,” said Mary Lou Wehrli, a former forest preserve commissioner. “But demolition would be a real loss because of the context … it tells a specific story.”

‘A better life’

To Wehrli, the story of the Oak Cottage is one of hope.

“The hope of the early people that came to the black dirt of Illinois, along the east branch of the DuPage River, looking for a better life,” Wehrli said.

One of the area’s first European settlers, William Briggs Greene, carved out his farm along the river. In 1835, Greene acquired 200 acres there from his uncle. Oak Cottage was built as his family home.

“It’s got all the homeyness of a cozy cottage. It’s just so rightly named under those big bur oak trees,” Wehrli said.

The Greene farm added a barn built from locally quarried limestone and hand-hewn timbers. It was considered the largest red barn in the county.

An original log cabin is gone, but the L-shaped barn and the adjacent cottage are markers of the community’s agricultural heritage at busy Hobson and Greene roads.

“When you take the two together, you really get this incredible impression of what life was like for them as early settlers in the area,” Ory Burke said.

Taking stock

Forest preserve commissioners agreed to pay Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates up to $29,500 to complete a historic structure report for the cottage. The firm will identify any code issues that would need to be addressed for future public use of the house.

“There’s really been no money put into it, and there’s been no human habitation for decades, so we just want to see if it’s even viable at this point for any type of use or if there’s major concerns,” Forest Preserve President Daniel Hebreard said.

About a decade ago, the district completed a roughly $1 million project to stabilize the barn. The district is now planning major exterior improvements, including a new driveway entrance and some amenities for more people to “enjoy the beauty of the barn,” Hebreard said.

Landmarks Illinois, however, placed Oak Cottage on its 2023 list of places threatened by deterioration, demolition, lack of maintenance, insufficient funds or inappropriate development.

“There hasn’t been any recent discussion under my leadership of it leaving the landscape,” Hebreard said. “If there’s interest, and there’s still potential uses down the road, and structurally it’s in good shape … I wouldn’t presume that would be the outcome.”

The district has made significant investments in the Dan and Ada Rice home in Wheaton and at the Mayslake Peabody Estate, Hebreard said. Another farmhouse is part of the district’s Kline Creek Farm near West Chicago, a living history museum depicting farm life in the 1890s.

“We’re really proud of our commitments throughout the county,” Hebreard said.

The district has partnered with nonprofit groups to operate and breathe new life into historic structures. Hebreard said the district welcomes a similar partnership with a third-party entity at Greene Valley. Currently, there are no plans to spend “interior dollars,” he said.

“These structures do take a lot of resources for a conservation environmental agency, and it’s a balance,” Hebreard said.

A ‘tremendous example’

Preservationists commend the district for commissioning an analysis of the farmhouse, and they understand the district has many responsibilities.

Still, they say, Oak Cottage — located in the southeast corner of DuPage — is unique.

“While the DuPage County Forest Preserve (District) has an enormous area that they have to take care of, there is nothing else from this age in that part of the county,” said Ory Burke, board secretary of Naperville Preservation, Inc.

The group nominated the farmhouse for inclusion on the Landmarks Illinois list.

“We need examples of how our lives came to be,” Ory Burke said. “And this is just a tremendous example of the earliest settling by the Europeans and picking up the industry of farming.”

Preservationists say the barn could serve as a gathering space. The cottage could give a window into what homesteading was like in the 1850s. Wehrli says the farmhouse is “basically a gem sitting there waiting for the sun to shine on it.”

Wehrli started a website devoted to the farm and the generations of the Greene family it supported.

She organized Sunday in the Country at the Greene farm with folk musicians and antique cars in the 1980s. The cottage had a little wood-burning stove and “human-scale” rooms, Wehrli said.

“It was cozy and quiet and the big oak trees — it was just beautiful.”