For the past 130 years, there has been at least one business or retail establishment in the city of Lake Forest that has been owned by one family – the O’Neill family.
From a law firm, to a tinsmith shop, to a floral and antique shop, to a longstanding hardware store, the O’Neills have made a name for themselves as successful business owners throughout six Lake Forest generations.
“The family has been in the retail business since 1868,” said David O’Neill, a fourth-generation member of the family.
Although the exact year that the O’Neill family arrived in Lake Forest is not known, it is estimated that William and Joseph H. O’Neill arrived here in the 1850s.
More than 160 years later, the O'Neill family, including five Josephs, still make their homes in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. Each makes their own unique contribution to the community in which they are so deeply rooted.
Early Family Business
After the first O’Neill brothers came to Lake Forest, they opened a tinsmith business but soon found that they had different interests.
William took over sole proprietorship of the tinsmith portion of the business, manufacturing items that included metal roofing and gutters. Joseph opened O’Neill’s Hardware with his first location between Illinois and Vine avenues.
The hardware store soon became a Lake Forest staple, operating in various locations throughout Lake Forest for nearly 130 years.
O’Neill’s hardware store was so successful that within a year of its opening, Joseph had to move it to a larger location on Western Avenue, which is now the location of the fountain in Market Square.
After a fire burned down his store and destroyed most of Western Avenue in 1883, he rebuilt it as Lake Forest’s very first brick building.
The building was much bigger than the previous location, so William O’Neill moved his tinsmith business into half of the building.
Eventually, Joseph’s six children – Annie, William, Jennie, Sadie, Joseph, and Walter – all grew up working in the hardware store, which in 1893 supplied all of the handmade tin ware for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Joseph W. O’Neill, the son of Joseph H. O’Neill, took over O’Neill’s Hardware Store after his father’s death in 1894. He relocated the business further north on Western Avenue, after construction began on Market Square in 1916.
The new location, 768 Western Ave., is where is located today. A plaque dedicated to O’Neill’s Hardware is still present on the building.
Development of Oakwood Avenue
While operating the hardware store, Joseph H. O’Neill took an interest in developing real estate in the area. He built at least four homes on Oakwood Avenue and two homes near .
“My grandfather developed Oakwood Avenue with the city for housing for working-class people,” explained David O’Neill. “Four of them I can still distinguish as being his.”
“He primarily developed the Oakwood Avenue strip,” added David’s brother Joseph O’Neill Jr., the fourth Joseph in the family, who recalls that many members of his family lived in homes in the neighborhood surrounding West Park.
Family Service to the Community
Joseph H. O’Neill’s other son, William J. O’Neill, also made a name for himself as a businessman in Lake Forest after he opened another tinsmith shop on Western Avenue, in the location where stands today.
In addition, William served as the first volunteer fire chief of Lake Forest. His sons, William and Charles, later followed in their father’s footsteps on the fire department, with William taking over the reins from his father as the second Lake Forest fire chief.
The Third Joseph Takes Over
Joseph O’Neill III, otherwise known as Joseph Sr., took over O’Neill’s Hardware in 1932, 10 years after it had been damaged by fire and restored. In 1946, a second fire severely damaged the store, so the O’Neills moved to a new location at 265 Westminster, a space that today is a parking lot for .
At one point, the new building had housed Lake Forest’s only movie theatre, and a social area.
“There were two apartments above the store, and I lived in one of them with my parents,” explained Joseph O’Neill Jr.
About this time, the family started purchasing old horse-drawn wagons; a doctor’s buggy, a Lake Forest Laundry wagon, which now sits in the Lake County Historical Society, and a buckboard that was painted orange and had O’Neill’s Hardware painted on the side.
The buckboard became a popular entry each year in the Lake Forest Day Parade.
“We got them just for fun, and for the parades,” said Joseph O’Neill Jr.
Joseph O’Neill Sr.’s younger brother, Edward O’Neill, eventually began to run O’Neill’s Hardware, but years later parted ways, with Edward starting Ace Hardware in Highland Park.
Once Joseph Sr. was on his own again, he made O’Neill’s Hardware part of the Cotter Co., a partnership of 10 independent retailers that eventually became the True Value brand.
“Our family, along with nine others, were the start of it,” explained Joseph Jr.
The O’Neill’s Come Back Together in Later Years
Joseph Jr. took over the operations of O’Neill’s Hardware from his father, and remained there until 1985.
In 1977, David O’Neill expanded the family’s name on the Lake Forest retail scene when he opened David O’Neill Inc., a flower and antique shop at 204 Wisconsin Ave.
Edward O’Neill’s youngest son, Robert O’Neill, started the law firm in Lake Forest in 1976, and settled in Lake Bluff with his wife, Brenda, and their three children – Ed, Dana, and Robert.
According to Dana O’Neill Hansen, who now also lives in Lake Bluff, the extended family in most recent years remains very close-knit, despite the parting ways of Joseph Sr. and her grandfather Edward.
“We really made an effort to fix that relationship,” she said. “All of the cousins, and second cousins, we are just such great friends.”
Hansen, who attended the in Lake Forest, has made her own contribution to the community by organizing the parish’s annual Vacation Bible School for the past four summers.
“It really changed my life,” she said.
O’Neill’s Hardware remained in the family until the late 1980s, when it was sold to an outside party that maintained the name of the store until it closed for good in 1997. The building then was demolished to make way for a parking lot.
Despite the end to O’Neill’s Hardware, many family members continue to remain in either Lake Forest or Lake Bluff, including David O’Neill, who lives in the same home that he grew up in on Woodland Avenue.
“People say ‘Why don’t you sell your house?” he said. “Our family history keeps me here.”
“It’s a safe community, with established roots,” she said.
Joseph Jr.’s son, Joseph V, makes the fifth Joseph O’Neill to grow up or live in Lake Forest or Lake Bluff.
“If my son and I go to Lake Forest Cemetery, there are five Joes all in one spot,” Joseph Jr. said. “That’s pretty neat.”