Montage Revives Former Sklut's Store

If you lived in Morris, Illinois anytime during the last 90 years, you’ve heard of Sklut’s.  Chances are it was the only place you went to buy a suit or clothing for a special occasion.  Last year, Sklut's ended its nearly 90 year run and closed its doors for the final time. Patrons of the store flocked to its final sale at 307 Liberty Street  last November to get one last glimpse of the iconic locale.



Sklut's was founded by Abe Sklut, a Russian immigrant who came to the U.S. in the early 1900’s. His father, Albert, came to Morris first and went into the junk dealer business with his brother-in-law.  A few years later, Albert’s wife Freida, Abe and the rest of the family joined him. The Sklut family first appears in the 1910 Census living with Anna’s sister and her family, the Menchers.

Abe was interested in the retail clothing business from the very beginning.  His first job was at Goldstein’s shoe store located at 216 Liberty Street.  Later he went on to work for Gold’s,  a clothing store also in town. Abe opened Sklut's after graduating high school at 414 Liberty Street. On September 8th, 1928 he officially opened its doors.  An ad in the newspaper called Sklut's “A new store for women and boys’ clothing in the community of opportunity!”. They advertised high quality Oxfords for $3.95 and men’s dress shirt for $1.95 and $1.65.  In 1944 Abe moved the store to its more well known location. He sold the business to his brother Harry in 1966.



While Abe died in 1970, Harry and his nephew Ben continued to run the store after his death. It’s last owner Jim Riebe, purchased it in 1985 and officially closed its door in Noveber of 2016.

Sometime this August, 307 Liberty Street won’t be vacant anymore.  Montage Wine Bar and Spirits currently at 304 Liberty Street across the street  has purchased the store and is currently renovating it to make way for a new and improved location that offers wine, craft cocktails, live music and more room for events.

I had the chance to sit down with the owner, Michelle Xydakis, to get the latest on the new space.  Michelle began working at Montage in 2009 on a part time basis. In 2013, her boss Ginger Hollenbock offered her a partnership in the business and she accepted.  By 2015, Michelle bought Ginger out and has been the sole owner ever since. Montage’s current location has a great vibe that Michelle hopes to continue across the street.  


When Sklut’s had their “Quitting Sale” in 2016, she was contacted by Pam Sklut Keller and asked if she’d be interested in purchasing the space.  Michelle was estatic to accept this great opportunity to  expand Montage to a bigger space that offers more to its customers and the Morris community.  She is dedicated to preserving the history and some of the original features in the Sklut’s space, while updating its interior to reflect the vibe she’s looking for. She’s been continually impressed by the condition of the building through the renovation process and quality of the materials used so long ago.  


I had the chance to take a peak inside and get a glimpse of some of the remnants from the Sklut store in years past.

Renbovations underway for the new Montage Wine Bar and Spirits

Renbovations underway for the new Montage Wine Bar and Spirits

The upstairs area of the old Sklut's store

The upstairs area of the old Sklut's store


Check out the Montage facebook page for updates on when the new location will be open.  Montage is celebrating its final night on Wednesday July 26th before they take some time off to transition to the new space.

Are you a business owner interested in your company's history or the history of your building? Contact us today for details on research projects and how to be featured on our blog.

Photo Mysteries

You may have photographs that  contain the faces of people you know are your ancestors, but have no clue who they are. It's not typical for an old photograph to be labeled and even then there may only be a first name or minimal information.

A few weeks ago, I talked about finding secret treasure in your attics (or basement, or grandma's house!). There were hundreds of different family artifacts contained within the box I found including photographs, post cards, greeting cards and letters. I couldn’t wait to figure out who everyone was!

In my personal genealogy, the Ferguson family has been a consistent brick wall for me the past 10 years.  A distant cousin has also been working on the origins of the family in Scotland with no luck for close to 30 years. The patriarch, William Ferguson who was born in Scotland, married his wife Mary Steele in Illinois in 1857.  The family had 7 children including my great grand father (the baby) Thomas Ferguson. Unfortunately, we have no idea where William came from in Scotland, his parents names or any details about him at all prior to his marriage in 1857.

One of the children of William Ferguson and Mary Steel was Mary Jane Ferguson Espley. We don't know too much about her except that she was born in 1868, the fifth child of William and Mary.

William Ferguson and family.  Mary Jane is the youngest in her mother's lap.

William Ferguson and family.  Mary Jane is the youngest in her mother's lap.


She later married Thomas Espley in 1891. They had one child Mary Ellen Espley born in 1894. Sadly, shortly after this Mary Jane died of measles. Sometime later, Thomas and his daughter Mary Ellen went to England to visit his parents. Tragically while visiting, Mary Ellen died in England at her grandmother's home in Salford, Lanchashire at the age of 3.

One of the photos in the hundreds of unidentified photos I have has always stuck out to me. Its not typical to see an old photo of a man and a young chid. It seemed possible that the picture could be Thomas Espley and his daughter Mary Ellen, but there were hundreds of photos in the box that covered at least 8 or 9 different families, plus photos of friends and neighbors. Over the past few months, my mind kept drifting back to the picture with the overwhelming feeling that this had to be Thomas and Mary Ellen. I have never seen a picture of either of them before and I hadn't done any research into when the photo was possibly taken based on the clothing or hairstyles, but something still nagged at me about that photo. I reminded myself to check my books for the style of clothing to give me a clue as to when this picture could have been taken.


The next day, I went to the Grundy County Historical Museum. If you haven’t visited the Museum and have ties to the area, it is a great way to connect with Grundy County history. The museum has a number of old albums dating all the way back to the 1850's through recent times. I decided to begin searching through them to work on a project of  indexing all the photographers in Morris and when they were in operation to help others figure out how to date and identify their photographs. I came to one book of the Grand Lodge of Illinois (Masons) book that held photos of its members from the 1800's and early 1900's. As I looked through I noticed someone familiar on the second page.


I quickly turned over the back of the photo.


"T.J. Espley". I pulled up the scan of my photo and they were nearly identical! It was obvious that the previous photo was Thomas J. Espley and his young daughter during the short time after his wife Mary died and she was still alive. With this information I was able to date this photograph to either 1895 or 1896.

Thomas, Mary Jane and Mary Ellen's story seems to have been revealed in such remarkable ways that I can't help but feel like their story was reaching out to be told. Mary Jane's grave in Evergreen cemetery simply says Mary Jane daughter of William and Mary Ferguson. I never knew she was married until I started looking into the marriage index. From there I discovered that she was married to Thomas Espley and for several years that was the extent of what I knew about her life. Later, while looking for probate information for her father William Ferguson, I stumbled upon the probate file of Mary Steel Ferguson. William had failed to properly disperse his wife's assets to the children and a court date was set to determine who were the rightful descendants. In the probate file, the original copy of Mary Ellen Espley's death certificate in England was found. The court record explained that Mary Jane had died shortly after her mother's death and her daughter a few years after that and therefore were no descendants down that line to distribute money to.

It was a long road to finding the identity to that picture, but the journey was well worth it! Send us a message here if you need help identifying your mystery photographs  There are dozens of clues we can utilize to tell a story from the picture alone. 


Bonus Content: Yorkville Then and Now

I had the chance to chat with Thomas about what inspired him to so diligently preserve Yorkville's history. My last blog highlighted the great work Thomas is doing to keep Yorkville's history alive.

How did you get into local history and genealogy?

I got into genealogy through my own family because it's something my grandparents always talked about. I loved hearing about all the people in my family and all the wonderful stories and photos. For Yorkville, I live in the home of the Marshall family who started the Kendall County Record, so it was just a given to be interested in my houses history! Another person who lived in town and well known by everyone, Dr. Frank Loomis, who was the town veterinarian! So many people came up to me saying "oh you live in Doc Loomis' old Home!" What a cool feeling. Maybe one day people will say that about myself living there!

What does the future hold for the Yorkville Then and Now project?

I am hoping to put together a small coffee table book in the next year of all the Then and Now photos I have taken. I am taking the rest of this year to collect photos and search through people's attics, basements and write down as many names and stories I can that I can include with the book. It's something very special to me to do it right and include as many people as I can so people in town, can relate to it personally and have fun showing it off to their families and friends.

What's life been like since your project became public?

The response has been AMAZING! I have received hundreds of old photos of Yorkville. So many people have been open and welcoming me into their homes and sharing their priceless family photos. What's very interesting about this project, is that I'm collecting photos of town and the people who grew up here that you may recognize, that people have never seen. It's families personal life's that I have had the privilege to put out there in such a way that so much thought and detail has to be put into it for it to be done right. So much positive feedback and thank you's for preserving the towns history has been given from those families and it means the world to me. Some of the people I have collected photos from are people I have know for 10-15 years and I treat it as special as I would my own family photos. I am looking forward to whatever else may come my way and some great photos.

Then and Now: The Past Meets Present In Yorkville Illinois

A few months ago I caught a segment on WGN about a man from Yorkville, Illinois who had an passion for local history in his hometown of Yorkville, Illinois.  Thomas Milschewski takes existing historical photographs, anywhere from 20 to over a hundred years old, holds them up to the real life locations that still stand (or if they've been demolished where they once existed) and snaps a photo.  


Almost my entire family is originally from Morris, just south of Yorkville on Route 47, so it was nice to see someone so passionate about their local history in small town rural Illinois. I messaged him on Facebook to let him know I thought his project was unique and congratulate him on his press coverage and success of his photographs.  We got to talking a little bit about our research interests.  I happened to be doing a research project for a client and distant relative who has roots in Yorkville.  When I mentioned the family name and the store they owned, Thomas was ecstatic!  We discovered that his current house was directly across the street from the family's home.  Not only did he have old pictures of the house, but several of the store downtown as well. I shared the information with my relatives and they were able to provide a great photo of the house that Thomas currently didn't have. He created a new photographic by walking outside his house, holding it up to his neighbor's house and snapping a picture transforming my great uncle and his brothers to the front porch of their house once again.


Thomas currently lives in a house on Heustis Street.  It happened to be built by the original founder of the Kendall County Record newspaper. He has collected photographs of his own house, neighborhood and downtown from his own collection, current and past residents of Yorkville and with the help of the historical society.  He began the Yorkville Now and Then project in March of this year.

I took a trip down to the Law Office in downtown Yorkville where Thomas had an art show last week displaying his fabulous photographs printed on canvas. It was great to meet my new genealogy friend in person and see his work up close in print. He's currently taking pre-orders for his work and they are a must have for anyone interested in Yorkville History!


To see more of Thomas' work you can go to his facebook page here  and check out his fantastic photos from all over Yorkville. If you'd like to read more about how Thomas got interested in local history and what's next for his project, you can read about it here.  

There's Secret Treasure in Your Attic

When I was 14 years old I remember finding an ancient looking photo album in my grandmother's basement. She knew it had belonged to my great great aunt Lizzie Kay (her husband's aunt), but she didn't have a clue who any of the people in the photographs were. She suspected it was the Kay family who we weren't directly related to.

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As we leafed through the 25 + photos of the album I was mesmerized by the faces who at some point were important enough to put into an album over 100 years ago and now were unrecognizable to anyone alive today. We scoured the back for labels and tried to find family resemblance in each photo.  As we got to the back of the album, we pulled out the photo from the insert.  Tucked behind the photograph, perfectly preserved, was a handwritten letter from 1904. 


From that point on I became mildly obsessed with old photographs.  I began a quest of collecting every old family photograph I could get my hands on. I hit the jackpot a few years ago when I randomly got in contact with someone through who had a box in her possession that also belonged to Aunt Lizzie Kay.  I met the woman at her house and it was filled with hundreds of photographs, postcards, greeting cards and letters.  Not only was this a collection of her belongings, but also her sister's that died before she did.  As I continued to look through the box, I started noticing that there were things in there about my grandparents.  I was confused at first because this box belonged to a different generation, how did my grandparents things get in there? I asked the woman who had rescued the box where she had gotten it.  She said a friend of hers was helping someone else clean out their attic while they were moving.  He noticed an old box in the corner and looked through it and saw the Kay family name (who this woman was related to) and thought she'd want to see it.   I put the pieces together and realized that Lizzie Kay had left her house to my grandfather when she died in 1944. My grandparents lived there and decided to move out in 1950, just 3 months after my father was born.  They had left this box in the attic for over 60 years.  Somehow it remained preserved, it wasn't thrown away and it made its way back to me.

During the next few weeks I'll be posting about  what I discovered in the box and how I used it to help with my genealogy research.  In the meantime, check your attics, basements, and other nooks and crannies.  You never know what treasures you may discover!

Storytelling through Film

Modern Ancestry is thrilled to announce collaboration with filmmaker and certified Storyteller, Scott Potter.  Scott is the founder and lead storyteller at Hidden Catalyst.  His visually stunning pieces have focused on finding the story embedded within.

Your ancestors life had a purpose.  It led to your life today and who you are as a person. It was filled with adversity, perseverance, adventure, and secrets. These stories were meant to be discovered and shared. Modern Ancestry offers a unique experience to uncover this story. We don't rehash facts or convert research reports to video.  We explore your family's past and what it means to you.  Scott will dig deep to unearth your family's past and create a personally crafted film documenting your family's legacy.

The process doesn't simply involve sitting down family members in front of a camera and asking a list of questions, much like other services offer.  Scott has a carefully crafted process (developed by Emmy Award winning Muse Storytelling) to unearth who your ancestors were and what that means to you as a person. At the heart of every good story is a connection to why someone does or wants what they do; a connection to what makes up who we are. Modern Ancestry and Hidden Catalyst work together to bring that story to light and develop a customized project.  We take on limited projects each year to fully devote our efforts to the stories we've committed to.  For more information and a proposal for your film project, contact us by clicking on the "Discover your Origins" button.


An Important Milestone



I can officially add "attend a genealogy conference" to my milestone list.  Its something I've wanted to do for years, but just never felt I could justify the cost.  Fortunately, this years Federation of Genealogical Societies Annual Conference was held in Springfield Illinois the past few days.  Even though, I would only be able to attend Saturday, I could definitely justify the 3 hour drive to soak up the genealogy goodness, networking and learning opportunities.

I woke up at 5:00 am to be able to attend a seminar at 9:30 am.  Getting up at 5am on a Saturday when you work full time, have a side business and a one year old is pretty much blasphemy, but it was all in the name of pursuing family history! 

I rolled into Springfield just in time to see the exhibit hall open. I was overwhelmed by all the big time names (Ancestry, FamilySearch, FamilyTree DNA), the new independent companies I had never heard of (AncestorStuff, Family Chart Masters, Family Tree Tours) and the different networking organizations (CAGGNI, Fox Valley Genealogical Society, Association of Personal Historians) before my eyes all in one space. This was everything I loved in a relatively small area, surrounded by people who loved genealogy, history and the search just as much as I did. Their eyes didn't glaze over as I explained my brick wall Ferguson research or the presentation ideas I was developing for future speaking engagements. 

I didn't have much time to spend in the exhibit hall before I had to attend my first seminar. It was an advanced photo detecting workshop run by photo identification guru Maureen Taylor.  I own two of Maureen's books, read her weekly column in Family Tree Magazine and seen her appear on several genealogy programs, so to work with her in a small group of 30 people to discuss her most difficult photo identification cases was magical! I'm hoping to grow that area of expertise.  It seems like I've had collections of photographs fall into my lap over the years, many of them identified.  I can't 'wait to begin more carefully looking at the ones that were a real mystery. 

After the seminar, I headed back up to start connecting with people in the exhibit hall. I made some great connections and talked about my focus of turning genealogy research into creative, engaging products for people to share with family and friends. I talked to larger companies like Ancestry and Find My Past who shared new initiatives and programs they were starting off. The two hours flew by and before I knew it I needed to head down to the afternoon session I was planning on attending. The topic was Clues in the Midwest and there were some great resources shared that I never thought.  Many of them free and available online (the best kind). After the session ended, many people were heading back to their respective regions.  All in all, I only had the opportunity to spend about 7 hours there (plus 6 hours in the car) immersed in this small niche, but it was such an invaluable event to network, learn and reflect on where I want to go with this passion I have. 

FGS 2017 will be in Pittsburg and while I don't think I"ll be able to attend that conference, I am keeping my eye on other conferences and conventions coming up in the next year.  Can't wait to start unveiling some of my new ideas and projects.  You'll be able to learn about those soon by going to the Projects section of my website.  Stay tuned!