Western Illinois Museum nurtures our history and culture.
In June 1973, a group of students who resided in Old Grote, a Western Illinois University student residence hall, requested that the Student Government Association form a committee to create a museum on campus. Jo Wright was named chair of that committee. She and her friends feared that the mementos and scrapbooks accumulated over the years by the students living in Grote would be destroyed when the university closed that residence hall.
For the next 11 months, a committee of students (Jo Wright, Linda Anderson, and Susan Baker), staff (Gordana Rezab, Judy Hermann, Titus Karlowitz, Bob Reed, and Ann Stagg), and community representatives (Gene Litchfield and Bob Ausbury) met with Leon Clements, director of Auxiliary Services at WIU. The task was to find support, a location, and artifacts for a campus museum.
On May 4, 1974, the Western Student Museum opened in an auditorium on the third floor of Sherman Hall. The exhibits included a history of Haeger Pottery with photographs and samples of original ceramic art items, old telephones donated by General Telephone, a display from the Fulton County Historical Society (created by Marjorie Bordner), and a Hall of Fame of area business leaders. And the Grote Hall archives!
The students and advisers began the work of collecting, preserving, exhibiting, and interpreting artifacts from West Central Illinois, also known as the historic Military Tract.
One of the attractions of opening day was the unveiling of the official portrait of Western Illinois University President John Bernhard, who was about to leave WIU after six years.
For the next three years, the museum grew in the number of artifacts and supporters. The first Western Museum Newsletter was published in Fall 1977 and mailed to almost 1,000 people. Each newsletter described exhibits, new acquisitions, spotlighted student leaders, staff, and volunteers. Some longer historical articles often interpreted the cover photograph.
The museum hosted two open houses each year with ice cream socials, cow chip throwing contests, or programs about fur trapping, frontier life, crafts, family life, etc.
The Department of History at WIU offered a course The Administration of Small History Museums which prepared students for a professional career. The students met in the museum and Gil Belles was the instructor.
In 1978, local dentist C.D. Eschelman retired and donated his entire office to the museum. The next year, Dr. Albert Havens, family doctor, gave his office to the museum.
Each year the museum accumulated more and more artifacts that represented life in the region. The collection grew to over 6,000 historic artifacts from the region including farm implements, barbed wire, the Mercer Eph’s General Store, music and musical instruments, animal traps and furs, a wide variety of things made of clay, radios, quilts, clothing, hand-carved models, and vinyl records.
The museum suffered from a lack of interest in the 1990s for a variety of reasons. Funding for a curator was no longer available. The university reduced its monetary contributions. The location on the third floor of a university building and limited hours restricted access. The exhibit and storage space was bulging at the seams with no room for expansion. And there were hints that the university wanted that space back.
In 2000, Corey Stark and Katherine Walker of the Macomb Area Convention and Visitors Bureau established a Relocation Committee charged with finding a community based home for the museum. Mayor Tom Carper, WIU Vice-President Larry Mortier, Don and Gordana Rezab, Juanita Bryant, Leon Clements, and Gil Belles persuaded the City of Macomb to purchase the building at 201 South Lafayette ideally located just off Macomb’s historic Courthouse Square.
This building had been through many configurations and businesses. It required a new $50,000 roof to protect a remodeling that cost more than $250,000. Several fundraising campaigns paid for the roof and interior furnishings. A bank loan covered the large obligation.
It took almost two years (2001-2002) to pack up and move the artifacts from Sherman Hall to Lafayette Street. The museum opened in June 2002 displaying a large collection of Civil War artifacts. The official dedication was in October.
Since 2002, Western Illinois Museum curates three or four exhibitions that reflect the unique history of the region.
Staff and Board
Marla Vizdal, President
Karen Mencel, Vice President
Lois Lueck, Secretary
Tim Roberts, Treasurer
Sue Scott, Director