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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Frank Lloyd Wright
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a two-and-a‑half-story wood frame house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 40° and a chimney. The front door is shaded by a porch supported by fiv tapering columns; along the left side toward the rear of the house, an enclosed porch can be made out. It is the William R. Plum House in Lombard, Illinois.]

Chicago Daily News

William R. Plum House, Lombard, Built 1869.

 p206  In Lilacia Park

Each year, in late April or early May, several thousand visitors come to Lombard, attractive residential village some twenty miles west of Chicago, to witness the village's annual Lilac Festival. This colorful, fragrant, springtime event is to Illinois what the Blossom Festival is to Michigan or the Cotton Festival to Tennessee. When it is being held, and the trim, green lawns of Lombard are enchanting with purple, blue, red, and lavender lilacs, motorists from all directions may be seen converging on the village's principal show place — Lilacia Park.

On a grassy knoll in this park, under a great old silver aspen, stands an ancient house that has become an object of veneration to Lombardians and to lilac-lovers throughout Illinois and the Midwest. For this was the home of the late Colonel William R. Plum, pioneer resident of the village — soldier, lawyer, traveler, writer, horticulturist, and founder of Lilacia Park. Containing more than three hundred varieties of lilacs from all parts of the world, this park is regarded by botanists as the finest lilac garden in the Western Hemisphere.

The Plum home is of frame construction, white-painted, gable-roofed,  p207 and with a spacious veranda across its front. It now houses Lombard's public library — the Helen W. Plum Memorial Library, named in honor of Colonel Plum's wife. A lineal descendant of Roger Williams,​a Helen Williams married Colonel Plum in 1867 and two years later they moved into the house which stands today as a memorial to them. It was his wife, Colonel Plum always said, who first aroused in him an interest in lilacs.

"In 1911, when we were on a tour of Europe," Colonel Plum once told a family friend, Mrs. Annabelle Seaton, "we stopped at Nancy, in France, and there visited the famous lilac gardens of Pierre Lemoine.º That visit proved my downfall. My wife purchased two choice lilac specimens, a double white and a double purple, and we brought them back to Lombard. From that time on my enthusiasm for lilacs grew and I have never lost interest in them since."

When Colonel Plum made this statement, the results of his hobby could be seen all about the old Plum home. Here were all types of lilacs, including one of his favorites, a blue variety called the "President Lincoln." The shrubs were pleasingly arranged on the Plum estate of two and a half acres, which he called "Lilacia." Since expanded to ten acres, Lilacia — re-named Lilacia Park — now contains 1,500 lilac bushes as well as 87,000 tulip bulbs.

Before settling in Lombard, Colonel Plum had served as an expert telegrapher in the Civil War under General George H. Thomas. He afterwards went to Chicago, where he engaged in the practice of law. Then, following his marriage, he took up residence in Lombard. This was about the time that Lombard was platted as a village by John Lombard, a Chicagoan. A few years later Colonel Plum served, for several terms, as village president. He and his wife were, from the beginning, leading and highly esteemed residents of the village and remained so throughout their lives.

In addition to being a lilac-grower and horticulturist, Colonel Plum was also an accomplished writer, as was his wife. Two prized volumes in the library which now occupies the Plum home are his novel, The Sword and the Soul, a story of the Civil War, and his The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, an authoritative work.

During the many years Colonel and Mrs. Plum occupied their Lombard home, the interior was comfortably furnished in the style of the 1860's, and an atmosphere of dignity and culture always prevailed. Solid walnut furniture adorned the rooms — carved chairs, old-fashioned rockers, marble-topped tables, and numerous ornamental cabinets and chests which contained Civil War relics, as well as souvenirs and trophies  p208 from all sections of the globe. The colonel's book-lined den, with its fine billiard table of inlaid woods, was on the second floor.

Colonel Plum died in 1927 at eighty-two, his wife having died a few years earlier. In his will he bequeathed his estate and house to the village, with the stipulation that the estate be converted into a park and the house into a free library as a memorial to his wife. He also left $25,000 to further this plan. An auction of his belongings, including his antique furniture and valuable law library, brought in additional funds for the establishment of the park.

The terms of Colonel Plum's will were carried out, a park commission was set up by the village board, and the services of a world-famous Chicago landscape architect, Jens Jensen, were obtained to create Lilacia Park. Tulips were added to the lilac collection. Afterwards, the Lombard Lilac League was created to hold an annual festival. This has been held each year since and is marked by pageantry, color, the night lighting of Lilacia Park, music, and the selection of a lilac queen — all against a fresh, bright, varicolored background of lilac blooms throughout "The Lilac Villa."

During this time, the old Plum home is as much an object of interest as the park around it. Some nine thousand volumes are housed on the shelves here. On the walls hang large portraits of Colonel and Mrs. Plum. This portion of the house has been remodeled for library purposes, but the second floor remains largely intact and contains many pieces of furniture from the Plum household.

The big silver aspen in front of the house is now known as "Mother's Tree" — so‑called because it owes its existence largely to Colonel Plum's mother-in‑law. The story is told that she discovered it as a sapling when her son-in‑law was clearing out the underbrush around his house soon after moving into it. She prevailed on him to transplant the sapling.

"And Willie, like a dutiful son, set it out in front of the house," writes Mrs. Seaton, "where all through the years since it has grown and flourished like the legendary green bay tree, and to family and friends became known as 'Mother's Tree.' "

Standing near "Mother's Tree" is a sturdy Schwedler maple which the Plums brought back from the Black Forest in Germany. Here, also, is a Chinese ginkgo tree and a native Ohio buckeye. The center of the park is marked by a lily pool and a goldfish pond.

Over the graves of Colonel and Mrs. Plum, near Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, stand two handsome lilac bushes — offshoots of the two original French bushes which formed the nucleus of the famous Plum collection.

Thayer's Note:

a The founder of Rhode Island; see this biographical sketch for example.

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Page updated: 11 Dec 07