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TAKE A TRIP BACK IN TIME

The Sangamon County Historical Society has a long and rich history. Hop aboard our Looking Back section to learn more about how the Society was formed and how it has arrived at its present state. For a list of past presidents, click here.

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THE SOCIETY'S FORMATIVE YEARS: PRESERVING HISTORY

Frank R. Sullivan
Glen H. Farrington
George Cashman
J. Glenn McFarland
Dorothy F. Drach

     Their signatures are a matter of record, frozen in time on the not-for-profit incorporation papers filled with the Illinois Secretary of State more than 50 years ago. But like much of history, names and memories fade, leaving those who follow only yellowed documents and a limited number of sources to tell the real story.

     That’s not the case with the Sangamon County Historical Society whose own history is very much alive, thanks to modern technology and a class assignment!

      The man behind creation of the Sangamon County Historical Society was the late Frank R. Sullivan (left), an attorney and Springfield native who died in 1988. But in 1979, Sullivan was interviewed at length about his life and accomplishments for an oral history project at Sangamon State (now the University of Illinois at Springfield). The recorded interviews, conducted over more than seven hours, were later transcribed and are now part of the University Library’s Oral History collection. In it, Sullivan talks about the people, places, and events that led up to the Society’s creation and its early days.

    In 1957, then Springfield mayor Nelson Howarth created a seven-member Historical Monuments Commission headed by Jim Bolinger, manager of the Leland Hotel. Sullivan was among the appointees who also included George Cashman, curator of the Lincoln Tomb, Dorothy Drach, wife of State Senator George Drach, and Owen Darling, the city commissioner in charge of streets.

   “At our first meeting, I remember we were talking and someone said “Well what is a historic monument? What is our job? Somebody said “Well, maybe one of our jobs is to put up signs directing visitors to Lincoln signs.” I think that’s the reason Nelson Howarth appointed Owen Darling, because as the commissioner of streets, he had a work crew that’d be manpower. It would be relatively easy for him to put up any signs that they wanted to put up.”

The "Ah Ha" Moment

   Members of the new commission tossed around several ideas at its first meeting in March 1957, putting aside any action until its meeting a few weeks later. “Before the next meeting, I got thinking along, and I thought historic monument,” recalled Sullivan. “And then it dawned on me. I bet the Old Capitol is a historic monument.”

    Sullivan’s father Timothy J. Sullivan had served in the Illinois State Legislature for several terms. In 1945, Henry Converse, who was one of the leading attorneys in Springfield, asked him to spearhead an effort in the House of Representatives to get the state to buy and restore the Old State Capitol building which at that point housed the Sangamon County courthouse. Converse long believed the building was an important part of the nation’s heritage and needed to be preserved, Sullivan said. 

   "The building, the seat of state government from1839 to 1876, was where Lincoln served his last term in the House of Representatives and where, in 1858, he delivered his famous House Divided speech to the Republican State Convention.    But before a new court house could be built, and before Sangamon County could sell the old courthouse, Sangamon County voters had to approve the action. “Well, my father got busy on it and he got it through the House of Representatives.” But much to his dismay, Sangamon County voters turned down the idea of building a new courthouse. “There are a lot of reasons given…some of the voters thought that there were certain real estate interests very interested in selling the real estate to the county for the new courthouse. Between one thing and another, they beat it.”

   The defeat was a blow to Converse, who had been pushing for the acquisition and restoration of the building for decades, Sullivan noted. “In 1923 or perhaps 1926, he had delivered a speech at a meeting of the state historical society. The title of his speech was The House of the House Divided.  In his remarks, which were later printed in the society’s publication, Converse emphasized the historical importance of the building. “He said it was the most important historic building in America west of the Allegheny Mountains, and, I think he said the third most important historic building in America. And he started on that, or at least made the speech about 1923 and had probably been interested in it for many years before that. Then the thing was defeated in 1945 and then Henry Converse died a few years after that. But I heard my father talk about it, that he had handled the legislation because of Henry Converse, who he had regarded as a very high type person.”

Keeping the Idea Alive

By the time the Monuments Commission had its next meeting, Sullivan had drawn up a resolution to designate the building a historic site and work toward its restoration. His resolution, he recalled, drew heavily on Converse’s comments. “I recited, I might say, paragraph after paragraph of quotes to that effect, from Henry Converse. It was really his idea as far as I know. Maybe other people had discussed it, but that was back so far before that it had been forgotten. So the Historical Monument Commission passed a resolution naming that our project.”

   That same year, the Commission held then first of what would turn out to be several public meetings that would take place over the next years to promote restoration of the Old Capitol. “We kept doing what we could to encourage any other organizations to get into it.” The proposal, Sullivan recalled, “was a very, very good idea in the first place. Since then, I’ve always thought that if there was a good idea, an idea that had merit, the people would keep the idea alive,” and with enough publicity, he said, “eventually it would take off.”

   By 1960, Sullivan learned that the issue had been brought to the attention of Otto Kerner (right), who was running (and was later elected) governor. “By that time, there was more and more interest in it,” Sullivan noted, while expressing his disappointment that at first, Kerner didn’t share that view. Speaking at a campaign meeting at the St. Nicholas Hotel, Kerner was asked his view on restoring the Old Capitol. Kerner, recalls Sullivan, said “you cannot expect the State of Illinois to go around the state buying up old courthouses.” That didn’t stop Sullivan, who by this time had been elected chair of the Commission, succeeding Bollinger who had moved away. 

   Sullivan served as chair for four years, and recalls, with some dismay that only five of the seven members would show up for meetings. And because they were always absent and despite promises to do so, two of the commission members never signed the old Capitol restoration resolution.  “I had that resolution up in the office for 15 or 18 years, from 1957 on up to I guess 1978.” Sullivan eventually donated it to the City of Springfield's Lincoln Library’s Sangamon Valley Room.

 Creating a County Historical Society

   The years of inaction on the Commission’s project weighed heavy on Sullivan, so much so that it galvanized him to move on an idea that he had been thinking about for some time: forming a county-wide historical society in which a “group of like-minded people in the same organization would have the effect that individuals would not have individually.”

     About three years before it was formally organized, Sullivan reserved the name “Sangamon County Historical Society” with the Secretary of State. “I think in those days, you could reserve a name for five dollars. The reservation would be good for a year. I think a year went by, back about 1959. I hadn’t used the name, so I renewed it and did it for another year.

     At his urging, in 1961, the Monuments Commission sent out about 400 invitations to attend a meeting marking the centennial of the Stephen A. Douglas speech in Springfield. Sullivan arranged for Dr. Glenn Seymour, a history professor from Eastern Illinois and an expert on Douglas, to speak. “At the end of the invitation was a notice that those who were interested would discuss the formation of a Sangamon County Historical Society. I was the chairman of the meeting, and at the end of the speaking program, I called for a discussion of having a historical society formed.”

    Things didn’t go entirely as planned. “One gentleman got up and said it was a very poor time to organize a historical society, that there were many, many responsibilities connected with it and that people should not walk blindly into such a situation, and that the matter either be dropped or put over for further consideration.” Sullivan was not dissuaded. “I said that was one point of view, but on the other hand, there were probably people that thought there should be a historical society and that if they were will to go ahead, I couldn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t do it. That seemed to be the consensus of the opinion, so I appointed a committee of about 18 people. I just picked them out at random from the ones that were there and named Judge Benjamin DeBoice chairman of the committee to organize a Sangamon County Historical Society.

      One of the first things DeBoice did was to appoint George Cashman to be secretary of the committee. [Cashman, who died in 1983, was curator and custodian of Lincoln’s tomb]. “They had most of the preliminary meetings at George Cashman’s home out in Oak Ridge Cemetery,” Sullivan recalled. “So the historical society was organized as a result of that meeting. About seven years later I was elected president. It’s the custom of the historical society that at their annual meeting, the speaker is the one that was president 10 years before. In 1978, at the annual meeting, I was the speaker and the subject of my talk was the formation of the Sangamon County Historical Society."

     To Sullivan’s delight, in 1962 Governor Kerner signed the legislation to acquire the Old Capitol building. “I think the Sangamon County Historical Society had quite a little influence in getting the legislature to pass the legislation and getting Kerner to sign it.” The effort, he added, was, as hoped, one that drew support from a wide community effort, including civic groups, prominent business leaders, Civil War organizations, the Springfield Junior League, the Sangamon County Bar Association that reprinted and distributed Converse’s “House of the House Divided” speech, and the Chamber of Commerce. “I think Governor Kerner’s opinion changed when he found out that there was a very strong movement here in Springfield that was for it. He found out a lot of the leading people in Springfield were for it, that the Historical Society and many others were for it. Some place he changed his mind.”

A Second Look

     The influence of Springfield preservationists on the decision by the state to preserve and rehabilitate the Old State Capitol cannot be measured, noted historian and past Society president David Scott in updating the organization's history in anticipation of its 50th anniversary celebration  in 2010. 

     Its first logo, (left) a drawing of the Old State Capitol, was adopted in 1962, underscoring its importance to the founders, he noted. (The designed was changed several years later to the present logo, a rendering of the Sugar Creek covered bridge at Pioneer Park in Chatham, where in 1816, Robert Pulliam built the first cabin in Sangamon County).

    "Sullivan served as president in 1968-69 but is not as well known today as other early Sangamon County Historical presidents." Scott observed. Dr. Emmet Pearson (near right)is remembered, among other achievements, as the developer of the Clayville Historic Site in Pleasant Plains. Floyd Barringer (right) is remembered for his many preservation interests and his books on historic homes and other sites in Springfield, Scott pointed out. 

   "The first president of the Society was John Trutter (left), a Springfield native and the most prominent statewide of any Society president. His many accomplishments in the general field of history is described by another Society President, Janice Petterchek in her 1997 book John Thomas Trutter: A Profile of Legacy and Leadership."   

Executive Mansion Battle

   "High on the early agenda for the Society was the preservation of the Executive Mansion. Built in the 1850s, the building had deteriorated 1961 when Governor Kerner and his family moved in.
Notes Mike Kienzler, editor of the Society's on-line encyclopedia of Sangamon County history, SangamonLink.org, postponed maintenance, repair crises and general dilapidation were recurring problems at the Illinois Executive Mansion.  

   Completed in 1855, it "probably faced its biggest crisis in 1963," wrote Kienzler,"when the Illinois House of Representatives voted to tear down the home, sell the downtown block it sits on, and construct a new mansion somewhere in “a residential neighborhood” of Springfield.

   "One of the major reasons for the demolition push was a devastating fire that took place at the New York state governor’s mansion in 1961. The blaze drove Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his wife out of the home in their nightclothes and led Illinoisans to re-examine their Executive Mansion."

   And, he noted, "Chicago newspapers were especially scornful of the home, then occupied by Governor Otto Kerner and his family. Chicago Sun-Times columnist, Irv Kupcinet, wrote that the mansion “is a hazard, as well as horror,” to the Kerners, according to At Home With Illinois Governors, written by Dan Monroe and Lura Lynn Ryan,wife of former Governor George Ryan and published in 2002.

   "Kerner himself expressed concern about his family’s safety in the mansion, and in the 1963 legislative session, House Republican leader William Murphy of Antioch sponsored a $700,000 appropriation to build a new mansion. The site of the 1855 mansion, a square block between Fourth, Fifth, Jackson and Edwards Streets would be valuable business property, he argued, and could be sold for $750,000 or more, more than enough to build a new mansion."

   Springfield’s legislators were split on the idea, Kienzler said, with Representative G. William Horsley, a Republican, leading the opposition, but fellow Republican, Representative. George Coutrakon and Democrat Allen Lucas both voting for Murphy’s bill when it came up for final House passage on June 19, 1963.

   "The division probably reflected initial public opinion. The Democratic-aligned Illinois State Register, perhaps reflecting Kerner’s never-quite-spelled-out preference, supported demolition. The Illinois State Journal, the Republican paper, was noncommittal in 1963; the next year, however, The Journal also called for the mansion to be torn down, although that paper favored doing so on the existing site. Mayor Nelson Howarth also said he had “no feeling” about demolition of the mansion, although he added that, if it was replaced, the new mansion should be built near the Statehouse."

   However, local preservationists, led by Dr. Barringer and the Sangamon County Historical Society, mobilized to support the mansion, and Murphy’s bill died in a Senate committee less than a week after its House passage.

Support for Historic Sites

   About the same time the Society was founded in 1961, restoration work had begun at Clayville. To that end, the Society provided considerable support for its development. And during Sullivan’s presidency, the Society took stands in support of plans for the federal government taking over the management of the Lincoln Home and surrounding area. " The historic ambience of the home was under threat from further commercial encroachment. Society leaders worked with Congressman Paul Findley and Mayor Howarth in this successful effort," Scott pointed out.

   The Society founders had a broader view of the purposes of the Society well beyond the preservation of one particular building and beyond preservation in general: finding a place to house historic papers and records, a desire that translated into taking an active role in developing and helping support the Sangamon Valley Room/Sangamon Valley Collection at the City of Springfield's Lincoln Library, an activity that continues to this day.