click to enlarge New Salem gets an infusion
Photo by William Furry
Lincoln's New Salem Historic Site Superintendent Jack Alexander with one of the site's new oak fences, which will corral a newly acquired pinto.

Finding funds for maintenance and restoration of state historic sites has been difficult in recent years, what with budget impasses, hiring freezes, pandemics, agency shifts and the public's indifference to what it takes to maintain a historic site.

When Gov. Bruce Rauner disestablished the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), which operated the 50-plus historic sites around the state, and then shuffled the sites over to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), a collective gasp was heard throughout the historic preservation world for fear that under IDNR rule, Illinois history – and the funds and expertise required to maintain historic sites – would vanish like the Carolina Parakeet. Instead of historic site maintenance, we would see already compromised maintenance budgets slashed further to protect endangered habitats, nesting sites, state-operated marinas (Golconda), firing ranges (World Shooting and Recreational Complex, Sparta) and state park lodges. 

But it didn't happen. To its credit, IDNR has done its best to protect wildlife habitats and state parks while working with diminished budgets and backlogged maintenance priorities, unrealistic mandates and unexpected emergencies (floods, storms and COVID), to keep historic sites open and afloat despite the challenges. 

Folks around Petersburg have been watching and hoping Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site would ride the rough waves and land securely on the high ground above the Sangamon River in the aftermath of the pandemic. So far, so good. Given the recent activity at the reconstructed New Salem village, which celebrated its 100th anniversary as a state park in May, the time might be right to reimagine the village as the historic education complex it should have been all along. Imagine a restored village such as Williamsburg, Virginia, on the bluffs above the Sangamon River, complete with living history interpreters, period artisans displays, gardens tended and in production for a farm-to-table restaurant for visitors. It wasn't that long ago such a vision was contemplated. 

Jack Alexander started his career at New Salem a decade ago and became the site superintendent  in 2016, about the time IHPA was swallowed by IDNR. He says that back in the 1980s, when New Salem had full funding from the state, his staff would have been four times as large, and his seasonal staff would have included more than 50 volunteers and seasonal workers. Those days are in the not-so-distant past. Alexander's staff to manage the 700-acre site, 23 buildings, campgrounds and educational interpretation for the estimated 400,000 visitors per year, is fewer than 10. During the summer months, interns from Illinois College help out and the New Salem Lincoln League provides a small militia of volunteers to help during summer and fall festivals, but there is no money to lay the foundation for the big picture.

But there is hope. Early this year Alexander was able to hire a carpenter to work at New Salem, a minor miracle given hiring freezes at the state. More than 50 carpenters applied for the single job, which says something about last year's construction layoffs. The new carpenter has been busy this spring. Already the cabins and fences at the site are much improved, with new enclosed horse paddocks and sturdy oak porches, functioning wood gutters and repaired outbuildings.

The mission of the New Salem Lincoln League, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, is to "enhance the visitor experience" at New Salem, says League president Edie Sternberg. And while that charge is broad enough to include organizing volunteers to work festivals and special events, purchasing fiber for weavers and spinners, and occasionally pouring cider for visitors, it doesn't include paying for general maintenance at the historic site. "We're pleased to see improvements at New Salem and the hiring of the new carpenter," says Sternberg, but it's the state's responsibility to keep the place in good repair. "That's just routine maintenance," she said. "We have our own list of projects, which includes painting the Railsplitter Gift Shop as soon as construction on the new restrooms is finished."

Dawn Cobb, an archaeologist with IDNR's Office of Realty and Environmental Planning (OREP) who is also on the staff of the Illinois State Museum, says several grant opportunities promise great improvements at New Salem this year. One $300,000 grant from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) will help fund an assessment study of the Trent barn, an outbuilding on the west end of the village, that is in serious need of repair. Last fall it looked like it was about to collapse.

Bob Appleman, director of OREP, says the DCEO grant won't cover all the costs association with repairing the Trent barn, and that another $120,000 grant will be needed to finish the job. If a single barn requires $420,000 to get it stabilized and restored, a village of 23 cabins and outbuildings could cost tens of millions. It's a sobering thought, but historic preservation has its challenges, as do all the Illinois state historic sites, and IDNR is doing the best it can within its budget limitation.

Cobb says other grant funds as they come in will be used "to make general historical improvements to the site," but those funds haven't materialized yet. New Salem's carpenter will have plenty to keep him busy fixing chimneys and roofs, and make other repairs throughout the village.

Seeing the daily improvements at New Salem gives Alexander reason to dream for more substantial improvements. "We'd really like to have our own sawmill at New Salem," he said. "The cost would be around $10,000, but we'd be able to use our own lumber and mill our own wood for site improvements," he said. "That would be a big savings; no more running to Lowe's for a two-by-four every time we need a board." He is also hopeful that repairs on the Cameron-Rutledge Mill and walkway can reconnect the village once again to the mill site. Likewise the carding mill is in disrepair and hasn't been used in years. Having live oxen turn the mill would be a great attraction, Alexander said. 

Back when IDNR was the Illinois Department of Conservation, nearly 40 years ago, Lincoln's New Salem State Park was one of its charges. Now that the state's historic sites and parks are back under the same roof, sitting around the same table, perhaps we can hope for a brighter future for Illinois history. Maybe not Williamsburg, but perhaps an oxen or two and some chickens. Personally, I'm holding out for a New Rutledge Tavern and Inn, and a sawmill for Jack Alexander.

William Furry of Petersburg is executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society and a frequent visitor at New Salem.

William Furry

William Furry is executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society and editor of Illinois Heritage, its popular history magazine. He is a former editor of Illinois Times.

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