For Museum of the Grand Prairie, this 50 is nifty

For Museum of the Grand Prairie, this 50 is nifty

MAHOMET — What a long, strange 50 years it's been, to paraphrase the Grateful Dead.

On the main floor of the Museum of the Grand Prairie, there is 1968 in all its bright-colored glory, from Sgt. Pepper, shag carpeting and TV dinners (complete with a TV playing 60s shows and commercials) to major changes in the political world.

"A Time for Every Purpose," from the Bible by way of the Byrds, tells of one of the most intense years since World War II.

A year of tragedy: from the bloody Tet Offensive in Vietnam to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — but also the birth year of the museum.

On the lower level, you can see (and sometimes touch) an extensive collection of 19th-century objects and reproductions, including Lincoln, the plows that broke the sod, women on the frontier and the Native Americans who were driven from the land.

Museum Director Barbara Oehlschlaeger-Garvey has trouble picking a favorite.

"Like children, I find it hard to choose among them," she said.

"But I really do love the Champaign County's Lincoln exhibit," she added.

"It's pretty exciting to think of Lincoln having befriended so many local people, to have been to the same places that we have been. And it is so fascinating to think that many of the issues that Lincoln grappled with are the same as those we still struggle with today: education, immigration, voting rights, slavery — and its legacy."

Personally, though, the 50th anniversary exhibit holds meaning for her.

"I was 12 that year," she said.

"I remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, followed so quickly by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and thinking ... when will it all end? Will this sort of violence and unrest just keep happening? And, characteristic of a 12-year-old, I thought, maybe this is the end of the world."

It's pure coincidence that it was 1968 that the county got a new cultural center.

"In the midst of the rapid social changes of that year, the people of Champaign County put forward the money to build a museum which looked back at its own past," the director said.

In 2018, there were 27,766 total visitors; 11,519 walk-in visitors, more than 8,060 in-school visitors and 8,187 in public programs.

The museum is a home to three permanent exhibits: The Grand Prairie story, Blacksmithing on the Prairie and Champaign County's Lincoln.

Curator Mark Hanson said the museum's collection includes more than 13,800 object artifacts.

It also has over 3,900 pieces of photographic media and over 1,400 rare books and published material — about 50 cubic feet of archival material.

"Currently, my favorite exhibit is '1968: A Time for Every Purpose,' especially the Vietnam War and Apollo 8 sections," he said.

It all goes back to a Redhed. No typo here.

The idea was for there to be an agriculture museum. Former Director Cheryl Kennedy said William Redhed of Homer donated more than 2,200 early American artifacts to the district for the residents of Champaign County for display. The goal of raising $75,000 was met.

Times change, of course.

"The Bicentennial saw a movement away from 'displays' of artifacts to interpreting history. As a result, during the mid-70s, the district invited area residents interested in history to join them as they explored ways to re-acquaint people with the Early American Museum and its collections," Kennedy said.

From a volunteer program titled "The Harvesters," Apple Harvest Day was the first program developed to draw further attention to the museum, Kennedy recalled.

Schools and teachers scheduled trips for their children to participate in the Prairie Breaker program at the museum.

The program involved volunteers as children moved from station to station visiting the blacksmith, the schoolmarm, and homemakers making soap and doing laundry, said Kennedy, who ran the quilting station herself.

"As I think back over the years, what comes to mind are milestones: the evolution of the museum exhibits, the name change to Museum of the Grand Prairie and the comments and conversations of families and children while visiting the museum," she added.

She cited three attention-getters: the exhibit on the East Frisian community, the exhibit featuring African American women of Champaign County and the oral history featuring World War II veterans interviewed by News-Gazette staff.

"In each case, I overheard someone saying they never thought they would ever see their story in a museum," Kennedy said.

If you go

What: The Museum of the Grand Prairie

Where: 600 N. Lombard St., Mahomet

Hours: 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily March 1 to Memorial Day and Labor Day to Dec. 31; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Memorial Day to Labor Day and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. It will be open 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in February. The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Easter

Phone: 217-586-2612

Admission: free