By Jeanne Schultz Angel of Naper Settlement
America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not afford most women with individual rights…however, things were changing. Strong-willed, opinionated, and determined women determined not to let their gender limit them began to gain strength. Caroline Martin Mitchell was among them. She was the grandchild of Scotch immigrants, a business leader, and a philanthropist, who ultimately determined the placemaking for what is today the fourth largest city in Illinois.
In 1936, Caroline donated through a trust agreement 212 acres of her family property to her hometown of Naperville, Illinois to support the city’s growth and to house a museum dedicated to preserving the area’s history. Her gift is now home to Naper Settlement, Central High School, Von Oven Scout Reservation, Sportsman’s Park, Community Garden Plots, Knoch Park, Rotary Hill, Edward Hospital Campus, and more.
From its founding in 1831 to Caroline Martin Mitchell’s time a century later, Naperville evolved from a small pioneer outpost to a bustling farm and college town. As business owners and civic leaders, the Martin family played a critical role in the city’s progress, running one of the largest and most successful quarrying and manufacturing companies in the region, the Naperville Tile and Brick Works. After her father’s untimely death, Caroline, her mother, and her sisters took over in this male dominated field and were respected as business women.
Today, Naper Settlement occupies 13 lush acres of the original family property. It showcases the Martin family home, now fully restored to its Victorian splendor. Naper Settlement remains a thriving and vital cultural anchor for the city of approximately 150,000 people, hosting educational programs, concerts and other events and activities that fulfill Caroline Martin Mitchell’s vision of a permanent, public institution that celebrates Naperville’s history and its promising future. At a time when America is openly embracing gender and racial equity in business, government, and every other aspect of society, it’s important to honor women leaders from the past like Caroline Martin Mitchell whose resilience and determination helped to define a community.