Illinois Living History at Naper Settlement

“….Ok students please recite the Pledge of Allegiance….”  The 19th century schoolmarm rapped her ruler on the words carefully written out on the blackboard. As the 21st century students recited the familiar words they stumbled over the apparent change from what they knew.  An experience of living history at Naper Settlement offers many new insights to what we thought was familiar.

Let’s go learn things at Naper Settlement in Naperville, IL…….

Naperville Illinois

If you have been following along this summer you will know that I have been writing a  Living History Museums Series AND revisiting hometowns in my Our Town Series. While my hometown is technically Wheaton, a Chicago suburb in DuPage County, Naperville is only a few miles to the south and also in DuPage Co.  It presented the  dual opportunity of a Living History stop and a revisit to some old stomping grounds. When I was in high school, a millenia ago, I dated a kid from Naperville. Then when raising our young family, my brother-in-law was raising his in Naperville. All that to say, Naperville had fallen victim to familiar disinterest for me.  I thought I knew all there was to know about the area.  This summer’s series made it the perfect time to revisit and rediscover the gems of Naperville.

It turns out that Naperville was a wonderful surprise and left  me wanting to plan a weekend getaway ASAP.

Naperville History

Pre-Emption Act

As an introduction to living history at Naper Settlement I want to start with the first fact I learned on my visit. Across the front of the Naper Settlement Visitor Center is painted “Pre-Emption House”. Because it is more important to me to learn than to worry about looking stupid, I quickly asked what this meant. The Pre-emption Act of 1841 was a precursor to the  better known Homestead Act of 1862. Both laws were instrumental in carrying out the Manifest Destiny, or Western Expansion of the United States. The Pre-emption Act permitted “squatters” to purchase land they were living and working on at a low price. The purchase would be made from the federal government and like the Homestead Act required that certain improvements and steady residency be maintained.

Joseph Naper

As I traveled through DuPage County I heard this law referred to frequently.  It was obviously a prominent method for the settling of these western communities. Joseph Naper and a group of stalwart migrating Ohioans settled along the western branch of the DuPage River. Like most of the founding fathers of these small towns Joseph Naper quickly built saw and grist mills along the river. Naperville grew quickly because of the stagecoach route from Chicago to Galena that Captain Joseph Naper also helped lay out. The Pre-Emption House is a replica of the hotel built to accommodate these stagecoach travelers.

DuPage County

Naperville served as the county seat for the fledgling DuPage County in 1839. There seems to be some controversy over how the county seat was usurped and moved to Wheaton in 1868. The logical theory is that the major railroad, Galena & Chicago Union, had bypassed Naperville. Apparently there was some “wining and dining” of the railroad president by Wheaton officials involved….

Living history at Naper Settlement

My travels around the Midwest have taught me that these Living History Museums are usually located on a piece of property that was donated by a wealthy founding family. Therefore, they usually have a “mansion” for touring in addition to the other historic buildings that have been relocated to the property. At Conner Prairie it was the William Conner home, Living History Farms it was the Flynn mansion and here at Naper Settlement it was the Martin Mitchell Mansion.

Martin Mitchell Mansion


Bricks were the “bread and butter” for Mr. George Martin



I admit I was surprised that it was not the Joseph Naper home but the mansions usually represent a later time period than the original founding fathers. In this case it is the home of George Martin built in 1883 and donated by his daughter Caroline Martin Mitchell.

George Martin owned the local quarry and made his fortunes providing stone and bricks for downtown Chicago after the infamous Chicago Fire in 1871.


Historic Buildings


Settler’s Log Home

living history at Naper Settlement
This typical log home was moved here from central Illinois.





This log home would have been similar to what Joseph Naper originally built. This particular home was relocated from Jonesboro, Illinois.








Halfway House

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The Stanley family built this farmhouse in 1843. It represented the halfway point between the family’s home in Naperville and the grandparents farm in Aurora. At that time it was a two hour carriage ride between the two cities. Today it would take about 25 minutes. I love the old cellars. This one directly under the house would have been quite handy.


Daily Labors in Naper Settlement

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The living history at Naper Settlement is all about community. Naper Settlement focuses heavily on the daily life of the early settlers. The interpreters describe the jobs of the period in detail. The blacksmith was busy, but I had a nice chat with the editor of the paper and the lawyer in town.

Discover Naperville

Naper Settlement is a great family summer destination.  It sits right in downtown Naperville with great parking and accessibility. Many special events happen throughout the summer season.

Hours and Admission: Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00 am-4:00 pm; Sunday, 1:00-4:00 pm $12 for adults and $8 for 4-12 yrs old.

Downtown Naperville is full of shopping and dining when you have had enough history. Gracious Victorian homes line the neighborhoods and the beautiful Riverwalk is one of the prettiest I have ever seen. Check in with Visit Naperville or Discover DuPage to plan your trip.

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Disclosure: I was hosted by Discover DuPage on this visit to Naperville. They graciously paid from my admission to Naper Settlement.  As always all opinions and new “learned things” are mine alone.

2 thoughts on “Illinois Living History at Naper Settlement”

  1. Lance Tawzer is the Director of Innovation & Experience at Naper Settlement? He moved from being Curator of Exhibits at the Elmhurst Historical Museum last summer.

    1. Oh I didn’t know that. I should have brought him a peanut butter sandwich on my visit.

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