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Champaign County History Museum celebrates 50th anniversary with community via history-oriented activities

TJ Blakeman, the president of the Champaign County History Museum's board of trustees, wears a white polo as he prepares to lead a history tour of Champaign's downtown. Although the tours were supposed to be held on Saturday, the museum moved them to Sunday due to rain.

CHAMPAIGN – Over the weekend, the Champaign County History Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary with several activities designed to engage and educate the community. 

The events ranged from an open house to lemonade shakeups to an appearance by the museum’s historic popcorn truck. The museum also debuted two history walks: one through the downtown Champaign area and another about the theatres, past and present, in downtown Champaign. 

Because of the forecasted rain for the weekend, the museum staff moved Saturday’s events to Sunday. 

Museum Manager Connor Monson said the anniversary celebration was one way for the museum to make a good impression on the public, especially since its reopening in 2017. 

“It’s a chance for them (visitors) to have a fun interaction with museum staff and to learn about our space in an engaging way,” he said.

Interviewed before the event, Monson predicted the popcorn wagon to be especially popular with the public. 

“It’s such an iconic piece of machinery,” he said. “I hear people all the time in the community talk about, ‘When are you going to bring the popcorn wagon out?’ It’s something that people really recognize, and it’s a symbol of fun, and it’s always really a delight to see it.” 

TJ Blakeman, president of the museum’s board of trustees, said the museum organized the weekend’s events to celebrate its anniversary while also educating attendees about the community’s history.

To prepare for the weekend, Blakeman said volunteers delved into the museum’s history, including old photographs and meeting minutes, along with reconnecting with former board members and presidents.

He said it’s rewarding to spotlight the history museum because it is an institution that is built primarily by the work of board members, membership holders and volunteers. 

“We really should be celebrating the accomplishments (and) the dedication of more than 160 people who have served as board members for the Champaign County History Museum since 1972,” Blakeman said. 

He also said the museum’s history is often overlooked. 

“In organizations like this,” he said, “one of the things you forget is to actually celebrate and look back on your own history.”

The museum’s current building – the Cattle Bank – was constructed in 1857. Located at 102 E. University Ave., it is Champaign County’s oldest documented commercial structure. (The museum also uses the adjoining Oakly building). The museum was originally located at the old Wilber Mansion at 907 W. University Ave., yet the mansion was sold in 1997, and the proceeds were used to buy the organization’s current building. 

Blakeman explained the importance of local museums, saying museums are storytellers that tell the stories of objects and events in ways that allow the public to learn from them. He said he believes every county needs a thriving local history museum and someone dedicated to continuing telling those stories. 

Monson agreed, saying that local museums can tell stories on a more intimate level than large-scale organizations. 

“Sometimes, with larger museums, you get caught up in the sweep of generalizations,” he said. “With smaller museums, you can really tell these personal, emotional stories about individuals and how they interact with their community.” 

Blakeman said the anniversary celebration also served as a fundraising event, as the museum is solely funded by donations and memberships.

“Our funding comes 100% from donations and memberships and people to come out and support us,” Blakeman said. “So we continue to have a growing amount of support, and we’re very grateful to the community for that.”

Although the anniversary weekend has ended, the museum is open Wednesdays through Fridays 1–5 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It currently has four exhibits on display, devoted to Champaign County history. 

 

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Sydney Wood

Sydney Wood

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