By Robert L. Killion
Peoria Historical Society
We’re surrounded by a myriad of relics of the past. However, what makes something worth preserving?
Something can, of course, have intrinsic value. Art can be valuable, because it enlightens us or brings pleasure. Some items were made by hand with craftsmanship and pride, and meant to last. Some items are made of valuable materials. Items may be valuable, because they are still useful. Yet, items that were considered disposable and/or have little to no modern use are still often valuable. Consider that it is the stories that make artifacts valuable.
As an illustration of the concept, the Peoria Historical Society owns a small sliver of wood about 1 inch by 4 inches and very thin. It would be a fair assumption that if most anyone found this sliver lying around it would be promptly thrown out. Instead, the item is preserved in our collection. Why?
It has no intrinsic value. It is not beautiful. It is not useful (except maybe as kindling). So why is it preserved? It is because the item has a story, a story that ties it to one of the most important people in American history. In May of 1860, the Republican state convention was being held in Decatur, Illinois. The balloting was being conducted for some state offices when Richard J. Oglesby (future Governor of Illinois) and John Hanks interrupted the proceedings by carrying into the hall fence rails that read (possibly on a hanging banner. Descriptions and the exact wording vary in different accounts.) "Abraham Lincoln, the rail candidate for the Presidency in 1860. Two rails from a lot of three thousand, made in 1830, by Thomas Hanks and Abe Lincoln, whose father was the first pioneer of Macon County." (Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 162.)
With great enthusiasm from his supporters, Lincoln became known as “the Rail Splitter” during the 1860 campaign. Lincoln was not happy with the constant reminder of his manual labor but grudgingly accepted it.
As Lincoln gained in popularity, Hanks was able to make quite the business selling “certified” rails from the old farm. Other entrepreneurs quickly began selling “Lincoln” rails as well. As it turns out, a Mr. William J. Phelps (who was the founder of Elmwood, Illinois and had served with Lincoln in the State legislature) was in attendance at the convention in 1860. He secured a piece of one of those original rails as a souvenir. It is this splinter of wood that was handed down through Mr. Phelps' family with its story (and several other of Mr. Phelps Lincoln stories) being often repeated. It is this sliver that was donated by Mr. Phelps granddaughter, Mrs. Violet Lewis, and is part of the Peoria Historical Society’s collection.
It is the STORY that takes the item from the mundane to the interesting. Preserving an item is laudable, but please be sure to preserve the stories that go with it! The items become touchstones that allow us to more fully engage with the story…they make it real. Without the story, they are just old objects. Possibly still valuable and worth collecting, particularly to illustrate some other story, but much less so than if THEIR story was known.
Too many times people find objects and, as they have no intrinsic value and they do not know the story, they throw them out. The Historical Society received a box of various items including photographs, letters, documents, and a uniform top that had been saved from the dumpster. Whoever threw them away either did not know or did not value the story they tell. Thankfully, someone recognized that the artifacts were from the Chan family that owned the first Chinese Restaurant in Peoria, Ho Toy Lo, and brought them to Deb Opyd; who then donated them to PHS. There is a great story to be told from these items…but it is going to take someone who reads Chinese as well as English to fully comprehend to be able to tell it. One short but interesting story contained in the box is that when Ho Toy Lo first opened for business the customer filled out a menu and slipped it through the door with the money, shortly a small window opened in the door and a carry out Chinese meal was handed out. You never saw anyone! Later a full service restaurant opened that was a popular Peoria dining spot.
There is another important aspect of historic preservation. Space is limited; resources are scarce, so one must choose what to save. What would have happened had the Ho Toy Lo items had been found in Portland, Oregon (as the splinter from Lincoln’s rail was)? A historical Society in Oregon would probably see some value in the Lincoln splinter (as long as the story was with it) as Lincoln has relevance to the entire country. (Fortunately, the donor realized it was more relevant in the Peoria Area.) However, the family and business documents of a family from Peoria, Illinois would probably would not be preserved in Oregon. There would be little to no ties to that community, and someone who was looking for the information would not know to look for it there. It must always be a consideration when items are offered for donation that they go where they will be utilized…where the stories have meaning.
The Peoria Historical Society challenges all of you. Document the things that are important to you, your families, and your organizations. Write down the stories, make sure they are safe and can be related to the object. Identify the people, places, and events in your images! Archival photo pens are available at local stores that allow you to safely write on the back of photographs. Archival boxes, albums, and sleeves are readily available for all sizes and shapes of material. Consider digitizing family photographs and documents and sharing them among the family. If you are going digital, attach the information in the meta-data and as part of the file-name.
Everyone has family photographs that we have inherited…and we have NO IDEA who the people are! Just because the story and identities are well known now, does not mean they will be later. It is the information, the stories, which give items historical value. Future generations can then place the item in history and connect themselves to that history. The information and items saved can be a reminder of who we are and where we come from. They can engender pride in ourselves, our families, our organizations, and our communities.
The Peoria Historical Society works hard to collect, preserve, and share the stories of Central Illinois…YOUR stories. We are the care-keepers of the information and the objects, but we hold them in the public trust. We are glad to help people preserve and share their treasures and stories; we are honored when we are chosen as their care-keepers; and we are thrilled when this material is utilized by someone to tell a story that no one else knew about.
Our research material is located at the Bradley Special Collections Center and is open to the public for research. Many artifacts are on display at our two historic houses: the John C. Flanagan house and the Pettengill-Morron house, as well as at our business office. The Peoria Historical Society preserves history but looks to the future as well. Exciting technologies will allow greatly expanded public interaction with the collection. Not only will this allow easier access to those doing research but also, by harnessing the collective knowledge of the community, it will enhance the historical value of the collections and allow all of us to better preserve and celebrate Central Illinois’s Stories.