Saving Champaign County's History: Champaign County History Museum Celebrates its 50th Anniversary
By Logan Mullins, CCHM Intern
The Champaign County History Museum has long been a focal point for the preservation of Champaign County history. Over the past five decades, the museum has worked towards its mission of preserving the past for the future. However, in those intervening years the landscape of Champaign constantly changed, and the museum was faced with existential challenges. Still, the museum has been able to face every challenge head-on and maintain a high standard of excellence. The story of the Champaign County History Museum shows that it is prepared for whatever the next half-century has in store for it.
The Champaign County History Society first proposed the creation of a museum celebrating Champaign history back in 1967 during the planning for Illinois’ 1968 Sesquicentennial anniversary. The idea was originally set aside as the group’s focus was on planning the celebration. But the concept was never abandoned, and by 1971 a committee had been formed to look into the possibility of forming a museum. This group was made up of members of the community from Champaign and Urbana that were interested in volunteering their time to preserve the county’s history. Most of the early meetings were held at The Urbana Free Library and consisted of conversations regarding whether Champaign County needed a museum and what would need to be done to make it happen. Thanks to the hard work of these volunteers, the Champaign County Historical Museum was incorporated as a non-profit corporation on May 18th, 1972.
Then began the search for a suitable location to house the museum, which took most of the next 2 years. Many of the original volunteers involved with establishing the museum chose to continue to volunteer their time by serving on the museum’s newly formed board of trustees. This board continued to meet at the Urbana Free Library, with the main order of business centered around finding a suitable location to house the museum and raising funds from the community to make the purchase possible. The Champaign County Historical Museum owes its creation to the dedication of its volunteers. In 1974, after a great amount of searching and fundraising in the community, the board reached an agreement to purchase the property on University Avenue in Champaign known as the Wilbur Mansion.
The original board of trustees was composed of representatives from numerous community organizations such as the Antique Study Group, the Junior League of Urbana-Champaign, and the Genealogical Society. The potential for collaboration was so expected that the founding charter of the museum stated that only one representative from each community group could serve on the board, which resulted in the museum staying completely independent from any one group. In addition to the aforementioned community organizations, the other representative groups were the Champaign County Historical Society, the Urbana Half-Century Club, and the Sesquicentennial Committee. The original board of trustees also had 5 members-at-large, for a total composition of 11 Trustees.
On June 1, 1974, shortly after the Wilbur Mansion was purchased, Patricia Miller was appointed as the first director of the museum. Pat Miller had been involved with the formation of the museum since 1973. Under her leadership, the Champaign County Historical Museum researched and presented numerous historical exhibits, held public educational programs, and created community events that would cement the museum's place in the landscape of Champaign County.
The early years of the Champaign County Historical Museum were extremely successful. The original Capital Campaign ran from 1972 to 1975 resulting in a sizable endowment fund. With this fund, along with fees collected from memberships and the contribution of state and federal grants, the museum had a healthy operating budget. By the time the doors of the Wilbur Mansion were officially opened to the public on December 1st, 1974, multiple employees were on the payroll and a strong list of volunteers was ready to help out when needed. As the museum began to settle into the fabric of Champaign County, volunteers would prove to be its greatest resource.
After the museum officially opened, the main goal of the board of trustees was to raise membership and awareness of the museum and Champaign history. The way to get the word out, in their view, was to go where the people were. The Champaign County Historical Museum began to reach out to the Champaign County community by taking part in public events; one of the first outreach efforts was to enter a float that ended up winning first prize for the best buggy hitch in the 1974 Champaign Fourth of July parade. This was made possible by volunteers, who donated and contributed every part of the float, including the equipment, the buggy, and the ponies that drove it.
It’s not always enough to go where the people are, sometimes it’s important to bring the people to you. With its strong roster of volunteers, the museum began to host its own events to draw in the public. In 1975, the Champaign County Historical Museum hosted the first Prairie Festival as a way to celebrate Champaign County history in a fun way for the whole family. There were craft demonstrations, live music, historic reenactments, and lots of food. All of the various activities and booths were run by dedicated volunteers, including the historic Popcorn Wagon. This first festival was a great success and would become a popular annual celebration for years to come.
The museum quickly gained traction in the community as membership and visitation started to climb. As the museum began to establish itself, numerous internal projects were started to popularize the museum. These projects ranged from stocking the gift shop, publishing historic articles and books, and hosting craft nights for historic trades such as quilting.
Perhaps the most rewarding project was the creation of the Piety Hill Gang, a group of middle school girls that would volunteer their time to support the museum by clerking the gift shop, helping with hospitality and receptions, and providing housekeeping services for Wilbur Mansion. The program helped to instill responsibility and fun while teaching the girls to be strong citizens. Counted among their ranks was a young Deborah Frank (Feinen) who was elected Mayor of Champaign in 2015.
The museum also took an active role in several community-based preservation projects. One of the first efforts was to save the Urbana Greek Revival Cottage This rare local example of pre-civil war architecture was in a state of repair and in danger. The second was the Cattle Bank building, Champaign County's oldest known commercial structure. Starting in 1975, the museum worked to educate the community about the plight of these buildings, raised funds for renovation, and provided volunteers to service the buildings. Due in part to the efforts of the museum and its volunteers, both buildings were preserved and added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Cattle Bank was added to the register in 1975, and the Greek Revival Cottage was moved Leal Park and was added in 1977.
At the same time, a third project was undertaken in 1977 when Jeanne Rochford, chairwoman of the Historic Preservation Committee proposed that the museum purchase Henry Sansone's 1920s-era Cretor Popcorn Wagon. The wagon had gone missing in the community and after a plea to the community on Larry Stewart's WDWS program "A Penny for Your Thoughts", was located in a barn near St. Joseph. The owner agreed to sell the wagon for $8,350, of which the City of Champaign paid $5,000. The goal was to restore the wagon for use as a revenue stream at the museum while also bringing back an iconic Champaign fixture.
In just a few short years, the Champaign County Historical Museum was able to establish itself in the landscape of Champaign County. The museum made a name for itself very quickly by reaching out to the community and showing them why their history mattered. That effort was rewarded as the community responded by visiting the museum and volunteering their time and money towards the museum’s goals and projects. In 1978 that effort was also recognized when the Congress of Illinois Historical Societies and Museums presented Director Pat Miller with an Award of Merit for her work with the Piety Hill Gang. A 2nd Award of Merit was issued from the same organization in 1979 for outstanding achievement in the area of museum techniques, and in that same year, the museum was honored a 3rd time by the Assistant State Historian of Illinois who presented a Certificate of Commendation from the American Association for State and Local History.
These awards and commendations would prove to be the first of many as the Champaign County Historical Museum continued the tradition of excellence into the 1980s. This is also when the museum began to experience serious challenges. Pat Miller’s resignation in 1980 for personal reasons led to a revolving door of directors as her shoes proved difficult to fill. This lack of leadership was a problem that was compounded as the bicentennial celebration faded from memory and funding for the arts was cut out of the federal budget. Interest, membership, and volunteers for the museum started to decline for the first time as there was less money available to fund the museum’s various projects.
Still, the museum continued to host popular events held in the community that was also effective fundraisers.
The Prairie Festival continued to be well regarded, and in 1980 the museum added a Taste of C-U booth to this event to mirror the trendy Taste of Chicago event. That booth would be popular enough to spin off and become a new annual Taste of C-U starting in 1981 on the Neil Street Pedestrian Mall. These events acted as strong fundraisers for the museum, but additional action was needed if the museum was to survive. In 1985, a monthly murder mystery night at the Wilbur Mansion was started, where guests would pay to actively participate in a real-life whodunnit.
The museum also began to allow private events at the mansion as a way to raise funds. Through these efforts and popular events, the museum was able to maintain its standards even as the endowment fund began to decline.
Despite the heroic endeavors by the museum’s volunteers to stay afloat, the financial troubles slowly became too overwhelming to continue operation. By 1990, the writing was on the wall as fundraising efforts dwindled further and further every year and the endowment fund began to run out. In 1996 the decision was made to sell the mansion and move the museum to a new cost-effective location. It was too expensive to maintain the historic mansion and provide quality museum programming simultaneously. In 1997, the Board of Trustees agreed to sell the Wilbur Mansion to a private buyer and the doors of the Champaign County Historical Museum at the Wilbur Mansion officially closed to the public. The contents of the home that had been managed by the museum over the last quarter-century were removed and put into storage. The future of the museum looked bleak, and this would be the lowest point in the museum’s storied history. But, there was a silver lining: the profit from the sale of Wilbur Mansion that now resided in the museum’s coffers.
In April 1999, the board of trustees used funds from the sale of Wilbur Mansion to purchase the museum’s new home: The Cattle Bank. Constructed in 1858, the Cattle Bank is the oldest commercial building in Champaign County. It was the satellite location for the Grand Prairie Bank until 1861; the bank went bust and had to shut down, closing the Cattle Bank with it. Since then, the building has gone through multiple owners and served as a general store for much of its history. Ironically, the building was still standing because one of the first projects that the Champaign County Historical Museum enacted after it was founded was to work towards the preservation of this building. The building resides in a prominent spot on University Avenue, with an iconic ‘Cattle Bank’ sign illustrating the heritage of the building. If the museum had not worked to preserve this piece of Champaign County history in 1974, there is no telling where the museum would have ended up after it vacated the Wilbur Mansion in 1997. The museum’s mission to preserve the relics of Champaign County’s past would ultimately be what saved it.
While it was recognized that the Cattle Bank would be a significantly smaller home than the Wilber Manion, the Board saw possibilities to grow at the new location. The museum saw its place on First Street as important to improving the overall neighborhood and furthering the redevelopment activity that was occurring around it.
In February 2002, the Champaign County Historical Museum officially opened its doors for the first time at the Cattle Bank.
The 5-year hiatus ended and brought forth meaningful changes in how the museum operated. First, the administration of the museum was restructured so that only one person was employed full-time, the director. Second, the scope of the museum was curtailed due to the restricted space at the Cattle Bank and the limited operating budget. Whereas the museum had previously researched, developed, and presented a new exhibit every few months, the new practice was to have mostly permanent exhibits. This made it less likely for the museum to over-extend itself financially, but in practice, this led to a few rooms being designated for permanent exhibits while the majority of the downstairs area was modeled to look like a turn of the century grocery store.
Additionally, a research library was opened to the public on the building’s second floor. All of these actions made the museum much more enticing for its patrons. Under the leadership of director Paul Idleman, the museum was ready to re-introduce itself to Champaign County.
Over the next decade, the Champaign County Historical Museum returned to regular educational programming. In addition to its exhibits, the museum hosted public history talks and held community walking tours to visit Champaign’s oldest standing buildings. The museum also launched a new "Champaign County History Quarterly" where it published in-depth local history stories. The museum also published several new books, many written by long-term board member, museum, president, and former Champaign Mayor Dannel McCollum, about Champaign history that could be purchased in the gift shop.
Additionally, the museum continued hosting and participating in local events such as the Taste of C-U, now run by the Champaign Park District, and in 2009 the museum sponsored a LincolnFest at the Virginia Theatre to honor Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.
In 2006, Museum Director Paul Idleman passed away Paul was well-loved by the museum volunteers and made significant strides in growing and digitizing the collection and repositioning the museum in the community. His death marked another difficult time for the museum, as once again the organization struggled to recruit and retain volunteers and members and revenues began to decline once again. Although the museum operates as a non-profit and does not have any outstanding debts or outrageous annual expenses, nearly 100% of its annual income is derived from memberships and special event fundraising, and that income isn’t always enough.
Over the next nine years, the museum continued to operate on volunteer support. Exhibits continued to change, albeit, a bit slower. One major accomplishment was the assistance the museum provided to the City of Champaign in celebration of its 150th Anniversary in 2010. During this celebration year, the museum worked with the City's historical committee to create a month-long exhibition at Illinois Terminal showcasing many items from the museum collection that had never been publically exhibited. The show was a terrific success as hundreds of residents, visitors, and school children visited.
During this time without paid staff, museum board members filled the roles. In particular long-time president Hal Balbach and board members and later co-President Sue Wood, manned the museum every weekend for nearly a decade. Their dedication to keeping doors open was admirable and necessary.
By 2015, the museum was once again struggling to stay afloat. History repeated itself when the museum closed its doors to the public so the board could restructure the organization. First, an entirely new board of trustees was elected to oversee the necessary changes. Then, all of the previous exhibits in the Cattle Bank were removed including the model grocery store. The first floor was overhauled and restructured, the museum entrance was moved to the corner of First Street and University Avenue, and a community room was allocated upstairs in the space that once held a permanent exhibit. The downstairs was now able to hold three exhibits, and the upstairs hallway also became a space for exhibits as needed. Additionally, the museum was renamed the Champaign County History Museum, and a major membership and fundraising drive commenced right away so that their new momentum could be maintained. These changes would lead the museum to become what it is today.
In April 2017, the doors of the Cattle Bank opened once more, and the Champaign County History Museum debuted to the public. The new board of trustees took up the task of ensuring the museum would prosper while also building a new legacy of professionalism in collections management. The museum holds a monthly speaker series called History Talks, which gives experts on various historical topics a space to educate and speak with an audience. The tradition of giving historical tours around Champaign is still alive and well, and the popcorn wagon still shows up at various county events throughout the year. The museum also cultivates a robust roster of volunteers and interns from the University of Illinois to facilitate various projects on Champaign County history.
The efforts of the museum have not gone unnoticed, as the organization was honored in 2022 by the Illinois Association of Museums with an Award for Excellence in Exhibits for its exhibit on the William McKinley’s Road of Good Service, a second Award for Excellence in Conservation for the transformation of its research library, and a third Award for Excellence in Community Partnership for its partnership with the Champaign Park District to Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Virginia Theatre. In addition to these new tokens of esteem, the Illinois Association of Museums also named the Champaign County History Museum the Small Institution of the Year in the State of Illinois.
Since 1972, the Champaign County History Museum has worked tirelessly towards its mission: to preserve the past for the future. Through the museum’s periods of turmoil, a desire to educate was maintained. Even when the museum had to close its doors throughout the years, it was always with a sense of hope for the future. Time and again the museum has solidified its place in Champaign County as a beacon of historic preservation. It’s fitting that on its 50th anniversary year the museum has been named the Small Institution of the Year in Illinois. The Champaign County History Museum is just beginning to hit its stride, firmly rooted in wisdom from past experiences, and with increased ambition for the next 50 years.