The Champaign County Historical Society, organized in 1958, began scouting potential locations for a county museum in the 1960s. The group was anxious to find a home for artifacts related to county history but needed funding and a suitable location.
By the early 1970s, local historical groups worked together to make the society’s dream come to fruition. On Jan. 19, 1972, members of the historical society, Antique Study Group, Genealogical Society, Champaign County Sesquicentennial Committee, Junior League of Champaign-Urbana and Urbana Half-Century Club met in the archives at the Urbana Free Library and formed Champaign County Historical Museum Inc. Their first goal was to find a building for a museum. The board quickly located their answer in Champaign’s Wilber Mansion.
The Wilber Mansion was built between 1903 and 1907 by Robert Sloan Wilber. Wilber moved to Champaign from New York in the 1860s with his wife, Elizabeth, and started a farm. Throughout the 1800s, he partook in numerous successful local business ventures. He was a dealer in coal, farm machinery and seeds, as well as the operator of a drayage facility and livery stable.
Wilber built the mansion at 709 W. University Ave. at a cost of $8,500 (about $225,000 in today’s dollars). The Wilber Mansion, as it came to be known, was built for his daughter Ella, a local artist. She was given the mansion with the expectation that her parents could move in as well. Robert died in 1910, shortly after the house was completed.
In 1913, Ella married a man named William Wallace Paul. Ella and William took full advantage of the home’s glitz and glamour, regularly hosting parties in the ballroom and on the lawn on hot summer nights. The Depression forced them to create a trust deed in 1928 to keep the mansion, but they defaulted on the deed in 1932 and lost the house. The mansion remained in possession of caretakers until 1934, when it was purchased by Charles Thompson for $13,750 (about $270,000 today). The Thompson family held onto the house until 1964, eventually selling it to Dr. E. Ewing Wachter for $40,000 (about $335,000 today), who in turn sold it to the museum 10 years later for $80,000 (about $400,000 today).
The house is done in a variety of styles popular at the time of its construction, most notably being the Queen Anne style, with interior designs common to the Arts and Crafts movement.
The three-story, 22-room mansion is made of red buttered brick on a raised rusticated limestone foundation and is replete with a carriage entrance, study, mud room, butler’s pantry and full English basement.
Interior decorations include beveled crystal windows, hardwood flooring, built-in cabinetry/shelving, a copper sink, statuary, engraved doorknobs and more.
The museum opened to the public on Dec. 1, 1974, under the guidance of their first director, Pat Miller, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois with a master’s in art history and focus in museology. She brought an education-focused agenda to the museum to keep the institution, “rooted in the past and the present.”
Miller kept the main floor of the mansion as a historical home, complete with Victorian-style furniture. The second floor was used as exhibit space, with three regular exhibits on display. The third floor was used for storage, and the basement was used for storage and education programs.
The Champaign County History Museum made its home at Wilber Mansion for nearly 25 years. During its tenure at the mansion, the museum made great strides in promoting local history and culture.
It founded the Prairie Festival in the early 1970s and later, the Taste of Champaign. In the ’80s and early ’90s, it hosted murder-mystery nights, holiday events and children’s programs.
The staff and volunteers also built a rich collection of Champaign County artifacts and local history that continues to grow and be featured at the Cattle Bank, the museum’s home since 2002.