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Meet Bess Bower Dunn

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The Dunn Museum is named for Bess Bower Dunn (1877–1959), pictured above. Bess was a woman of firsts. She was one of the first women in motion pictures. She was the first Assistant Probate Clerk for Lake County, the first official Lake County Historian, and one of Lake County's earliest genealogists.

Bess deserves much credit for her work preserving the early history of Lake County, Illinois. She promoted the county's history through lectures and the efforts of the Lake County Historical Society (LCHS). She was a founding member of the LCHS where she personally collected some of the items in the LCHS collection––which are now in the care and ownership of the Dunn Museum.

She preserved the early stories of the county's heritage through her own documentation. An avid photographer, Bess was known for traveling throughout the county photographing historic sites and meeting with early residents to collect and record their stories. She personally acquired some of the artifacts and documents that are now part of the Dunn Museum’s priceless collections. Her determination to preserve the early history of Lake County demonstrates the potential of each individual to make a significant and lasting contribution to a better world—and inspires us to do the same.

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About 1896, Bess and her friend, Isabelle Spoor, were asked by a local inventor, Edward Amet, to help him with his new invention. When the women arrived at the inventor’s home on North Avenue in Waukegan, Amet handed each a pair of boxing gloves. Bess recalled, “We whipped those long skirts out of the way and had a fine old time.” For several historic minutes, the friends boxed while Amet filmed. The stars of Amet's film, titled "Morning Exercise," became the first women in motion pictures.

In 1899, Bess was hired as Assistant Probate Clerk for Lake County where she worked for 60 years, making her the longest-serving county employee on record. In her spare time, she assisted people with their family research. If you happened into the probate office at the first half of the 20th century, Bess would happily assist you in your research by looking into county records and offering to visit local cemeteries to verify the correct spelling of surnames and dates of birth and death. Upon her retirement, and just before her death in 1959, Bess was named the first official Lake County Historian by the County Board. 

On November 21, 1918, after several years of courtship, Bess married Roland R. Dunn, who became the advertising manager of the Globe Department Store in Waukegan. Ronald was the son of Byron A. Dunn (1842-1926), historian, author, Civil War veteran, and newspaperman. Sadly, just 10 years into their marriage, Ronald died following an appendicitis operation. Bess never remarried. 

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