Historic preservation was the impetus for the founding of the Sangamon County Historical Society more than 50 years ago. Specifically, the founders wanted to preserve the Old State Capitol.
The impetus came from members of the Springfield Historic Monuments Commission , which was established by Mayor Nelson Howarth in 1957. Of these, attorney Frank Sullivan was the one most responsible for leading the way to the establishment of the Society on June 12, 1961.
The influence of Springfield preservationists on the decision by the state to preserve and rehabilitate the Old Capitol cannot be measured. However, its importance to the founders is indicated by the Society adopting the building as its logo in 1962.
In an oral history interview done in 1979, Sullivan stated that, at his urging, the Monuments Commission in 1961 sent out about 400 invitations to attend a meeting marking the centennial of a speech given by Stephen A. Douglas at the Old Capitol in 1861. The invitation stated that there would also be a discussion about forming a county historical society. Sullivan was the chairman of the meeting and, satisfied that there was considerable interest, he appointed a committee to organize the Sangamon County Historical Society.
Sullivan served as president in 1968-69, but is not as well known today as other early presidents. Dr. Emmet Pearson is remembered, among other achievements, as the developer of Clayville. Floyd Barringer is known for his many preservation interests and his books on historic homes and other sites in Springfield, and Carrol Hall for his endowing a fund to support special projects for the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library.
The first president of the Society was John Trutter, a Springfield native who, of all the Society presidents, was one of the most prominent statewide. His accomplishments in the general field of history have been described by another president, Janice Petterchak, in her 1997 book, John Thomas Trutter: A Profile of Legacy and Leadership.
Also high on the early agenda for the Society was the preservation of the Executive Mansion. Built in the 1850s, the building had deteriorated by 1961, when Gov.Otto Kerner and his family moved in. Could the Society and many other protestors get the Governor to changes his mind and support restoration rather than demolition?
The story about the eventual saving of the Mansion is found in At Home With Illinois Governors (Dan Monroe, 2002). With the Mansion secure, the Society put on governor’s appreciation events in the second half of the 1960s. Also as a result of these preservation interests, there was a tendency to hold meetings at historic sites.
Restorations at Clayville were under way at the same time as the founding of the Society and the Society provide considerable support for its development. In late 1961, the newsletter (the name Historico had not yet been adopted) reported that, with the cooperation of Dr. and Mrs. Pearson, the Society conducted an open house for the public at the recently renovated Clayville Inn, at which “over 2,000 people thronged the historic house and grounds…”
In 1966, the Society held the first of several craft festivals there, an event that also drew several thousand people, according to Historico.
During Sullivan’s presidency, the Society took stands in support of plans for the federal government to take over management of the Lincoln Home and surrounding area. The historic ambience of the home was under threat from further commercial encroachment. Society leaders worked with U.S. Rep. Paul Findley and Mayor Nelson Howarth in this successful effort.
The Society today (in 2011 – ed.)is no longer the activist group it once was. It no longer has a Heritage House Committee or a Historic Markers Committee, but the founders’ view of the purposes of the Society went beyond preservation. Among its other goals were to gather and house historic papers and historic furnishings. Thus there was an interest in involvement with a library, which materialized with the establishment of the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library, Springfield’s municipal library; and an interest in a museum function, which did not. The first constitution indicated an interest in involvement with schools and in publications; the first interest was rarely carried out, while the latter became a priority of the Society early on.
Membership expansion and retention, of course, has always been an ongoing activity, as well as occasional fund-raisers. An example from 1964 was a sale in which Society members contributed antiques and other historic items for an auction. The sale garnered $1,500 and was used to cover the costs of meeting its obligations to clean up and maintain the Pioneer Park area, which had recently been donated to the Society. (The park, which includes the Sugar Creek Covered Bridge, now is owned and maintained by the Chatham Park District.)
Written by David Scott, then president of the Sangamon County Historical Society, for the society’s 50th anniversary; originally published in the June 2011 edition of Historico, the SCHS newsletter.
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