By Emily Harrington
I’ve always wondered what the story was behind the building at the corner of First Street and University Avenue in Champaign. It’s hard to miss the old-fashioned letters, CATTLE BANK, emblazoned on the façade of the brick building. I wrote it off as just an old and long forgotten business.
I was wrong, however, at least about the forgotten part. Just recently, the 1850s bank, turned Champaign County History (yes, it’s “history” not “historical”) Museum in the late 90s, was cleaned up, restored and brought up to modern museum standards.
“The museum was very out of date—crammed with stuff. It had stagnated for more than 15 years. It came time to close or revamp. A group of people committed to keep it going. They worked over a year to revamp it, and they worked to bring it up to date and for it to become vital again,” Champaign County History Museum volunteer Yvonne Hammer said.
The Champaign County History Museum is open to the public Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.; and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. I went with my two little kids on a Saturday morning. There is a small parking lot in the back of the building—just off First Street. I immediately looked at the Lee Jeans mural on the adjacent building. Instantly you feel a sense of nostalgia.
Crisp red, white and blue bunting and thriving flower boxes grace your path to the entrance. There is no charge, but they do accept donations. Two volunteers eagerly welcomed us while directing us to the various exhibits.
There are four distinct spaces—five including the upstairs space. The exhibits are either temporary, permanent or semi-permanent. The semi-permanent displays can change daily when technology is incorporated.
The first room includes displays on the history of the building itself. Did you know the founders named the bank after the primary business of its depositors—cattle? During this period, the main agricultural enterprise was cattle! Did you know the interior of the building was destroyed by a fire in the early 70s?
The room also features “Our County Quilt” that is a wall of the most interesting stories that make up our county’s history and people. Did you know Geena Davis’s character in A League of Their Own was based on a Champaign County native—Dottie Schroeder?
The adjacent room displays 150 years of student living at the University of Illinois. The exhibit shows a dorm room from a variety of different generations. Each generation represented features the technology and dress of that time.
You’ll find two rooms down the hall. The first one is a look at Champaign County history—uncrated. This room displays a variety of pieces that have been resurrected from storage. It also gives visitors an inside look at how and why museums collect, use and preserve things.
Old bottles, skates, hats, toys—bits and pieces of our community’s history are presented in bite-sized pieces. This was my 4-year-olds favorite room as there was so much to look at right at his level. This also caused some issues. As there was so much at his level! Along with signs that said, “One touch is too much.” After all, this isn’t necessarily an interactive museum. However, in that room there was a small desk. On top of the desk you’ll find a stack of white gloves. (The user can take the gloves home.)
Kids can sit here while pretending they are a museum curator. There are shelves next to the desk that hold various artifacts. My son used the magnifying glass to inspect them, and he used the little paint brushes to dust them off. He even scribbled his “findings” on the provided paper.
The Champaign County History Museum Board of Trustees President T.J. Blakeman said they are trying hard to make the museum interesting to all ages.
“Our education committee is currently working on a passport that kids would get when they arrive, so they can engage with all of the exhibits,” Blakeman said.
They also have crafts that can be pulled out to entertain kids. One craft includes a rag rug that they can braid. Once the braids are done, they will be put together in a large community rug, he added.
They also added a more family-friendly changing station.
“We also have our new community room that can be used for meetings—including Boy/Girl Scouts and other educational groups. We don’t have much room or money, but we are doing what we can to ensure we engage the whole community,” he said.
The last room holds a World War II exhibit. Soldier mannequins (that freaked my son out), military medals and a stand-alone exhibit on the importance of a woman’s role in the war are displayed. My 4-year-old loved the iPad set up with music from the WWII era. I liked the display on the mail system of the time. It explained how loved ones got mail back and forth. A silk robe was donated to the exhibit. It was a gift sent from a soldier to his love back home.
One thing to note, if you have an infant use a baby wearing device as strolling over little levels and steps are difficult. Luckily on the way out, the greeters so kindly entertained my kids, so I could run upstairs and see a small exhibit on an artist and professor at the U of I—Louise Woodroofe.
Did you know one of her students was the architect for the former Assembly Hall? Rumor has it, she suggested adding archways big enough to allow circus animals to walk through, and she recommended adding hooks for proper trapeze rigging to the structure. Woodroofe had an affinity for all things circus. She painted clowns, animals and scenes from the circus. She developed a style of painting termed Fauvism. This style uses bright colors, broad strokes in cheerful scenes.
While we were there, I learned a lot about the community we live in—the community I have spent my entire life in. And even though my son could not comprehend most of the content, I could explain the displays so he could understand. It must have made an impact on him in some way, however, because whenever we drive by the intersection he points out and recalls our morning at the museum.
Help further the improvement and popularity of the community landmark! Become a Champaign County History Museum donor, member, visitor or volunteer – visit the website to find out how to get involved.
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie. She left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job in communications so that she could be a 24/7 mom to two busy boys. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Emily usually finds herself engulfed in balls, blue and belly laughs.