What's new and old Jacksonville

Including an impressive new history museum

click to enlarge The David Strawn Art Gallery in Jacksonville features national and local artists in an 1882 mansion. - PHOTO BY RANDY VON LISKI
Photo by Randy von Liski
The David Strawn Art Gallery in Jacksonville features national and local artists in an 1882 mansion.

It may no longer be called the "Athens of the West," but Jacksonville still offers plenty of history and culture, including a new museum, some Underground Railroad sites and a mansion-housed art gallery. Throw in a Ferris wheel and a new winery, and you've got yourself a full-day trip.

The Jacksonville Area Museum opened in September in the imposing former downtown post office building just off the central square. A nine-minute video offered in the old postmaster's office traces Jacksonville's roots to early settlers and their religious and educational bent. Memorabilia donated by citizens fill the shelves of the video room.

In the former post office lobby, visitors can view exhibits highlighting local retail, industry and institutions. Jacksonville has hosted woolen mills, a book binder, cigar rollers, food manufacturers and a vinyl record maker. The town also has been home to several state institutions over the years, and displays include a stone windowsill from the former state mental hospital with patients' inscriptions visible.

A side gallery includes information and artifacts on such notables as orator William Jennings Bryan and Dr. Greene Vardiman Black, considered the father of modern dentistry, and their time in Jacksonville. The museum also notes Abraham Lincoln's connection to the town.

Another gallery celebrates the recently closed MacMurray College with photos, athletic banners, portraits of college presidents and paintings by former art professor Nellie A. Knoff.

The museum is hosting a traveling Smithsonian exhibit on "Voices and Votes: Democracy in America" till Dec. 23.

Laura Marks, a museum board member, said plans include transforming the former mail handling area to more exhibit space once volunteers can raise the $500,000 to $1 million needed for phase two. "We had a big opening and we have shown what we can do," she said of the multiyear effort to open the first phase.

click to enlarge Artifacts and information on the institutions that have made Jacksonville home include those from Illinois College and the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane. The Jacksonville Area Museum opened in September. - PHOTO BY RANDY VON LISKI
Photo by Randy von Liski
Artifacts and information on the institutions that have made Jacksonville home include those from Illinois College and the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane. The Jacksonville Area Museum opened in September.

The volunteer-run museum, funded by donations, has plenty of history to showcase, beginning with Jacksonville's founding in 1825. Nine years later it had the largest population of any Illinois city.

In its early years the town attracted New England educators who in 1829 founded Illinois College, which graduated the first college class in Illinois and began the first medical school in the state. The town's commitment to education, further enhanced by the opening of state schools for the blind and deaf and the Illinois Conference Female Academy (eventually MacMurray College), led to the "Athens of the West" moniker.

Meanwhile, early religious leaders became active in antislavery efforts, and today at least nine sites are designated as having been part of the Underground Railroad. Some of the sites are private residences, but visitors can follow a map to view those from the outside.

Visitors also can book a tour of Woodlawn Farm, just east of town, to learn how farmer and cattle baron Michael Huffaker hired free African American families. That practice helped disguise the increasing number of slaves seeking freedom who passed through the area.

"They didn't document how many slaves came through," said Terry Maggart, chair of Jacksonville's Underground Railroad Committee, likely because of the secretive nature of their journeys. No record of slave catchers coming to the farm exists either, he noted.

Maggart said Huffaker was one of the greatest pioneers around, valued education and expanded his holdings to 160 acres, unusual for that time. Visitors to the farm can view period furnishings, replicas of slave shackles and photos of the cabins and cellar where slaves hid.

For a view of more elaborate housing, head to the David Strawn Art Gallery near downtown with its exhibits of national and local artwork. A Victorian mansion built in 1882, it holds permanent collections of Mississippi Indian pottery, a historic doll assortment and artifacts from the Mediterranean. Some rooms showcase period furnishings from the time the mansion was home to Phoebe and Jacob Strawn.

Other impressive buildings worth a look include the Carnegie Library and the Governor Duncan Mansion, home to one of the three Illinois governors who hailed from Jacksonville.

If you visit in the summer or fall, you can catch a ride on the Eli Bridge Ferris Wheel in Community Park. The company, the world's oldest manufacturer of Ferris wheels and other amusement rides, still operates its Jacksonville factory.

The park itself carries history as the site of the former Illinois State Hospital for the Insane and later the now-abandoned Jacksonville Developmental Center. Bandstands hearken back to the hospital.

To top off your day, check out Waters Edge Winery and Bistro on the town's eastern edge. The 17-acre site, set on rolling hills, offers wines from around the world and a large building suitable for special events.

Brittany Henry, executive director of the Jacksonville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said two new restaurants plan to open soon, joining several others around the central square. The square annually hosts such events as farmers markets in the summer, a pumpkin festival for children in October and a Christmas market, scheduled for Dec. 10-11 this year.

For more information on events and sites in Jacksonville, seasonal hours and directions, go to jacksonvilleil.org or stop by the visitors bureau across from the new museum on East State Street. The new museum's website is www.JacksonvilleAreaMuseum.org. Make an appointment to visit Woodlawn Farm at www.woodlawnfarm.com.

Mary Bohlen writes about travel for the Illinois Times and ReGeneration. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she has specialized in day trips from Springfield.

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