Working as a historian at the Peoria Historical Society means that every day brings new surprises.
One never knows what new mysteries and discoveries await every time the phone rings, the mail arrives, an email comes in or someone walks through the door. Sometimes, it is someone following leads to a topic that interests them: family, organizations, art or objects. For them, the PHS is just one stop in the journey to uncover whatever truth they seek. Other times, the information being sought warrants a more active role for PHS than simply guiding the researcher. Often, it is the possible donation of objects to the PHS that unveils a mystery to be solved. Finally, there are old mysteries in the collection that need to be solved. As curator of the Peoria Historical Society, one wears several hats: historian, reference librarian, archivist, exhibit designer, conservator, technical consultant and registrar. But by far, the most interesting is putting on the fedora and becoming a detective.
The Case of the Missing Painting
The most enduring mystery at the Peoria Historical Society is in regard to a Frank C. Peyraud and H.G. Maratta painting entitled “The Battle of Missionary Ridge.” This eight-by-nine-foot canvas hung in a saloon owned by John Botto and was, as the story goes, given as payment for the two artists’ bar tab. It was rediscovered in 1921 by John Heffner as the building was being remodeled and saved from destruction. He hung it in his store, where it remained until the building was again remodeled, and the painting once again saved by the new owner, J. Ralph Hunter.
A 1958 newspaper article reports that Mr. Hunter turned the painting over to the Peoria Historical Society, where it was put in storage. However, this single article is the only document to state this; to date, no other donation records, meeting minutes or newsletters corroborate the donation. Did the donation fall through? Is the painting stored away out of sight? Since the PHS did not have its own building until the purchase of Flanagan House in 1960, was it stored somewhere else? No one knows.
Though an eye is always kept open for the missing painting, a more concentrated search is periodically performed. While working on this article, one such thorough search was conducted, and lo and behold, new evidence emerged. A brass plate for framed prints sold by John Heffner sometime after he saved the piece in 1921 was found for sale on eBay, and an investigation into what estate they came from may provide leads to the location of the painting. Just as we are a resource for the public, the public is a huge resource for us: Does anyone have any leads on the whereabouts of Peyraud and Maratta’s “Battle of Missionary Ridge” painting?
The Case of A Rocking Chair’s New Place
People often approach the Peoria Historical Society with items they would like to donate. We are extremely grateful for the public trusting us with their treasures, but sometimes donations cannot be accepted. The most common reason is that the items do not fit the scope of our collections and would be a better fit elsewhere. In one case, the Society was contacted by someone who had bought a rocking chair at the Illinois Antique Center 25 years earlier. It had come with some information, including that it had belonged to a Mr. Nathanial P. Hart and his wife, Louise, and it was purchased when they married in 1850. Hart had served in Co. K 5th regiment during the Mexican-American War, but returned to Barry, Illinois, where he became a member of the Odd Fellows and an assessor in 1862. Were there any ties to the Peoria area to justify the chair’s acceptance into the Peoria Historical Society’s collection, or had it simply had a long journey from home and ended up at a local antique store?
You Can Help!
The Peoria Historical Society now offers public access to its collections database on its website at peoriahistoricalsociety.org. The database is a work in progress, as the vast majority of items still need to be catalogued, but it was decided that its value was too great to justify waiting until the collections could be completely entered. You can help! If you spot a misspelling or have more information about an item, let the PHS know! The more data that is entered, the more useful the collection becomes to everyone.
Thorough research did not turn up a Peoria connection to the family or the chair, but it did show that Mr. Hart was a very important individual in Pike and Barry counties, with considerable land holdings and business interests. The PHS suggested to the owner that the rocking chair would probably be better suited at the Pike County Historical Society, where it could be put in context. In the end, the Pike County Historical Society accepted the donation and was thrilled to have the chair. In fact, the local Pike Press newspaper ran a story on the front page tracing the treasure. Solving the mystery and placing items where they will be most appreciated and useful is a very satisfying part of the job.
The Case of the Unmarked Grave
In November 2010, I received an anonymous phone call informing me that there was a painting for sale on eBay that the Society might be interested in. It portrayed the father of Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, who raised the 11th Illinois Volunteer Calvary in the Civil War and was later thought to be the greatest orator of his generation. The Society did not (and still does not) have any funds for acquisitions, but the piece was interesting enough to warrant some research and see if a donor would sponsor its purchase if it was deemed significant enough.
The painting appeared to be in its original frame, and the auction said it was purchased at an estate sale in California from a family that used to own an antique store in Peoria. The seller could not remember the name of the family, but could recall the location of the sale. However, this turned out to be a dead end, as no sale advertisement was found, and there was no way to contact the estate for any information. Calls to local art experts and historians also turned up nothing—no one had heard of the painting or any reason to think a painting of John Ingersoll was important to Peoria. (It was thought that only Robert and his brother, Ebon, had Peoria ties.)
Further digging ensued, and an eventual phone call to the Robert Ingersoll Museum verified that Rev. John Ingersoll had, in fact, died in Peoria on May 1, 1859, at the age of 67, at the residence of Ebon Clark Ingersoll, his brother and law partner. Additional local research indicated that Rev. Ingersoll is interred in Springdale Cemetery, Prospect Hill, Section 4, Lot 97, in an unmarked grave. With all the pieces of the puzzle put together, a more substantial tie to Peoria emerged, and a generous donor purchased the painting for the Society.
Upon examination, the portrait had actually been painted on the back of a previously used canvas that already had a portrait on it—possibly of Benjamin Franklin. The glued backing paper is a page from a Peoria newspaper, and someone has written: “In Peoria ILL 1861.” So, evidently it was painted after Reverend John’s death. No artist’s signature can be found. Was it done by or for the Ingersoll family? Why did the brothers leave their father’s grave unmarked? Answers always lead to more questions! However, the painting is now on display beside a portrait of Robert Ingersoll at the Judge John C. Flanagan House. The search will continue to find more answers, and perhaps a campaign can be mounted to mark the grave.
The Case of the Anonymous Diary Donor
In February 2009, I received a phone call from someone who wanted to know if we would be interested in her father’s diaries from World War II. After establishing that he had been a Peoria native before the war and that he returned and lived his entire life here after the war, she was told that we would be interested, and the process for donation was explained. A few days later, the diaries arrived with no name, no letter and no return address. There were two gray U.S. government logbooks with the words: “Days of Glory Seeking I & II. They were kept by Delmar Ray Stephens AOM 1/c U.S.S. Enterprise CV-6 Torpedo Squadron #20. They cover the period of time from July 1944 through the end of the war.”
Two things immediately struck me. First, keeping a diary on a warship was strictly prohibited so information could not fall into enemy hands. Therefore, the vast majority of known diaries are from officers who had the time to write them and the means to secure them. Mr. Stephens (as research showed) was an ordinance man in charge of arming the aircraft; he simply utilized the government ledgers and was able to hide them in plain sight!
Second, I needed to find the donor. I remembered that she had given me her first name on the phone, and I had her father’s name and the fact that the package had been mailed from Bloomington. After some research, I was able to dig up an email address I thought was possibly hers. I contacted her in order to mail her the deed of gift for her signature after the items were accepted by the Collection Committee. The diaries were a fascinating read and are currently in the process of being transcribed. Scans of its pages were sent to both the Naval Aviation Museum and the U.S.S. Enterprise Association, both of which were thrilled to have copies of an enlisted man’s diaries.
Whether helping someone track down the information they need or researching items for PHS, there is always great satisfaction in solving riddles. But more often than not, historical research leads to many more mysteries that need solving. That, of course, is what makes this job a calling—and so much fun. As for “the case of the anonymous diary donor,” I had, in fact, found the right person. When we talked on the phone, she asked how I had found her with so little information. My reply was, “I’m a historian. Research is what I do!” iBi