News Column

Historic milestone

April 27, 2014

By Mary Wicoff, Commercial-News, Danville, Ill.

April 27--DANVILLE -- More than 50 years ago, citizens learned about local history through reading books, talking to elders and attending special events. It wasn't until the mid-1960s that memorabilia and displays were gathered under one roof for the public's education.

To celebrate that milestone -- its 50th anniversary -- the Vermilion County Museum Society will have an open house from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 3, at both buildings, 116 N. Gilbert St.

The Vermilion County Museum Society was formed in May 1964, and acquired the historic Fithian Home from Joseph Barnhart. The house, once the home of pioneer physician William Fithian, wasn't open to the public until the society bought it, although Barnhart would sometimes give tours to students.

After buying the home, the society opened it in May 1965, and the formal dedication was in May 1966.

The Museum Center, the operating hub of the society, opened in April 2002; it's located behind the Fithian Home.

"The main focus of the museum has been the preservation of local history," museum Director Sue Richter said, "and being able to share it with the community through projects, programs, school tours and education."

Dee Belton of Jamaica, a member of the anniversary steering committee, is impressed with the museum and its offerings.

"I think people have a real interest in the Lincoln history," she said, "and I think the museum has done a beautiful job in promoting it and educating people."

Sponsoring a birthday card contest on Lincoln's birthday is one way to involve the children, she said, adding that the cards are "the cutest things."

Referring to Richter, she said, "She does such a wonderful job educating kids on the history of the community." The museum often gives tours to the students.

Darrell Light of Oakwood, another committee member, said, "The museum is an important cultural and educational tool of our society. The museum brings our local history to all of the citizens of our county."

He added, "I have heard Sue say 'the museum is the county's best-kept secret.'"

In an effort to reach more people, Richter noted that Saturday's open house will be free. She hopes people will visit the museum for the first time or become re-acquainted with it.

"We wanted to get families from the county interested in the museum," she said.

A fun-filled day is planned, including puppet shows, ice cream, a barbershop quartet, a car show and historical characters. Both the Museum Center and the Fithian Home will be open for viewing. Parking is available in the museum lots, First Midwest Bank lots and the north end of Big Lots.

Here is the schedule:

--10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. -- Children may dress up in period costumes and have their pictures taken in the Museum Center.

--11 a.m. and also 1 p.m. -- Ginger Lozar Puppet Show from Champaign, in the Museum Center.

--11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. -- Ice cream served in the Museum Center.

--1:30-3:30 p.m. -- Forever Forte, a barbershop quartet affiliated with the Sweet Adelines will stroll through both buildings. Members are Glenda Carpenter, Debbie Marsh, Sandy Morgan and Evelyn Phebus-Haussy. Phebus-Haussy said the group, which has been singing about a year, likes upbeat tunes, such as Beatles songs.

--1:30-3:30 p.m. -- Historical characters in the Fithian home, including Cynthia Barkley (portrayed by Nancy Henderson), Hiram Beckwith (Alan Woodrum), Melissa Beckwith Lamon (Becky Woodrum), Joseph G. Cannon (Sonny Downing), Josephine Fithian (Jamey Coutant), Sophia Holloway (Amanda Coutant), butler (Frank Smith), housekeeper (Marilyn Blanton), and others.

--1:30-4 p.m. -- Illiana Antique Auto Club will have a few cars in the parking lot, if weather permits.

The events have an old-time flavor to them.

For example, the puppet show is something that families in the past would have watched. "People used to hire puppets for birthday parties," Richter said.

The show will feature Plum and the Dragon, a Chinese fairytale using 100-year-old totem puppets. The puppets were used in ritual plays and for the most part, still have their original costumes made from cotton and silk.

Children may bring their camera and have their photo taken with the puppets.

All of the children's activities are made possible by a grant from the John P. Cadle Foundation.

Logo winner

The museum's new logo will be used during the anniversary. The museum held a contest, open to high school and college students, for a new logo; winner was Daylin Key, a student at Danville Area Community College.

"It awed everybody," Richter said, referring to Key's artwork.

The design highlights the 50 years of the society, and presents the slogan for the celebratory year -- "50 Years of History for Everyone -- Preserving the Present for the Future."

Lincoln exhibit

In honor of the anniversary, the "Lincoln in Illinois" photographic exhibit will remain on view through May. The exhibit on the second floor of the Museum Center showcases 46 photographs of Lincoln statues throughout Illinois; the photos were taken by Ron Schramm of Chicago.

There are more than 100 statues in Illinois honoring Lincoln. Learn more at

'Danville' book

Pre-orders are being taken for the new "Danville, Images of America." Cost is $18.50 by May 16, and $23.95 after that. Photos have been selected to reflect the history of Danville during the last century. The staff has chosen photos that have recently been placed in the museum's archives, and there are few duplications from other history books.

The book contains 180 pages of photos, letterheads and historical information.

Books may be ordered online or at the museum. Shipped orders will cost an extra $5.

Laura Saylor, production editor at Arcadia Publishing, had praise for the book. In an email to the museum, she wrote, "Your book is truly wonderful. The text is a perfect balance of information and story telling, and the image collection you've pieced together provides a charming and insightful look at Danville through the years."

Named after early pioneer and fur trapper Dan Beckwith, the town was a dream realized when, on April 10, 1827, the first town lots were auctioned. Danville, which serves as the county seat, has undergone many changes in the last 70 years. As the focus of its economy has changed, lingering in everyone's memory are the days of General Motors, Chuckles, General Electric, and many more businesses and industries that provided work and enticed people to the county. Jobs provided a rich and full life upon which the heritage of Danville was built, according to information on the book's back cover.


The museum society is trying to raise about $150,000, now through May 2015.

The museum began a year-long fund-raising campaign in October for the purpose of securing donations to finish renovations on the Fithian Home, fund activities during the celebratory year, grow the Endowment Fund and bring the society into the technological age with the electronic sign to announce events.

At the Fithian Home, the electronic sign has been ordered, which will display messages on both sides. Other improvements needed include installing a steel fence, landscaping, repairing the balcony, making outside and interior repairs, doing outside electrical repairs and working on the porte-cochere.

Renovations on the Fithian Home are expected to be done in time for its rededication in May 2015.

The society is a not-for-profit corporation, and is not supported by taxes. The society maintains the Fithian Home, Lamon House, Museum Center, Mann's Chapel and the Pioneer Cemetery at the Salt Kettle Rest Area.

FYI Learn more at the website or call the museum at 442-2922 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Pre-orders for the new book "Danville, Images of America" can be taken at the museum or on the website; pre-order cost is $18.50 until May 16. Books will be ready for pickup on June 13.


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