Jane Morocco didn’t just do her homework for her book, Trailside Museum: The Legend of Virginia Moe. She visited the museum as a girl, worked there for 10 years, and spent 15 years researching the history and gathering photos of the place that had “shaped her life” with its spirit of compassion. 

Morocco grew up in the Austin neighborhood. Her mother, Monica Affleck, was a field biologist. (Her mom’s mind is still sharp at the age of 97.) 

“We were huge animal lovers,” Morocco recalled. “My mother had praying mantises in a cage [and] crawfish in the bath tub.” 

Over the years, Morocco had pet snakes, rats and guinea pigs. She even had a pet monkey named Gilbert O’Sullivan, who had been dropped off at Trailside in the 1970s. She cared for him for 10 years. 

The five Affleck kids and their neighborhood friends used to ride their bikes from Augusta & Laramie to Trailside (Thatcher and Chicago avenues). It was an all-day excursion, which included a picnic in the grove north of Chicago Avenue. At the ripe age of 12, Morocco began working at the museum as a volunteer. She admitted that her no-nonsense boss, Virginia Moe, could be “scary.” However, having been raised by strict parents and educated by stern nuns, Morocco was accustomed to exacting adults.

“It was the coolest place in the world to work,” she recalled. “I worked from 8 to 10 a.m. Every cage and terrarium was cleaned every day.” Feeding baby birds was another time-consuming task, as they needed to be fed every 20 minutes. Morocco also fed the baby squirrels. When an animal was healthy, it would be released into the wild. She worked there from 1969 to 1979.

Moe lived upstairs at the museum and was on 24/7 call for 52 years. “She never took a vacation; she was so dedicated,” said Morocco. As Paul Harvey Jr. wrote in the book’s forward, Moe and her museum “became the last hope for orphaned or injured forest creatures.”

“Ginny” Moe was born in 1908 and grew up in Gary, Indiana. The Moe house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the family also had a cottage on Miller Beach. Her father, Ingwald Moe, was a Norwegian builder, who constructed homes for the growing force of steelworkers. From an early age, his daughter was an environmentalist.  

“Miss Moe and her family were instrumental in helping save the Indiana Dunes,” Morocco said. Moe penned articles about the dunes for the Gary Post-Tribune. The burgeoning naturalist was hired by the Cook County Forest Preserve District in 1939 to be an assistant curator. Her boss was the legendary Charles “Cap” Sauers, who started the forest preserve nature centers. 

Trailside was the first nature center in the Midwest and opened in 1932. It was modeled after the Trailside Museum in Bear Mountain, New York. The Italianate building already had a long history. It was built by Abraham Hoffman to serve as a dancing school for upscale girls. Then it was converted to a home for wayward boys. The boys were housed on the third floor. Morocco was shocked when she toured their unfinished, unheated living quarters.

The building later served as the forest preserve’s first headquarters — until their handsome Tudor building at Harlem & Lake in River Forest was constructed. When it became the Trailside Museum, it was dedicated to the display of living and mounted animals, indigenous to the region. “Locals brought in sick, injured and displaced animals,” Morocco explained, “There used to be hundreds of animals.”

Moe knew what she was doing when it came for caring for these creatures. 

“She had a vet to rehabilitate the animals,” Morocco said. The purpose was to restore them to health so they could be released, but some could not be returned to the wild. Moe was assisted by nature enthusiast Isabel Wasson, who identified animals for her. Wasson was one of the first female petroleum geologists in the country. 

Morocco did some detective work to locate Wasson’s son, Edward. Although there were hundreds of people named Edward Wasson in the U.S., Morocco got lucky with her first call. “How the heck did you find me?” was Wasson’s startled response. He connected Morocco with his sister on Martha’s Vineyard, who had some historical photos Morocco needed for the book.

“It’s been a great journey,” the author said or her labor of love, “all the cool people I’ve met.” She also received valuable assistance from Jim Dooley, of the Dooley Brothers band. “His mother, Avis Dooley, painted landscapes of Thatcher Woods.” Dooley not only shared the pastels with Morocco, but he and his brothers played for free at an event in 1989 to raise funds when Trailside was in danger of closing.

The museum has had several brushes with death over the years. In the 1980s the district wanted to close it down, but they hadn’t counted on the grassroots resistance of Morocco and her cohort. 

“I was a pregnant woman with my hormones going. I just couldn’t see the best place in the world being closed.” She and her allies collected thousands of signatures on a petition to save Trailside. Radio legend Paul Harvey Sr. did broadcasts on behalf of their cause. This not only caught the attention of politicians, it led to a $500,000 addition being built for rehabilitation and education.

By that time, Moe was in poor health. The book, though, shows her smiling and holding a cat, when the good news was announced. In 1991, Moe died, content that her beloved museum had been preserved. When her successor stopped rehabilitating animals, Morocco stepped into the breach. 

She became a licensed Department of Natural Resources Rehabilitator. She takes in rabbits and possums and fields 25-30 calls a day from people trying to find homes for the wild animals they’ve found. “I give them advice and have a list of people and organizations that can help.”

She believes Trailside is needed now more than ever. “Wildlife is under such stress: cats, poison, cars, and destroyed habitats.”

Besides her hands-on help, Morocco wanted to keep the memory of Virginia Moe and Trailside alive. A few years ago, she met with Arcadia Publishing and started the process of writing her first book. Photos are critical to the Arcadia format and Morocco compiled hundreds (including some from Wednesday Journal). She found many at UIC, where the forest preserve archive is stored. Many of her eye-catching photos have never been seen before by the public.

The writing and editing process took several months before the book was finished. 

“I wanted to cry,” she said. “I’m so glad I did it.”

Morocco’s efforts to preserve Moe’s memory didn’t end with being published. She set up the Virginia Moe Scholarship and offers it to biology students at OPRF and North Lawndale Academy, where her husband, John, had volunteered.  

Readings and signings

Jane Morocco’s book, Trailside Museum, The Legend of Virginia Moe, is available at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park. She’s also signing books at The Looking Glass Bookstore in Oak Park on April 25. On May 19, there will be sales and discussion of her book at the River Forest Public Library. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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