Ethel’s Woods


Over the years I’ve hiked a lot of miles here in Lake County, and admired a lot of habitats and vistas.  We volunteers get to go into areas not open to the general public. Still, though, I have my favorite haunts and usually know exactly where my field sketches and reference photos are from.  Not so, in this case.  Going through my sketches I liked the scene quite a lot but had no idea where it was from.  When this painting was completed I merely titled it “Season’s End” and moved on.  I can tell you this is a classic Illinois landscape.  Your standing on a ridge which I would guess is a moraine, looking out at a stream meandering through a low wetland area.


So recently we’ve had a “new” forest preserve open.  Actually it was acquired back in 2001, but hasn’t been open to the public because it contained a man-made lake that was not in good condition and there was a question of what best to do with it.  After much discussion among the biologists it was decided to remove the dam, drain the lake, and re-meander the stream.  It has been a long process and even now isn’t entirely complete.  Well, I’ve been eager to get in to see it so the other day I grabbed my dog and off we went.  We enjoyed walking the trail around a pretty little pond, and drank in the distant view of very old oaks up on a ridge.  Then, as I came around a bend in the trail, I stopped in my tracks. There was my scene, laid out before me!  I couldn’t believe it.  Kind of an odd feeling, that, to find yourself standing in a spot you clearly stood before nearly 20 years ago.  The three trees are still there, a little bit bigger is all.  Come spring it will be fun to see what it looks like in that season.

And now, I can give my painting its proper name: “Ethel’s Woods”.

Incidentally, the story of Ethel is an inspiring one.


Ethel and Frank Untermyer, 1958.

Our story begins in 1957, with Ethel Untermyer and her 3-year-old son Frank who wanted to go exploring in the woods.

New to Lake County, Ethel and her young family had just moved from nearby Chicago and she was unfamiliar with the area. When Ethel asked a friend where the nearest forest preserve was, she was stunned to hear that Lake County had none. After all, Cook County already had 47,000 acres protected.

So the next day, she organized a countywide referendum to create the Lake County Forest Preserve District. It wasn’t an easy undertaking, but like any person who makes a difference, Ethel didn’t let early disappointments defeat her.

Just four people came to Ethel’s first meeting. But she wasn’t deterred. She started driving her Studebaker throughout the county, frequently on dirt roads. She spoke with groups and garnered support. She sought out local leaders and got a quick education in politics. Spurred to action by this inspired 33-year-old homemaker, other concerned citizens rose to the challenge and joined in the effort.

In those days, Lake County’s population hadn’t even reached 300,000, but people were already shaking their heads about the loss of open space and the fast pace of development. The first organization to endorse the referendum was the Lake County Farm Bureau. Unique to Illinois, forest preserve districts were designed to protect large natural areas. Education and recreation would be important offerings but primarily within that natural context.

By election day in November 1958, a groundswell of public support had emerged. The referendum passed with an overwhelming 60 percent of votes. Twenty days later, the Lake County Forest Preserve District was legally established in circuit court. An advisory committee of citizens was formed, with Ethel as its chair.


Ethel Untermyer, 1925–2009.

And in 1961, four years after her son Frank asked for a place to explore, the first preserve in Lake County was created: Van Patten Woods in Wadsworth.

Ethel’s Legacy

Ethel’s Woods Forest Preserve, a high-quality natural area in Antioch, is named in honor of her efforts to initiate the founding of the Lake County Forest Preserves. Ethel’s Woods is a lasting symbol of the difference one person can make for the benefit of many.

Ethel Untermyer passed away in September 2009.


    1. Isn’t that something? I was floored.
      Ethel certainly was inspiring. That was a pretty good article. Thanks to the referendum she mentions, we now have over 30,000 acres. Many are strategic, creating a green corridor north-south. The man who worked for the preserves, Tom, cultivated relationships with landowners for decades, so that when they were ready to sell, they sold to us. Without his diplomacy, the whole thing would not have been so successful.


  1. I love the gnarly branches and the lush colors of the wetland in your painting. What a great story of advocacy – only a year to get political support for the preserve, though it’s unfortunate that it took years to be accessible. I don’t think that there was that kind of public support for setting aside open space in Massachusetts in the late 50s, though it’s changed since then.


    1. Thank you, Tom. I love those gnarly branches too, on bur oaks. Yes, when ever I read her story I am amazed that people were actually agreeable, and they have since, too. Whenever a referendum goes on the ballot to buy more land, it gets passed. I am delighted to hear that things are changing in Massachusetts now.


      1. Oh, no she is much braver than me. I would have never have dared to do all that in a new community. I hate being in chrage of anything (except myself) I would have been happy to help her.


  2. This is a beautiful painting. The luminosity and clarity are superb. The colours are subtle yet vibrant and the eye is drawn sensuously through the landscape. Gorgeous.


  3. Anyone who doubts the power of an individual — or of individuals gathered together in collective effort — should read your story of Ethel Untermyer. Of course, there are similar stories around the country, but they need to be shared more widely, so that those working in one area can be inspired by others they’ve never heard of.

    As for the painting, my first thought was that I’d title it “Blue Trunks.” I could see it as part of a series of trees done in blue — although after reading Ethel’s story, “Ethel’s Woods” is equally meaningful.


  4. A lovely painting, Melissa. And lovelier still that you rediscovered the place and a wonderful story to accompany it. It is heartening to know that there are people like Ethel who care enough to make things happen for the better of the place and those who appreciate preserving land.
    I like how you’ve framed the meandering stream as it goes off in the distance and, as always, your beautiful palette.


  5. Love the different shades of gold in this painting. Ethel sounds like a natural organizer and a force to be reckoned with. I always thought that Lake County was fairly conservation-minded.


  6. Ooooh, I love this story. Solving of life’s little mysteries is always fun. And it’s such a very lovely scene. Seems you’ve done it proud. Your participation in the restoration is marvelous. How could you ever leave such a haven?


    1. Good point, Gunta. It is actually something I wrestle with but I imprinted on redwoods when a child and nothing in Illinois really comes close. Add in the extremely high taxes and the miserable climate, and the weights on the scale start to tip. On the other hand, I’ve been invited to participate in FIVE exhibits, beginning in January. How can I every hope to achieve that in a new area? It has taken me 25 years to get woven into the fabric of the area here. I’m so glad you liked the story. It IS always satisfying when the little mysteries of life fall into place 😀


  7. I have to smile at your not being able to remember exactly where this painting originated. Once in a while I puzzle at a photo, wondering where I took it, but I’m pretty good about tagging them all with the location – the joys of the digital age. I really like the feeling of this scene, the lazy S curve of the water, the grasses and especially that branch that goes every which way. Beautiful.


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