Patrons of the Forest Park Public Library might not even notice the building’s “hidden” treasures unless they’re browsing in the CD collection, but tucked up against a wall right around the corner from the circulation desk is a display case filled with important Native-American artifacts.
A Cook County Forest Preserve District inventory of the collection lists copper nuggets and artifacts of stone – axes, war clubs, spearheads, arrowheads and pipes. Dr. Thomas Loebel, who teaches archaeology and anthropology at St. Xavier University and has worked with the collection, said that most of these artifacts are 3-5,000 years old.
The Forest Preserve inventory also lists iron tomahawks, steel knives and silver ornaments that Indians did not have until the European man came. Some of the silver articles were stamped “Montreal,” indicating that they were obtained from French traders, possibly as early as the 1600s. These were found together in a hidden cache. Rodger Brayden, the library’s executive director, noted that these trade items indicate that the area now known as Forest Park has been a location where different cultures have come together for hundreds of years.
The artifacts in the library’s display case were dug up in the late 1800s, according to Loebel, in what is now Forest Home Cemetery. According to the Forest Preserve District, seven burial mounds are located in the cemetery, showing that the original residents of this area also used the land for laying their loved ones to rest.
He added that the Forest Home land was used by white men as a gravel pit – in addition to a farm and, later, an amusement park – and that is how the artifacts were found. Referring to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed by Congress in1990 – which mandates that human remains, funerary and sacred objects be returned to the people to whom they originally belonged – he noted that the collection in the library is “completely legal.”
Brayden emphasized that the library has taken great care to preserve what they recognize to be an archaeological treasure and a part of Forest Park’s heritage. When the library obtained the artifacts from the cemetery in 1968, the board hired a consultant whose recommendations resulted in the acquisition of the case in which the collection is now displayed.
“Since I’ve been here,” he said, “we’ve taken one more step on our own. We had the Illinois State Archaeological Survey come in to photograph and catalogue all the items. We just received the completed inventory in August of 2011. The library board recognized that these items needed great care for what they are, not only in how they were handled but also that they would be properly accounted for.”
Loebel expressed the hope that the artifacts would be donated “to an appropriate curation facility like the Illinois State Museum.” Brayden said the library board has approached several museums to do just that, but to date there have been no takers. He acknowledged that if the Forest Park Historical Society ever gets a permanent home, the collection might be moved there, then added that the library board would never relinquish ownership of the artifacts.
“The library has a history of treating those items respectfully,” he said. “As far as leaving this building is concerned, that is possible, but the library board is never going to give up ownership. They want to make sure they could reel them back in if they had any inkling that something wasn’t the way it should be.”
He expressed some frustration that the library has not done more programming with the collection. Only a few small groups have come in to view the artifacts. “We haven’t been aggressive about providing educational experiences,” he explained, “because none of us are experts. We want to have someone who can speak with authority.”
“This village has a rich, rich history,” Brayden concluded, “and these artifacts are part of that story.”