Francis Nelson Pratt worked his way west from New York on the Erie Canal, arriving here in 1857 even before the town was founded. He took part in the construction of Lake Forest’s first bridges, its first public building, the Old Hotel, and the Academy building – where he also taught mathematics.
Francis Pratt was a man of many skills, and he put all of those to use to help the fledgling community get its start. He served as constable, as postmaster and as depot-master – at the time, there were only at most six trains a day, which is probably why he had time to do so many other things.
As if all that weren’t enough, Francis Nelson Pratt also ran a dry goods store next to his home on Western Avenue. In this, he was assisted by his wife Emily and three young children, Medora, Charles, and Fannie. Both Medora and Fannie attended Ferry Hall – Charles was a graduate of Lake Forest Academy.
Charles Pratt followed his father’s example, participating in both the business and civic affairs of Lake Forest. In 1889, he married Fannie Goodwin, whose Irish immigrant parents farmed land near Evanston.
Charles and Fannie Pratt first lived in a home on Westminster that Charles built in 1876. Charles operated a steam laundry just a few blocks to the west on Bank Lane. The horse in the photo, “Polly,” is said to have pulled the first laundry wagon in Lake Forest.
Charles Pratt’s daughter Frances was named for her grandfather, and with two brothers close in age, “did everything the boys did,” as she later recalled. She and her brothers used to cool off during the summer by riding around on the ice truck during delivery rounds. In 1898, when she was six, Frances and her brother Charlie took an even more memorable, if a bit slower, ride. A new Lake Forest depot was set to be built, and the old depot building was to be moved to Forest Avenue. When Frances and Charlie saw the depot inching along Western Avenue, harnessed to a horse and rolling on wheels, they jumped in through the swinging baggage door to hitch a very slow ride.
Charles Pratt died in 1908 at the age of 49; because he married rather late in life, his death left a relatively young family. His daughter Frances left high school to help out at the laundry by keeping books. She put her skill at needlework to use in the millinery department at Marshall Field’s, and employed her talents as pianist playing for some of Lake Forest’s first silent movies.
In 1917, Frances Pratt married Henry Strenger. The pair had been introduced by Ned Burgess, an owner of the Deerpath Inn who was also Henry’s brother-in-law. Henry was a business owner as well – he started H. T. Strenger Plumbing in 1911. Henry and Frances had been dating for 7 years when, on a train trip north to Waukegan, he finally asked her to marry him. They didn’t waste any time after that, though – by their return trip to Lake Forest that night, they were married. They moved right into Henry’s house on Wisconsin, from which he also operated the plumbing business that later moved to Western Avenue. Before H. T. Strenger was sold in 2001, it was one of the longest-running family-owned businesses in Lake Forest.
Frances Pratt Strenger, who lived to the age of 96, became something of an institution in Lake Forest. She was Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star and a pillar of First Presbyterian Church, where her children and grandchildren would teach Sunday School. “Ma Strenger,” as many in town called her, didn’t have a gray hair on her head even in her 90s. She always had company – the UPS man regularly made her home his last stop so he could drop in for a highball.
Frances and Henry Strenger had three children: Donald, Marshall, and Jeanne. Don and Marshall both attended Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri, where in the late 1930s Don had a brush with then-Senator Harry Truman, who had dropped in for an inspection. As cadet major, it was Don Strenger’s job to escort Truman and lead the review. Young Don had probably spent hours making sure his sword sparkled for this formal occasion, so imagine his mixture of honor and dismay when Senator Truman used it to cut the ceremonial cake.
Both Don and Marshall served in World War II. Marshall was a decorated B-25 bomber pilot in the Air Force. Don landed in Normandy the day after D-Day. He gave thanks for the rest of his life for the sand on those beaches – it saved his life when he was able to sink down as a tank rolled right over the top of him.
Donald Strenger met his future wife Mona in what might seem an unlikely location – she was sitting, head covered in curlers, under the dryer at a hair salon. If only more men had his apparent appreciation for that process.
The picture you see was taken after they were married, at their new house on Oakwood – it actually looks like they’re taking a much-needed break from moving in all their furniture. The other picture is of Don Strenger’s cousin, Carmen Burgess Olson. A few years after Don and Mona moved into the house, Carmen came over to pick up some stuff she had stored in their attic. The attic was a part of the house that saw little foot traffic, so Don told Carmen to be careful. Completely unaware of this exchange, Mona was engaged in the noisy process of giving Don Jr. a bath – so imagine her surprise when out of nowhere a leg – Carmen’s leg – pops down through the ceiling just over the bathtub. Carmen evidently hadn’t heeded Don’s advice to walk on the joints.
Marshall and Donald Strenger continued the tradition of involvement in civic affairs that stemmed all the way back to their great-grandfather Francis Nelson Pratt. Marshall served several terms as an alderman, was the chairman of the Construction Codes Commission for years, and was elected mayor of Lake Forest in 1987. In his 22 years in county government, Don was known as the “genteel giant” of the Lake County board, with a reputation as a fair compromiser and consensus-maker. He chaired the county Public Works Commission and served several years as president of the Forest Preserve District.
The call to public service was by no means restricted to the men in the family. Mona Strenger served as Shields Township trustee for 16 years, and her daughter Gale – a fifth-generation Lake Forester – was elected Shields Township Supervisor in 2009. The Pratt-Strenger family still continues their stewardship of the town they helped establish over 150 years ago.