SYCAMORE – Dick Larson's eyes welled with tears as he stood among the "Crossroads: Change in Rural America" exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian Institution at the new DeKalb County History Center Thursday.
Larson, 73, of DeKalb, was among around 20 volunteers training to become a docent, meaning he will help guide visitors through the traveling history lesson, which celebrates, dissects, and confronts the troubling modern realities of the rural American experience.
Larson's family specialty was dairy cows, and his grandfather was a dairy farmer in Somonauk, then his uncle. He said in the old days, farmers had everything. The exhibit shows the steady decline in economic stability for farmers.
"I'm a weeper," Larson said. "I have an emotional tie to this, definitely."
The Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian exhibit is the centerpiece of the new 7.600-foot history center's grand opening. The new building at 1730 N. Main St. in Sycamore opens its doors to the public for the first time from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony planned for 10:30 a.m. Regular hours beginning May 19 through June 16 will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and closed on Mondays.
Larson knows all about experience as a rural American. He was born in DeKalb, and his family has operated a dairy farm in Somonauk for generations. He retired six months ago from the United States Postal Service, finally leaving him free to do some volunteering, he said.
"As we're impacted by the world around us, as we've evolved and advanced technologically, we've tied in with the rest of the world, and those outside influences impact the area," Larson said. "We see that in our local and agricultural economy and our ways of life because of it."
In 1900, about 40% of Americans lived in rural areas, according to the exhibit information. That number shrunk to less than 18% by 2010, and much of that is because of economic and social changes.
"Crossroads" looks at the numerous changes rural communities have undergone because of industrialization, economic booms in metropolitan areas, and population decline in rural regions. The exhibit will remain in Sycamore through June 22.
Michelle Donahoe, executive director of the history center, helped curate a local component to the exhibit, which she says helps to understand the history in local context.
The exhibit also features postcards which encourage visitors to jot down reactions, comments, or conversation points about the exhibit that will be shared on the history center's social media accounts.
"We're making history today," Donahoe said. "This is how we make history relevant. We're making decisions that will impact the futures. Discussions that we have today are also part of our history and legacy.
"I love how it's not just stuff from a long time ago, but this is today right here."
Saturday is also DeKalb County Museum Day, also Saturday, Donahoe worked with surrounding history centers like historical societies in Sandwich and Genoa, and the Elwood Museum in DeKalb to gather items to display that would correlate with the exhibit.
Scattered throughout the Crossroads exhibit are artifacts including barbed wire from the Elwood Museum, a piece of the original brick used to create Lincoln Highway, and the first yearbooks and course catalogs from Kishwaukee College, where classes used to be held in a barn.
Matt Meacham, program manager for statewide engagement from Illinois Humanities, a non-profit focused on bringing history and traveling exhibits to local settings, was impressed with the local memorabilia.
"I think it's amazing how you all found DeKalb County aspects that really connect to the Smithsonian exhibit that both reflects or contributes to the trends discussed," Meacham said. "It really shows how one county can encapsulate all of rural America."
The Crossroads exhibit is part of Museum on Main Street, a collaboration between Illinois Humanities and the Smithsonian.