Making History: DeKalb County History Center opens

May 12, 2019

SYCAMORE – The DeKalb County History Center made history of its own on Saturday with its grand opening and the debut of the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.”

The day of the grand opening also coincided with Museum Day, with 11 DeKalb County museums participating by being open.

The history center’s grand opening event was attended by more than 200 people, including U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, who gave a welcoming speech.

“The grand opening is a new beginning and a culmination at the same time because we’ve been working toward this day for years,” Michelle Donahoe, the history center’s executive director, said. “We’re making history today. It’s the grand opening of the center that will help us promote the great stories that are a part of DeKalb County’s history.”

Sycamore is one of six locations the Smithsonian exhibit will appear nationally. The traveling exhibit gives small towns an opportunity to highlight the economic and demographic changes in the past century and links to DeKalb County’s local history.

The DeKalb County History Center is hosting the exhibit in cooperation with the Illinois Humanities. The exhibit will be in town through June 22.

Admission is $5 for adults; children age 14 and younger are free. Members of the DeKalb County History Center also get in free. Special or reduced rates are available for groups of 10 or more people with advanced registration.

The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. The museum will be closed on Mondays.

In addition to tours in English during museum hours, tours in Spanish will be presented in partnership with Parent University Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Ken Goodman of Sycamore said what stood out to him the most about the Smithsonian exhibit was the connecting history between DeKalb County communities.

“I love the exhibit because it brings all those different pieces and aspects of history together in one place,” Goodman said. “I never knew DeKalb County had such a huge impact. The breath and scope of the history astounds me.”

Stephen Storey of DeKalb said he is connected to the history of DeKalb County through his great-great-grandfather, who came from England in 1850 and farmed in Shabbona.

“I enjoyed the exhibit, and I liked the photos the most,” Storey said. “When you look at the different rural photographs in the exhibit, they all look like Small Town Anywhere, USA. Any of those photos could be Sycamore. Maybe not this one, there’s a mountain in the background, but that big building could be the courthouse, that could be the downtown. It really shows that small towns like ours have so much history and so many stories to tell.”

The History of the DeKalb County History Center

The DeKalb County History Center’s new 7,600-square-foot building includes a 1,200-square-foot exhibit space, the Joiner History Room, a multi-purpose room and a large area for collection storage.

Formerly known as the Sycamore History Museum, the DeKalb County History Center is situated in three buildings on the former Engh farmstead.

Donahoe said the idea of a history center and museum uniting the county’s 28 history groups started several years ago. About 80% of the history center’s $1.5 million campaign goal has been raised.

The Sycamore History Museum began in 1999, and the DeKalb County History Center was founded on March 1, 2018. Last June, the center’s plans were unveiled and the new building’s groundbreaking was in August.

“I could only describe my feelings as pure excitement,” Donahoe said. “The history center and the Smithsonian exhibit are here because of so many people’s hard work. We couldn’t do any of it without them.”

History Center Board Member Bill Lenschow of Sycamore traveled around the country for 40 years representing dairy farmers, but he said that in all of his travels, he never “came across a county so much foresight and willingness to work on projects together as DeKalb County.”

Lenschow has only lived outside of Sycamore for two years, when he served in the military in Germany during World War II. He still farms the land that has been in his family for more than 115 years.

“So many families in DeKalb County have a similar history and stories like mine,” he said. “It’s more than the fertility of the land and farming that makes people want to raise their family here. From the Haishes and Gliddens to the Roberts, DeKalb County and its families have a really unique history. The new history center will be the center of all that history.”

For more information about the DeKalb County History Center or the Smithsonian exhibit “Crossroads: Change in Rural America,” visit www.dekalbcountyhistory.org or call 815-895-5762.