LOCKPORT – The Will County Historical Society unearthed this past year some interesting discoveries as board members implemented major renovations at the Will County Historical Museum and Research Center in Lockport.
The museum at 803 S. State St. – built in 1837 – once housed the original headquarters for the Illinois and Michigan Canal commissioners.
“We found a fireman’s ax between the walls,” said Sandy Vasko, the group’s president. “It was a 20th-century fireman’s ax made in China. Somebody must have been up in the attic with an ax and dropped it between the walls and couldn’t retrieve it. And we discovered it.”
Some findings were more welcomed than others, or drove up costs, said Bill Molony, society board member.
When volunteers ripped out porch boards – which for years had been rotting – they made the unwanted discovery that only three piles of stones supported a small section of the building’s foundation.
“That wasn’t apparent before we started,” Molony said.
Since spring 2015, volunteers have been busy removing lead-based paint, installing new plumbing, electricity and light fixtures, securing the building’s foundation, and cleaning up in time for Thursday’s season opening. Visitors who stop by will be able to see nearly a year’s worth of renovations.
The Lockport museum features rotating exhibits describing the history of Will County. The 10-room, two-and-a-half-story building is filled with photos, various artifacts and documents concerning the operation and creation of the I&M Canal.
According to the museum’s website, a residence for the canal superintendent was added to the office building in 1876, and a bank vault was installed to store canal records.
Current exhibits include “The Weird of Will County,” and “Weapons and Warfare of Will County.” One exhibit, “Dr. Dougall’s Office,” allows visitors to see what a typical doctor’s office looked during the Edwardian era.
Because the building is a dedicated national landmark and is on the National Registry of Historic Places, Vasko said there were several renovation guidelines they had to abide by – known as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.
“What that means is you have to keep as much of the old material as possible. If you do any changes, you’re supposed to revert them back to the original,” Vasko said.
Vasko said the organization’s plans for the building were in jeopardy when Gov. Bruce Rauner took office in early 2015 and placed a $50,000 state capital grant – and several others – on hold.
Then, the group was surprised with a $350,000 donation from James P. Sczepaniak, a longtime board member who died in 2014. Sczepaniak donated his estate to 12 charities, including the Will County Historical Society, Vasko said.
“Everything fell into place,” Vasko said.
Museum Curator Linda Witowski began with the organization in 1987. She said she followed in the footsteps of her mother, Geraldine Locher, who served on the society board for decades.
“It was actually [my mother’s] goal to see that the records were made available to the public,” Witowski said. “As part of our educational goal, we felt that, what is the sense of having this if we cannot share the information?”
Following the museum’s soft opening Thursday, a grand opening event is scheduled for April 2, when there will be music, food and the museum’s first-ever silent auction, Vasko said.
Floyd Mansberger – an Illinois archaeologist who owns Fever River Research in Springfield – will speak at the April 2 event to discuss the building’s history, Vasko said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Will County Historical Museum and Research Center’s season opening
WHEN: Soft opening is noon to 4 p.m. Thursday. Regular hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (other times available by appointment)
WHERE: 803 S. State St., Lockport
INFO: http://willcohistory.org/ or 815-838-5080
SAVE THE DATE: A grand opening – with food, music and a featured archaeologist – is planned for April 2