Rare Will County census from 1845 goes to state archive

Rolled up document found in home of late Billie Limacher, promises new look into the past

An 1845 census of Will County found recently among the belongings of late local historian Billie Limacher was given to the director of the state archives this week.

The rolled-up 1845 State Census and Enumeration for Will County has been opened only to the extent of determining what it is because of the fragility of its condition.

Illinois State Archives Director David Joens found it to be more than he expected after receiving it Thursday.

“This is gorgeous,” Joens said as he looked at the census inside the vault of the Will County Historical Museum in Lockport. “This is a nice, rare artifact. Hell, I’m trembling.”

“I got chills when I opened it,” Will County Historical Society Director Sandy Vasko said. “As soon as I saw it, I knew exactly that you were going to get it.”

In addition to being 176 years old, the census document has historical value for its potential to add insight into who was living in Will County during the period when the Illinois & Michigan Canal was being built. The state during that era was recording census counts during mid-decade years such as 1845, whereas the federal government recorded its own customary census counts every 10 years as it does now, Vasko said.

There are copies of state census documents, including others from Will County, and that’s what Joens said he was expecting to see.

The artifact delivered to him Wednesday is now one of only five such original county census documents, and none of the others are complete, said Catheryne Popovitch, the state archive program administrator who accompanied Joens.

The others are from Cass, Montgomery, Putnam and Tazewll counties and consist of one or two sheets. Because of the size of the Will County document, Popovitch suspects it’s a complete census.

“It’s huge,” she said. “Genealogists are obviously going to love this.”

Opening the document safely will be a process to ensure the dried paper is not harmed in the handling.

“The first priority will be getting it flattened,” said Alex Dixon, archive conservator for the Illinois State Archives, who also made the drive with the others. “We need to get the humidity back in the paper.”

Vasko said she unrolled the document only to the extent that she recognized what it was and then contacted the Illinois State Archives.

“It’s rolled up, and it’s been rolled up forever,” Vasko said. “When you unroll it, it wants to roll back up.”

The document was found by Limacher’s daughter, Terry Dell, as she was cleaning up at her mother’s home after her April 1 death.

With it was a note from Limacher to the Will County Historical Society saying she was giving it to the society, something she apparently intended to do but hadn’t gotten around to. The note said the document had been given to her after being discovered in a wall of the old Will County Courthouse by a worker involved in the demolition. The courthouse was demolished in 1969.

“It was in the very back of a drawer that she hardly ever used,” Dell said. “I think she probably forget that it was ever there.”

Vasko said Limacher might never have known what she had.

Limacher was a prominent advocate for local history who was the leading force in the creation of the park that now bears her name – Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park. The park was created at the site of Joliet’s original main Bluff Street business district as Will County’s contribution to the nation’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976.

She was also a founding member of the Will County Historical Society when it was created in 1962, and the society’s first meetings were held in her living room, Dell said.

It’s people such as Limacher who are instrumental in the preservation of local history, Joens said.

“You have academic historians and public historians,” he said. “Sometimes the academic historians don’t appreciate the job that public historians do for local preservation.”