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Songs and Stories
     October 3, 2019      #92-276 SsK
 
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Kankakee County history finds a home 

La historia del condado de Kankakee encuentra un

By Jack Klasey

The Kankakee County Historical Society, founded in 1906, is one of the oldest historical societies in Illinois. For more than four decades after the society was formed, however, its collection of historical objects and records had no permanent home. For various periods between 1912 and 1948, the Historical Society's collection shuttled between temporary quarters in the city's high school building at Indiana Avenue and Station Street and the Kankakee County Courthouse.

Kankakee County history found its permanent home, at last, on Oct. 17, 1948. On that chilly fall afternoon, Illinois Gov. Dwight Green snipped a ribbon to officially open the historical and arts building in a 20-acre park on Kankakee's west side. The park, the new building and an adjoining house dating back to 1855, all were part of a memorial to Len Small, who had served as the 26th governor of Illinois. Land for the "Governor Small Memorial Park," and the Dr. A.L. Small home, where Len Small had been born and raised, had been donated to the Kankakee Valley Park District by the late governor's descendants. The Illinois Legislature had voted funds to build the historical and arts building as a state memorial.

The building dedication was a major event, stretching throughout two days. On Saturday, Oct. 16, a dedication parade wound its way through downtown Kankakee, past large crowds of spectators lining the streets. Pulled together in less than a week by a committee of local leaders, the parade consisted of bands, marching units, equestrian groups and dozens of antique vehicles ranging from a "surrey with the fringe on top" to old cars and trucks to plows, tractors, and other agricultural vehicles. Most operated under their own power, but a number of them had been placed on flat-bed trucks for greater mobility. Units in the parade were drawn from virtually every community across Kankakee County.

At 2 p.m., the parade stepped off from its assembly point in Alpiner Park, west of the then-St. Mary's Hospital and headed east on Court Street to Harrison Avenue. After turning south on Harrison, the parade units proceeded to Station Street, then turned north on Schuyler to pass through the heart of the business district. Finally, the marchers and vehicles followed Court Street back to Alpiner Park.

Ralph Francis, president of the Kankakee County Historical Society, asked owners of the antique vehicles to bring them to Governor Small Memorial Park after the parade. They would be displayed for close-up viewing by visitors to the building dedication ceremonies. A number of the owners agreed to leave their items at the park overnight, after Francis assured them that guards would be posted to protect the equipment.

Sunday's activities consisted of the formal dedication ceremonies at the historical and arts building, followed by tours of that building and the Dr. A.L. Small Home. In the course of the afternoon, hundreds of visitors examined displays prepared by the Historical Society and the Kankakee Art League (for a number of years, the two organizations shared space in the building).

The new museum displayed such artifacts as the bell of the Kankakee River excursion steamer Minnie Lillie and the wedding gown worn by Ruth Bull, third wife of pioneer settler Noel LeVasseur.

A popular exhibit was a collection of statues given to Kankakee in the late 1930s by famed sculptor George Grey Barnard, who spent his boyhood here. To accommodate the large number of visitors, the museum remained open until 10 p.m.

In the nearly 70 years since the museum opened, it has expanded to more than five times its original size. The first major expansion, in 1953, was the addition of the Centennial Room donated by the Small family to mark Kankakee County's 100th birthday. The Centennial Room serves as the museum's main entrance, and is used extensively for meetings, programs, special events and temporary displays. Additional display areas, such as the Barnard Gallery, were added over the years, as were museum storage and work areas.

Today, the museum campus at Eighth Avenue and Water Street also includes the Taylor One-Room Schoolhouse, moved there from DeSelm in 1976, and two popular outdoor spaces, the Column Garden and the Let Freedom Ring Garden. A satellite facility of the museum is the French Heritage Museum at the Stone Barn, located at Indiana Avenue and Oak Street in downtown Kankakee.

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Jack Klasey
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