The Champaign County History Museum was organized in 1972 amidst a burst of interest in history fueled by the upcoming U.S. bicentennial in 1976. The museum found a home in the mansion Robert Sloane Wilber built in 1906 at 709 W. University Ave., C.
The museum filled the house with exhibits, ran several successful programs, conducted research and published books. It began the Taste of Champaign-Urbana that is now run by the Champaign Park District.
Maintenance of the old mansion eventually became too costly, prompting the museum to sell it in 1997, and it once again became a private residence.
The museum opened its new home in the Cattle Bank, 102 E. University Ave., C, in 2001, a quite fitting location, as it is the oldest extant commercial building in Champaign County.
The mission of the Champaign County History Museum is to discover, collect, preserve, exhibit, study and interpret objects relating to the history of Champaign County and to provide educational programs about the county’s heritage and the museum’s collections.
Look at the story just one object can tell us about Champaign County.
In 2013, Margaret Somers Marko offered her great-grandfather’s surveyor’s compass for possible accession into the collection. It had been used by John L. Somers, an early surveyor of Champaign County and a member of a prominent pioneer family. Somer Township is named for the family.
Years before statehood, the territory was surveyed by the U.S. surveyors. With population growth and development, surveyors continued to mark out smaller and smaller parcels.
Illinois Central crews surveyed possible routes prior to laying tracks to the depot, 2 miles west of Urbana, in July 1854. John L. Somers was the official county surveyor from 1850 to 1857. He surveyed parts of West Urbana, as the depot was known before becoming Champaign, as well as farmland and other county towns.
This compass was made sometime between 1841 and 1854 by William J. Young, a measuring-device-maker in Philadelphia. Young’s career began with a seven-year apprenticeship to Thomas Whitney in 1813. He then started his own company and often had as many as 10 workers rather than the more typical one or two. His products were also more expensive than the ones his competitors offered.
Unlike a normal compass, which simply identifies north, a surveyor’s compass is made to give elevation data to calculate the height of natural features. A unique feature is their ability to take into account the magnetic deviation and use the defined longitude and latitude lines instead for measurements after being set by the user.
A new exhibit currently under construction called “Who We Are” will tell more stories of Champaign County, from its beginning in 1833 to the present, using a changing lineup of artifacts from the museum’s collection.
Visit champaigncountyhistory.org for more information. The museum’s hours are from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.