Champaign County History Museum has grand reopening

Photo by Greg Gancarz |  Standing with family members, fellow board members, and contributors, President of the museum’s Board of Trustees T.J. Blakeman (center) prepares to cut the ribbon at the museum’s grand reopening.

Photo by Greg Gancarz |
Standing with family members, fellow board members, and contributors, President of the museum’s Board of Trustees T.J. Blakeman (center) prepares to cut the ribbon at the museum’s grand reopening.

Greg Gancarz

Staff Writer

After 18 months of extensive renovations, the Champaign County Historical Museum welcomed visitors to a grand reopening with an official ribbon cutting on the morning of April 29 and is now once again open to the public.

President of the museum’s board of trustees T.J. Blakeman says practically everything in the “historic” Cattle Bank building has been changed.

“Brand new flooring, we painted every surface, we put in all new lighting, and then of course we’ve built all new exhibits that are debuting,” Blakeman says.

The new exhibits were pieced together from the museum’s collection of over 20,000 objects, all of which have been provided by local citizens. Exhibits include “When We Went to War,” a feature of the home front in Champaign County during World War II, and “A Second Home,” a representation of life as a University of Illinois student made in commemoration of the U of I’s 150th anniversary, according to Blakeman.

The new exhibits also include “Champaign County History Uncrated” which walks patrons through the museum’s collection, to better inform them what kind of objects are housed and how various artifacts are maintained.

The renovated museum also now houses an extensive art featurette on Louise Woodruff, a local artist who painted from age four to 104.

“We have a pretty vast majority of her collection,” says Blakeman.

“[I’m] probably partial to the ‘When We Went to War’ exhibit,” says Blakeman, “only because I took the lead on curating that one and so I probably know more about that one than anything, but they all turned out kind of just as we pictured them, but even more remarkable.”

Dolora Siebrecht, treasurer for the museum board, says she’s partial to one of the exhibit’s centerpieces; an antique corn sheller.

“Mainly because it’s actually mine. I donated it,” says Siebrecht. “I come from a farm background so that’s what inspired me to get on the board. Champaign County has the most centennial farms of any other county in Illinois.”

A centennial farm is one that has been under continuous ownership for over 100 years.

Most all of the artifacts on display once belonged to Champaign locals. Louis Green, son of former Champaign County judge Fred Green, donated many pieces and photographs from his father’s military service for use in the new “When We Went to War” exhibit.

Fred Green, who fought in World War 2 campaign in the Philippines, served for 27 months of the war, according to Green.

“He saw quite a bit of action,” Green says. “I was always very proud of his World War II service…He was very modest and said he was no hero. That’s what they all say. They’re all heroes.”

Green says he was confident entrusting the memorabilia to the museum. He says while he is very excited for the World War II exhibit, he finds the all the new exhibits “fascinating.”

In addition to the unveiling of the completely remodeled building, which does still retain original components like many of the original plaster walls, patrons attending the grand reopening were also able to enjoy crafts for the children. These included creating old-fashioned marbles, playing old-fashioned games, and even interacting with a real-live walking and talking Abraham Lincoln.

The museum also retains a nearly century old popcorn machine.

“[There is] an old popcorn wagon which has been on the streets of Champaign for 80 years…we still take it out to events,” says Blakeman. “We were going to have it [at the grand opening] but the rain said otherwise.”

Despite the poor weather, local history enthusiasts still came to the reopening in droves. Dozens filtered through the old building’s many rooms to examine each new exhibit. It comes as a welcome turn around for a museum that Blakeman says was “in danger of closing back 2015.”

“The museum had found itself in debt and declining membership and a fresh start needed to be had,” he says. “The question was should the museum just close or should we do something about it. The decision was quickly made to restart it and that just kicked off 18 months’ worth of hard work.”

Everything was only made possible through citizen donations and local company contributions to construction and labor.

“We had two real major donors,” says Blakeman. “Susan Atkins and Barb Daley both stepped up with large, sizeable contributions that helped us not only finish the room renovations but also build the exhibits that you see.”

Although optimistic, Siebrecht says that the museum still needs donations of time and money.

“We kind of don’t know how it’s all going to work out yet,” she says. “We still need peoples’ time. We still need people to financially help us get going.”

The museum is currently in particular need of volunteer docents—museum guides who can show patrons around the exhibits and give basic tours of the artifacts.

Board Member Jon Sweitzer-Lamme has been working with the museum for about a year. He says volunteers need not be experts on local history.

“We’re excited to have people
coming in,” says Sweitzer-Lamme. “You don’t have to have any experience. We give all the background [information] on the items and the exhibits.”

Ideally, the museum hopes volunteers can contribute about a shift a week.

“There’s a lot of flexibility in that obviously,” says Sweitzer-Lamme. “We’d be happy to have people once or twice a month.”

Those who are interested in donating or volunteering can do so by visiting the museum’s website at champaigncountyhistory.org or calling 217-356-1010.

Those looking to simply enjoy the new renovations and exhibits in person can pay the museum a visit during its open hours: Thursday and Friday from 1–5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. These hours are subject to change, however.

The museum is located at 102 E. University Ave. in Champaign.