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Local Column

Olson: Bringing DeKalb County's history to life

The new DeKalb County History Center building is coming together with about two months to go before its May 11 opening.

I had the opportunity Wednesday to take a tour of the building on the Engh Farm property, beneath the shadow of the Sycamore water tower at 1730 N. Main St., accompanied by Tom Matya and Michelle Donahoe.

There’s still much to be done, and inside, it’s an active construction site. But Matya, a member of the center’s board of directors, and Executive Director Donahoe said they hope they’ll have a preliminary occupancy permit for the building after Sycamore
building officials inspect the building Monday.

There will be no “soft opening” May 11; The center will open with the debut of a traveling Smithsonian exhibit, “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.”

There will be a local component in addition to artifacts from the national museum’s collection. Among the local pieces will be displays with information on land use for solar and wind power, the barbed wire story, a doggie treadmill used to generate power
and Wally Thurow’s famous penny-farthing bicycle.

The new building is being financed by a
$1 million capital campaign, with the Roberts Family Foundation chipping in $300,000 and the DeKalb County Community Foundation adding $75,000. The center and the city of Sycamore have agreed to a 60-year lease, with the center paying $1 a year in rent. DeKalb County has offered matching funds to entice each of the county’s 19 townships to contribute, as well.

When complete, it will provide the county with a 7,600-square-foot, state-of-the-art display space built to accommodate modern exhibits. It also will incorporate aspects of the county’s agricultural heritage, including the use of barn wood that was reclaimed from the barn that once stood on the Engh Farm property.

The building is a good balance of space for exhibits as well as community programs. At one end is a 1,200-square-foot exhibit space, large enough to accommodate traveling exhibits. At the other is a 947-square-foot community meeting room. Unlike the exhibit space, it’s filled with natural light, with a large wall for displaying visuals on a screen.

“We really want this to be a gathering place,” Donahoe said.

The county has a remarkable history, and more than 20 local history groups, too. But they don’t always coordinate efforts very well, and they keep odd hours. Donahoe said the goal of the history center is not to absorb the collections of local museums around the county, but to establish a place where the complete history of DeKalb County can be catalogued and shared with people who seek to learn.

“There’s no one really that tells the story,” Matya said. “And it’s really got to be a story.”

When it comes to stories, no one in the county has more of them than the Joiner History Room, the county archives. The history room will have its own 600-square-foot research space in the building and a separate area with storage capacity for its current collection along with future acquisitions.

The county has a long and storied past, and it’s often hidden in plain sight. The new center will be a functional, multipurpose space that will help bring that past to life.

“It’s just going to be fabulous,” Donahoe said, “having all this under one roof.”

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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