Mysteries in the Museum

They may look like ordinary things, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find within them tales that challenge, inspire, intrigue and mystify, all while personalizing history. Uncover some of the strange, sad and totally true stories of our past.

They may look like ordinary items, but the stories they share are pretty extraordinary.

Hidden inside the museums of our region are reminders from the past that can challenge and inspire, intrigue and mystify. And, they can put a personal perspective on an otherwise unclear – or perhaps painful and inconvenient – memory of our past while helping us to connect with history in a meaningful way.

Sometimes, the identities of these objects are well documented parts of a history that’s well understood. Other times, the real stories behind these items are just waiting to be discovered.

Lincoln Lantern

The Lincoln Lantern

It looks ordinary, the rusty-looking lantern with a dark red bulb. But Alison Costanzo, executive director of St. Charles History Museum, knew it was something special the day she got a call about “Abraham Lincoln’s lantern.”

One of the museum’s earliest acquisitions, the lantern never belonged to the 16th president, but it did play an important role in his election.

The year was 1860 and the nation was on the brink of Civil War. An Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln was seeking to lead the newly formed Republican Party to its first White House victory. Across the country, political parties of all stripes were donning military uniforms and taking to the streets to rally for their cause. One group in particular, the Wide Awakes, had begun that March in Connecticut and spread throughout the country, their name inspired by their nighttime street rallies, which always included bonfires, torches and lanterns.

In quiet St. Charles, where abolitionists were an outspoken force and the local congressman, John Farnsworth, had nominated Lincoln for the Republican ticket, the Wide Awakes movement hit a deep nerve.

On the evening of Aug. 7, 1860, local businessman Francis H. Bowman led a group of 60 men to establish their own chapter of the Wide Awakes, with Bowman being named Captain over his group of lieutenants, sergeants and privates. The club’s handwritten minutes, passed down from Bowman’s descendants along with his red-bulb lantern, are now housed at the St. Charles History Museum.

The minutes record drills during regular meetings, a Friday evening rally in DeKalb, and a nighttime march into Geneva (in full uniform, of course). By election time, the local Wide Awakes had amassed more than 200 members.

Venus Quilt, at Elgin History Museum

The Venus Quilt

It’s an astrological event so rare it’ll never happen again in our lifetimes, and yet it’s led to some of the most important breakthroughs in planetary science.

A handcrafted quilt at the Elgin History Museum is a living reminder of the day Elgin residents witnessed the 21st century’s first transit of Venus.

Since ancient times, astrologers have been watching Venus and its predictable alignment between the Earth and the Sun – an alignment known as a transit. It happens just twice in a 125-year period. In the mid-1600s scientists began using the transit to measure distances in space, using triangulation to predict distances that, with modern equipment, have proven incredibly precise. Subsequent transits led scientists to discover Venus’ atmosphere by comparing light refraction, a technique still used today to discover planets circling faraway stars.

Dr. Don Tuttle spent 24 years observing the stars from the U-46 planetarium in Elgin, a structure built by the Elgin Watch Co. to accurately time its watches. After years of sharing his love for the heavens with area schoolchildren, Tuttle was among more than 50 people gathered with telescopes at the planetarium on June 8, 2004, to witness Venus’ first transit since 1882.

Tuttle was an amateur quilter in his retirement, and he made this decorative quilt, now at the Elgin History Museum, to commemorate that Tuesday morning. The yellow circle represents the sun, with a red stitch indicating the path of the transit and black marks noting where it was first visible in Elgin (at 5:25 a.m.) and where it was last seen, at 7 a.m. A darker, loopy parabola represents where the transit would have been visible on Earth, according to lines of longitude and latitude, marked by horizontal and vertical-running stitches.

Venus transits always comes in pairs about eight years apart; sadly, Tuttle died before the second transit occurred in June 2012. The next one won’t occur until 2117.

No. 53 Indian Chief, St. Charles History Museum

The Disembodied Indian

There was a time when statues of Native Americans were a universal symbol for tobacco and an easy way to locate a cigar store. In New York City in the mid-1800s, immigrant William Demuth became one of the nation’s most notable peddlers of “cigar store Indians,” but his life-size models also became fixtures on pedestals and fountains in public parks and town squares.

His life-size casting known as #53 Indian Chief stood about 6 feet from foot to feathers, and it became a tribute to the past when Illinois’ first public park opened in St. Charles in 1912.

“A lot of people think there was an actual settlement of Native American peoples in St. Charles, but this was actually used as hunting grounds,” says Costanzo. “We know there was activity here because there were two Indian mounds up on Illinois Route 31 and Indian Mound Road.”

For more than 50 years, the chief stood watch over Pottawatomie Park from the bottom of a long set of stone steps. Sadly, all that remains of the chief is a broken and battered head after vandals destroyed it with a baseball bat in 1965.

Meteor-Wrong, at McHenry County Historical Society


Weighing roughly 60 pounds and measuring 19 inches long by 10.5 inches wide, this roughed-up rock looks like it could be a meteor fallen from the sky. Discovered in a Union farm field, just off Leech Road, this rock’s rough, molten-looking exterior and heavy weight are consistent with space rocks.

But after Elroy “Buck” Hilbert donated his meteorite to the McHenry County Historical Society in 1992, experts there weren’t convinced. It’s heavy and has a high deposit of iron, but it doesn’t take to magnets, as most true meteorites do. It’s now believed this isn’t a rock from the sky, but rather a chunk of hematite – an iron-rich stone that likely formed 320 to 540 million years ago when Illinois sat at the bottom of a shallow tropical sea.

“It’s sometimes called a kidney stone, and there are those who claim it absorbs negative energy and can calm during times of stress,” says Kurt Begalka, director of the McHenry County Historical Society.

Raue Ring, at Crystal Lake Historical Society

The Sweetest Present

It looks like a chocolate box, but what’s contained inside is a far sweeter prize. On display at the Crystal Lake Historical Society, inside the Colonel Palmer House in Crystal Lake, this box contains a ring that’s touched the lives of two prominent families.

Charles Dole was a wealthy Chicago businessman when he bought 1,000 acres for a summer estate on Crystal Lake in 1860. His youngest son, Sydney, was short on cash one day and decided to pawn off a fire opal and diamond stickpin. It was a long, straight pin with a decorated head – a fashionable device used to hold a necktie in place.

Sydney pawned the ring to Ben Raue, a local hardware store/jewelry store owner who kept it, unclaimed, for several years. Ben’s daughter Leone, fond of elaborate things, was smitten with the pin, and she often begged her father for it. But he refused.

One year for her birthday, Leone was disappointed to find her father had given her merely a box of candy. In her frustration, she left the box unopened for days. Finally, she caved in and opened it, only to discover her father had crafted Sydney’s pin into a beautiful ring that she would wear for the rest of her life. When Leone died, the ring passed to her sister Lucille, whose estate funded the Raue Center for the Arts. Memories of Dole’s family live on at Lakeside Legacy Arts Park, which today operates out of the Dole Mansion.

The Forgotten Artist, at Elgin History Museum

The Forgotten Artist

The painting depicts a serene mountain landscape with cream and violet in the cloudy sky, dark browns and blacks in the waterfall and woods, and bright orange strokes by a group of tipis.

For nearly 30 years, it hung in an Elgin-area office, loved but not entirely understood. Art auctioneer Terry Dunning bought it in the 1980s when a man had won the painting but decided not to take it home. Dunning took it to an acquaintance who carefully cleaned the dirty painting to reveal the encampment and a signature: AW Kenney.

AW turned out to be Albert Kenney, a landscape painter who was born in Vermont and grew up in Elgin. He served in the Civil War, held odd jobs around town and worked in a studio at 47 E. Chicago St.

“He traveled around Illinois and other states, and he would give painting lessons to groups of people,” says Beth Nawara, curator at the Elgin History Museum. “He would set up big exhibits of work and sell them in different towns. He was very popular in places like Quincy and central Illinois.”

Kenney died in Vermont in 1889, and three years later was re-interred next to his parents in Elgin’s Bluff City Cemetery. His sister, Kate, worked at the Elgin Watch factory.

Earlier this year, the Elgin History Museum received a call from someone in Vermont, claiming to live in a house built by Kenney. But nobody at the Elgin History Museum was familiar with him, or his work. So, they took it to the public. Dunning and his wife, Pat, had quietly been researching Kenney over the years, and they quickly shared not only their research but their beloved painting, created around 1885 and now on display at the museum.

Ancient Vacuum, at McHenry County Historical Society

The Ancient Vacuum

It could pass as a locomotive, except for its diminutive size. It’s only 11 inches wide, 26 inches long and 30 inches tall. In the days before Hoover and Dyson, this was how people cleaned carpets. And they did it without any electricity.

Built around 1900 by the Leasure Vacuum Co., of Bradford, Pa., this vacuum has a cylindrical canister and a small, narrow head that looks much like a modern vacuum intake. It was donated to the McHenry County Historical Society in 1974 by R.G. Richardson of Richmond.

“According to ‘The Vacuum Cleaner: A History,’ by Carroll Gantz, in the days before electricity, friction drives used the rear wheels of a sweeper for power,” says Begalka. “It was generated when the operator pushed it. They back powered a fan. The front wheels were connected to a brush roller.”

Watch No. 113, at Elgin History Museum

Watch No. 113

It was an Elgin watch. That much was certain. But the family knew little more about the timepiece that had sat in a Texas drawer for many years. A call to the Elgin History Museum changed everything.

John C. Adams was head of the watch department at a Chicago store when he struck up a conversation with two men from Waltham, Mass., at that time the home of America’s only watch manufacturer.

Realizing an economic opportunity, Adams reached out to businessman and former Chicago mayor Benjamin W. Raymond, who, like Adams, had connections in Elgin. Together, they recruited investors, as well as Waltham’s top watchmakers, and launched the Elgin National Watch Co. in 1864. The firm became an overnight success. Building on his experience in Elgin, Adams went on to launch watch companies in Springfield, Peoria and Rockford, among other Midwestern locations.

“He went to these other cities where there were investors who were interested, he’d pitch this product, and they’d hire him to go back to Elgin or some other location and recruit people to work at this new company,” says Bill Briska, a local historian. “Everybody looted everybody’s employees in those days.”

This watch, now on display at the Elgin History Museum, was the 13th watch produced in Elgin, where Adams’ brainchild made more than 50 million watches before its demise in 1964.

Municipal Light, at St. Charles History Museum

The Municipal Light

This oblong, obelisk-shaped light perhaps looks more like a relic of Oz than St. Charles. But look a little closer, and you’ll see there’s more than meets the eye.

It was the late 1930s and Col. Baker, along with his niece, Dellora Norris, and her husband Lester – heirs to the Texaco fortune – were finalizing plans to gift St. Charles a brand-new City Hall.

Architect R. Harold Zook had made a name for himself in Chicago’s illustrious architectural scene, most notably on suburban homes reflecting Tudor, Georgian and Cotswold structures, like his home in Hinsdale, now open as a public museum. Zook had a curious signature he’d impart on his favorite structures: spider web designs.

“He thought they were the best architects,” says Costanzo.

Zook’s new municipal center fully embraced the sleek lines and white-marble finish common to Art Moderne architecture, but the geographic markings of a spider’s web are easily recognizable in the building’s clock tower – a tower whose shape is echoed in this original lantern that once stood just outside on the Main Street Bridge.

When the bridge was replaced in the late 1990s, this original fixture was salvaged and brought to the St. Charles History Museum, which was still operating inside its original home at the municipal center, where Baker had dedicated a room specifically for the city’s historical society. Around 2000, the museum was relocated to – appropriately enough – a former Texaco station just up the street.

Today, you’ll find replicas of this light illuminating the Main Street bridge, and you’ll still see the clock tower glow at night, just as this fixture does inside the museum.