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Lansing history: How Lansing got its own museum

LANSING, Ill. (April 4, 2022) – “Oh look at this — what is it? How does it work?” We hear a lot of those kinds of questions from youth who visit the Lansing Historical Museum. The museum houses a lot of hands-on items from days of yore just waiting for someone to try them. Tapping on old typewriter keys and hearing the “click, click, swish” is so much different from the computers and mobile devices our youth have grown up with. And kids whose phones and watches are all digital like to try and tell time on the old-fashioned school clock. Old technology!

The Lansing Historical Museum is located in the lower lever of the Lansing Public Library. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Located in the lower lever of the Lansing Public Library, the Lansing Historical Society Museum got its start as a Bicentennial Heritage project in 1976. Julia Gault was a biology teacher at TF South High School. Forced to retire at age 65, she decided she wasn’t finished living her life to the fullest, and she attended a Lansing Bicentennial meeting. When they asked for suggestions, she opened her mouth and found herself Chair of the Heritage Committee.

First member, first location, first exhibits

Gault spoke with history teacher Jim Kijewski and voiced her desire to form a historical society and museum. He supported the idea and immediately signed up, becoming the first charter member of the Lansing Historical Society. He was Number One — even before founder Julia Gault — and remains an active member to this day.

As an offshoot of the Bicentennial Heritage Project, the Lansing Historical Society was chartered on July 19, 1976, with 75 paid charter members. But getting this mammoth project off the ground wasn’t easy. Gault and her committee did a lot of negotiating before finding a place to exhibit. The First National Bank of Lansing finally offered her Room 206 for the bicentennial celebration.

Now they had a place, but had to find historical items to attract attention. Society members began a door-to-door campaign to ask for artifacts, either as a donation or a loan. They gathered nearly 200 items for the exhibit. The bank allowed the exhibit to remain on its second floor for 18 more months until the bank got a paying tenant for the space. The bank did then generously provide limited storage space, but the Lansing Historical Society returned the overflow of items to their owners.

On the move

At one time the owners of Fennema-DeYoung Cut Stone donated the 100-year-old Christian Schultz homestead to the Lansing Historical Society, with the stipulation that the Society would move the house from their property. The newly organized society was excited about the prospect, but they didn’t have enough money for such a project. It didn’t matter anyway because it was determined the house wasn’t structurally sound, and it was consequently torn down.

By June 1979 First National Bank needed their storage space, so the committee moved the artifacts to a vacant room at Calvin Coolidge Elementary School. Almost three years went by, and the society had more than 250 articles but no place to display them.

It took a whole lot of fundraising, perseverance, negotiating, planning, raffles, physical work, a fall festival and antique show, membership drives, and much public support to finally gain a permanent place for the museum. On September 28, 1979, the library board approved the use of the library’s lower level. The Lansing Historical Society launched a month-long fund drive to raise the $30,000 needed to finish the 3,500 square-foot space. Had the society not reached its goal, it was going to disband and then return or discard all the articles that had been gathered.

Lansing Historical Museum
The library board approved the use of the lower level, and the Lansing Historical Society launched a fund drive to raise $30,000 to transform the 3,500-square-foot space into the Lansing Historical Museum. (Photo provided by the Lansing Historical Society)

Raising funds

To help seal the deal, the Village board kicked in $10,000 after Mayor Louis LaMourie broke the tie vote for its approval. The library board gave $5,000, and another $1,000 came from the developer of the proposed River Oaks Mall. The Bicentennial Commission donated $1,170 to carry on the work of the commission and preserve Lansing history.

In addition, a knock-on-every-door campaign promised tangible progress for contributions made:

  • $5 would buy ten cement blocks
  • $10 would buy one yard of carpeting
  • $20 would buy two wall panels
  • $50 would buy light fixtures

Each contributor would be recognized in a book to be placed in the museum.

With so much support from the community, the Lansing Historical Museum became a reality and was dedicated on November 30, 1980.

Lansing Historical Museum
From left: George McNamara, Evelyn Mason (president) Bob Schuenemen, Mayor Louis LaMourie, and Dan Tanis perform the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Lansing Historical Museum. (Photo provided by the Lansing Historical Society)

The Lansing Historical Museum: preserving Lansing history and more

Today the museum houses thousands of objects of local and national significance. For example, a full kitchen shows visitors a glimpse of early Lansing life. Actual farm implements and tools remind visitors of our pioneer origins. Digitized copies of the original Lansing Journal, original TF South High School year books, and old signs from shops and roadways tell the story of our community.

The First Lady dolls fill several cases and beside each one is tiny replica of their husbands, the presidents of the United States. Each June a special display of Lansing residents’ wedding gowns comes out of storage. Every December Christmas trees from around the world are trimmed in native ornaments.

One unique item of national significance is a handle from the first coffin of Abraham Lincoln. After a radical group tried to steal Abe’s body, some of the coffin handles were loosened. When the coffin was moved to Lincoln’s tomb, workers replaced them. Thomas Cornwell, one of those workers, kept one and later donated it to the Lansing Historical Museum. Eight handles were on the original casket, and two remain unaccounted for.

Making history accessible

Today the Lansing Historical Society hosts speakers, entertainers, historic walks, and special events so community members can have a variety of opportunities to engage with the past.

The Lansing Historical Museum is open most Mondays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. A knowledgeable docent is on hand to answer questions. The museum closes on the fourth Monday of each month in order to offer special programs, usually held on the library stage. However, during summer months when programs are on hiatus, the museum is open again. To arrange visits at other times, contact Curator Barb Dust at 708-474-7497. Admission is free.

The Lansing Public Library is located at 2750 Indiana Avenue in Lansing, Illinois. The Lansing Historical Museum is located in the lower level of the building. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

The Lansing Historical Museum is located in the lower level of the Lansing Public Library, 2750 Indiana Avenue, Lansing, Illinois.

Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook is a Lansing resident who loves learning and writing about local history. A member of the Illinois Women's Press Association since 1973, she has won multiple IWPA awards. Her 2020 awards in the Mate E. Palmer Communications Contest included first place for columns and second place for nonfiction book in the history category.