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Making History

unspecified-1McHenry County has been carefully chronicled thanks to 50 years of volunteerism by the McHenry County Historical Society & Museum.

The McHenry County Historical Society (MCHS) & Museum in Union hits the half-century mark this summer, and it would like folks from Big Foot to Barrington Hills and beyond to come out and join the celebration.

A lot has been accomplished in the past 50 years: houses plaqued, barns restored, antiques appraised, exhibits launched and collections archived. Thanks to the society’s proclivity for period dress, the very spirits of McHenry County’s settlers and city founders at times have virtually come back to life. An old Marengo school bus, The James, has even been gutted and restored to take the show on the road.

Without a dime of taxpayer money, the MCHS has done all this and more, thanks to the spirit and creativity of its core constituency: volunteers. “I cannot say enough about how important volunteers are to MCHS in every way,” said Grace Moline, who served 20 years as exhibits curator at the museum before retiring in 2011. “They are the cornerstone of our organization. We can’t thank them enough for all that they do.”

Indeed, with so many hands on deck, new ideas and initiatives have never been in short supply at MCHS. “We remain mindful of our past, but we also are continually looking for ways to improve,” Society Administrator Kurt Begalka said. “Our goal is build upon those elements that are successful, as well as strive toward even better programs and services for our members and the public.”

A Little Risqué — For a Good Cause 

Potlucks and pledge drives might more readily come to mind when one thinks of fundraising. The MCHS, after 50 years as a nonprofit, has no doubt done its share of both. But it was a 2004 calendar — showing off a bit more than Victorian wedding gowns and traditional holiday fare — that really put the group on the map.

“The idea for the calendar was [former administrator] Nancy Fike’s,” recalled Moline, referring to the “nude” calendar that showed some skin, in a fun, provocative fashion. It featured the historical society staff and  the group’s longtime director, who was inspired by the 2003 movie “Calendar Girls” to make it happen.

“The whole thing was a riot and really took off, not to mention being a big moneymaker for us,” Moline said. “Surprisingly enough, Nancy didn’t have any trouble getting people to participate in the calendar.

“We got tremendous publicity from it from all the major news channels, 2, 5, 7 and 9, but it was WGN that sent us over the top because they reach people all over the U.S. Of course, there are always a few people who felt that we were being immoral and we could count those numbers on one hand. Also, interestingly enough, most of those people chose to remain anonymous in their criticisms.”

For years, people asked if there would be a follow-up. But this was a one-time act, and the society has since returned to more traditional means of fundraising.

Money Well Spent

Such funds are put to good use, as evidenced by activity at the museum grounds.

Every year, for example, grade schoolers not only tour the site, but participate in living history, spending a school day in the faithfully restored one-room schoolhouse, following 19th century rules, routines and a teacher straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel.

Donations over the years have accounted for a fantastic array of items on display. A visitor to the museum might encounter an 1880s vacuum cleaner, a vintage Schwinn bicycle, or a 1950s living room decked out in full Christmas memorabilia, right down to the original Lionel train set and heat-activated ornaments. The amazing Don  Peasley  Photo  Collection,  which chronicles life in McHenry County from 1947 through the second half of the 20th century, has also been entrusted to the museum.

Society volunteers have scanned about 3,000 negatives through the 1970s, so far. Exhibit/Collection Coordinator Kira Halvey said once digitized this photographic archive is accessible to the public.

“It spans 60 years of McHenry County history,” Halvey said. “A lot of the photographs depict changes in the county and lot of significant events.”

The society’s most prized possession, however, might be the voices it has preserved from our past. “Nancy Fike and I decided to do a series of exhibits on war that the people of McHenry County participated in,” Moline described one of the society’s more memorable projects. “With Vietnam, World War II and the Korean War, I was able to interview veterans and their families [who were] on the home front. We also established a Wall of Honor for each exhibit and worked with VFWs. To be able to validate and honor these veteran’s experiences were the most touching experiences for me.

The mission of the MCHS is not merely to preserve history, but to present it in such a way as to positively impact the visitor. “Getting a glimpse into another person’s life,” Moline explained, “will open up worlds.”

History on the Move

In 2002, the MCHS launched its mobile museum, The James.

“We wanted to reach out to the community and James Tonyan helped to make it a reality with his donation to get us started,” Moline said. “Hence the name, ‘The James.’

“We were able to purchase a retired Marengo school bus. Volunteers gutted the school bus and built the designed interior that I created.

“By going out to the community with our bus, we reached thousands of people that otherwise would never know about MCHS and hopefully bring them out to the museum.

Recent traveling exhibits include “Feelin’ Groovy — the Sixties” about ’60s pop culture, and “Gangsters & Gin Joints” about Prohibition-era McHenry County. And, in a bit of historical coincidence, a volunteer driver for The James is a former Marengo school bus driver who once drove this very vehicle on the job.

As The James rolls down McHenry County’s roadways, so, too, does the MCHS roll full throttle into its next 50 years.

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