We are surrounded by a myriad of relics of the past. But what makes something worth preserving?
Things can, of course, have intrinsic value. Art can be valuable because it enlightens us or brings pleasure. Some items were made by hand, with craftsmanship and pride, and were meant to last; other items are made of valuable materials. Items may be valuable because they are still useful, yet those items that were considered disposable or have little to no modern use are still often valuable. Consider that it is the stories that make artifacts valuable.
Every Item Has a Story
The Peoria Historical Society owns a very thin sliver of wood, about one inch by four inches. It would be a fair assumption that if most anyone found this tiny sliver lying around, it would be promptly thrown out. Instead, it is preserved in our collection. Why? It has no intrinsic value. It is not beautiful. It is not useful (except maybe as kindling). So why is it preserved?
It is because this item has a story—one that ties it to one of the most important figures in American history. In May of 1860, the Republican state convention was being held in Decatur, Illinois. The balloting was being conducted for state offices when Richard J. Oglesby, the future governor of Illinois, and John Hanks interrupted the proceedings by carrying fence rails into the hall which read: “Abraham Lincoln, the rail candidate for the presidency in 1860. Two rails from a lot of 3,000, made in 1830 by Thomas Hanks and Abe Lincoln, whose father was the first pioneer of Macon County.” (The wording was possibly on a hanging banner. Descriptions and the exact wording vary in different accounts.)
With great enthusiasm from his supporters, the future president became known as “the Rail Splitter” during the 1860 campaign. Lincoln was not happy with the constant reminder of his manual labor, but grudgingly accepted it. As Lincoln gained in popularity, Hanks was able to make quite the business selling “certified” rails from the old farm. Other entrepreneurs quickly began selling “Lincoln” rails as well. As it turns out, a Mr. William J. Phelps—the founder of Elmwood, Illinois, who had served with Lincoln in the State legislature—attended the convention and secured a piece of one of those original rails as a souvenir. It is this splinter of wood that was handed down through Mr. Phelps’ family with its story (and several other of Phelps’ Lincoln stories) often repeated. This is the tiny sliver of wood, donated by Mr. Phelps’ granddaughter, Mrs. Violet Lewis, that is part of the Peoria Historical Society’s collection.
It is the story that takes the item from the mundane to the interesting. Preserving an item is laudable, but please be sure to preserve the stories that go with it! These items become touchstones that allow us to more fully engage with the story…they make it real. Without the story, they are merely old objects, possibly still valuable and worth collecting—particularly to illustrate some other story—but much less so than if their own story is known.
Too often, people find objects with no intrinsic value, and because they do not know the story, they throw them out. The Historical Society once received a box of items including photographs, letters, documents and a uniform top that had been rescued from a dumpster. Whoever threw them away either did not know or did not value the story they tell. Fortunately, someone recognized that these artifacts were from the Chan family, who owned the first Chinese restaurant in Peoria, Ho Toy Lo, and brought them to be donated to the Historical Society.
There is a great story to be told from these items…but it requires someone who reads Chinese as well as English to fully comprehend and tell it. One short, but interesting story contained in the box is this: when Ho Toy Lo first opened for business, customers would fill out a menu and slip it through the door with the money. Shortly after, a small window in the door opened and out came a carryout Chinese meal. You never saw anyone! Later, a full-service restaurant opened that became a popular Peoria dining spot.
Preserving the Story
There is another important aspect of historic preservation. Space is limited and resources are scarce, so one must choose what to save. What would have happened had the Ho Toy Lo items been found in Portland, Oregon, as the splinter from Lincoln’s rail was?
A historical society in Oregon would probably see some value in the Lincoln splinter, as long as the story came with it, because Lincoln had relevance to the entire country. (Fortunately, the donor realized it was more relevant in the Peoria area.) However, the family and business documents of a family from Peoria, Illinois, would probably not be preserved in Oregon. There would be little to no ties to that community, and anyone looking for that information would not know to look for it there. This must always be considered when items are offered for donation—that they go where they will be utilized—where the stories have meaning.
The Peoria Historical Society challenges all of you to document the things that are important to you, to your families and to your organizations. Write down the stories and make sure they are safe and can be related to the object. Identify the people, places and events in your images! Everyone has family photographs that we’ve inherited…and we have no idea who the people are! Just because the stories and identities are well known now does not mean they will be in the future. It is this information—the stories—which lend items historical value. Future generations can then place the item in history and connect themselves to that history. It can be a reminder of who we are and where we came from and engender pride in ourselves, our families, our organizations and our communities.
The Peoria Historical Society works hard to collect, preserve and share the stories of central Illinois…your stories. We are the caretakers of the information and the objects, but we hold them in the public trust. We are glad to help people preserve and share their treasures and stories; we are honored when we are chosen as their caretakers; and we are thrilled when this material is utilized by someone to tell a story that no one else knew about.
Our research material is located at the Special Collections Center at Bradley University, which is open to the public for research. Many artifacts are on display at our two historic houses: the John C. Flanagan house and the Pettengill-Morron house. The Peoria Historical Society preserves history, but it looks to the future as well. Exciting technologies will allow for greatly expanded public interaction with the collection. Not only will this allow easier access to those doing research, but by harnessing the collective knowledge of the community, it will enhance the historical value of the collections and allow all of us to better preserve and celebrate central Illinois’ stories. iBi
Bob Killion is the collections manager at the Peoria Historical Society. For more information, visit peoriahistoricalsociety.org or call (309) 674-1921.