Out of the past ... preserved for the future
LaSalle County Historical Society looks backward and moves forward
Maybe history wasn't your favorite subject in school. Perhaps you find yourself dozing during a program aired on the well-known History Channel. And even if you own a few antiques, maybe you're one of those people who like all those new-fangled objects, rather than those steeped in tradition and longevity.
Well if that aforementioned paragraph describes you, don't despair. There are many who ride the river of today, rather than jumping aboard the bandwagon of yesterday.
But if you feel a little guilty about not knowing the history of the place you call home, you might want to visit the LaSalle County Historical Society's (LCHS) Museum in Utica, where the people there are excited about the past ... and even more excited about helping you learn about the history of LaSalle County.
LCHS President David Reed and past President Stan Dziedzic love LaSalle County, and even more than that, they love the county's history. The pair have countless stories to tell, and they do so in a way that not only makes you want to learn more, but they cause you to become very interested in the people, places and things that helped shape your life today.
"The main goal and purpose of the LaSalle County Historical Society is to preserve and promote the unique and rich history of LaSalle County," Reed said. "We do that in many ways. However, the most obvious and visible way we obtain that goal is through the everyday operation and maintenance of the LaSalle County Historical Society Museum in Utica."
Reed said the main reason for the organization of the LCHS was to protect the interest of Starved Rock from becoming too commercialized. The group, which was founded in the early 1900s, raised enough money to buy Starved Rock and then donated it to the state of Illinois.
The LCHS two-story museum, built by Utica founder James Clark, was constructed of St. Peter sandstone in 1848 and originally used as a granary/warehouse on the banks of the Illinois and Michigan Canal.
When the Clark warehouse fell into disrepair in the mid-1960s, Edmund Thorton, a past president of the LCHS who had connections in Springfield, talked a demolition crew into holding off their destruction of the historic building. The LCHS ended up purchasing the old granary for $1. Reed and Dziedzic credit Thorton, who still attends LCHS meetings today, for saving the building.
"It is now maybe the last warehouse built in the period in the Heritage Corridor," Reed said.
Thorton's insight and connections helped to create a museum building that drips of history. And that's not counting the thousands of artifacts that call the museum home.
"Every artifact is treated like a Rembrandt," Dziedzic said, as the staff don soft, white gloves before touching any of the historical pieces in the museum.
To attempt to list all the artifacts of LaSalle County that are contained in the museum would be too great a task, but Reed and Dziedzic listed a few of the highlights:
• The carriage that Abraham Lincoln rode in to attend the first Lincoln/Douglas debate.
• The silver tea service Lincoln was served from the Ottawa mayor.
* A very rare Southwest American Indian basket collection.
• A complete collection of every clock (also the boxes) that was manufactured at Westclox.
• A Jerry Angel arrowhead collection, completely documented, which serves as a great educational display for Indian scholars to come and study his notes.
"It's just amazing the amount of history we have here," said Dziedzic's wife, Laura, who has also served on the LCHS Board.
The LCHS Board is comprised of five officers and 15 directors. Reed said the organization operates on an annual budget of $110,000, and Dziedzic said that money comes from three separate entities — the LCHS' largest fundraiser, the annual Burgoo Festival in October; donations; and memberships.
About half of the society's money comes from their Burgoo Festival, which attracted about 35,000 people this year. What's in that famous burgoo? Laura Dziedzic promises it's made only with beef and vegetables — basically a stew similar to what was made in the pioneer days. This year, 300 gallons of burgoo were served.
While the museum has clearly out-grown the walls of the old canal building on Utica's main thoroughfare, the LCHS just received a generous bequest from the Eleanor McClevay estate of more than $1 million. The LCHS, again with the help of Thorton, won a bid on the old Northern Partner Grain Elevator Co-op on the other side of the canal, which will enable the LCHS to expand. Reed said the LCHS' administrative office, library and other entities will move to that location, plus the indoor venue will help fundraisers during inclement weather.
The LCHS Museum is located at 101 E. Canal St. The telephone number is 815-667-4861. You can also check out their website at www.lasallecountymuseum.org or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
Regular museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.