Historical site

SangamonLink, the county history website, celebrates 10 years

Want to know when Springfield got its first snowplow? Or find a reference to a relative? Maybe read about crimes and gambling dens in the early 1900s? Or learn more about the 1918 Spanish flu and the 1940s polio epidemic? You can find out about the last hanging in the county, the first person who died in the county, an 1899 woman golfer, and a black artist who had a studio in 1870. This and much more is on SangamonLink, part of the Sangamon County Historical Society website. Go to sangamoncountyhistory.org.

You can find out about Lincoln's dog, but not about Lincoln. Mike Kienzler, the editor of the site, says, "The entries may have a peripheral connection to Lincoln, but they are not about Lincoln. The only thing people associate with Springfield is Lincoln. Lincoln provides great history, but so many have written about every aspect of him. Our site focuses on the many other great stories about the history of Sangamon County. But," Kienzler adds, "the entry about Lincoln's dog continues to be a favorite."

The Sangamon County Historical Society (SCHS) was founded in 1961. The group has provided resources and programs, and an annual cemetery walk at Oak Ridge. It helped form the Sangamon Valley Collection inside Lincoln Library. These projects are just part of the work to promote Sangamon County history. It was in 2009 that the president of the organization, the late Nancy Chapin, proposed that the group put together a book – an encyclopedia – about local history. The late Dick Hart and the late Cullom Davis, along with then Illinois Times writer Jim Krohe, began making a list of topics that could be covered. As discussions continued, the group felt an online format would be the best, but the format became problematic.

click to enlarge Historical site
Mike Kienzler being interviewed at Old State Capitol press conference announcing SangamonLink in June 2014.
The project languished until 2013 when Kienzler, a well-known reporter at the State Journal-Register, retired and offered to write some entries. While still at the paper, he had written a blog using a wordpress website platform. This seemed the best route to go, and so SangamonLink was launched.

Although the first entry appeared on March 31, 2013, the site wasn't launched until June 18, 2014, at a press conference held in the Old State Capitol's Hall of Representatives. Kienzler became the editor and continues in that role today. Although most of the now 1,474 entries have been written by him, some are written in collaboration with other writers such as Bill Cellini Jr., Curtis Mann, Mary Frances, and the author of this article.

Each month at the SCHS board meeting, Kienzler reports on the number of hits the site has received for the past month. Incredibly, the hits range between 13,000 and 17,000 per month. In the past four years, using a program that can track each hit, the site has had 624,000 hits.

Finding items on the site can be done in several ways: enter a topic in the search line or access a certain topic or a certain month/date (since 2013) listed on the homepage. Comments can be entered to add information or to contact someone else who has commented.

As an example, Kienzler posted about Gertrude Wright Morgan, the first African American to graduate from Springfield High School (look up the entry to find out where the first high school was located). This author had been doing research on Gertrude, found more information on SangamonLink, and discovered a comment from a surviving relative who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many emails flew back and forth and turned up more information about Gertrude and her husband, who both helped form the NAACP.

"That is what happens," Kienzler said. "People connect on the site and locate others who can help in research or finding family connections. A post about the Sangamo Electric old meter readers led to meter collectors asking each other about certain models."

Finding unknown history takes digging in documents, materials at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Lincoln Library's Sangamon Valley Collection, etc., and piecing facts together. Kienzler says, "Finding new things is fun; you go down a rabbit hole and suddenly discover more things. And, sometimes, it sends me on a mission to find out an answer to a puzzle."

One of those puzzles was identifying a long-lost portrait of Judge Andrew Henry by a 19th century Springfield black artist, Dennis Williams. At a recent Sangamon County Historical Society program given by Erika Holst, Illinois State Museum curator, she mentioned acquiring a portrait that Kienzler knew was the one done by Williams. Kienzler had been in contact with the art collector who had found the painting and sold it. He let the collector know that the portrait is now housed at the museum, which he hadn't previously known. Mystery solved. Kienzler loves that kind of digging and connecting people and history to our county. People love digging into interesting articles at the SangamonLink site. Just choosing something and reading it will send you off onto more intriguing stories.

Cinda Ackerman Klickna is the current president of the Sangamon County Historical Society.

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