KEWANEE, Ill. — The Kewanee Historical Society has been around since 1976, but the City of Kewanee was officially founded more than a hundred years earlier in 1854.
A museum dedicated to the vast history of the area is housed at the Kewanee Historical Society, 125 N. Tremont St.
The Kewanee Historical Society's Robert and Marcella Richards Museum has been housed at the corner of Tremont and Second Streets in downtown Kewanee since 2020. The museum is open May through October, Thursdays and Saturdays 1-4 p.m.
There are thousands of items to look at, read about, and explore, but here are a few of the more interesting things that intrigue guests:
Abraham Lincoln used this lantern in October 1858 to light his way for the latter half of an evening ride from Toulon to Kewanee. It was loaned to him by Saxon postmaster Charles Robson when Lincoln and company stopped by his post office/home on the road from Toulon to Kewanee. The lantern was returned to Robson with the next day's mail from Kewanee. The lantern remained with Robson and descendants until donated to the museum in 2004.
Abraham Lincoln visited Kewanee on Oct. 27-28, 1858, during the campaign for U.S. senator against Stephen Douglas.
Lincoln arrived by train on Oct. 27, promptly went to Toulon by horse and carriage for a scheduled speech, returned that day for an overnight stay in Kewanee, and left for Chicago by train on the morning of the 28th. Before leaving, he delivered an impromptu speech to an assembly gathered at the train station.
S.S. Kewanee champagne bottle
This carved wooden box contains ribbons and mesh enclosing the broken champagne bottle used by Miss Clara Dossche in christening the S.S. Kewanee on June 7, 1919 in New York City.
Back in the 1960s, the Big Scot was as popular as any burger in the Midwest. It was the creation of Sandy's, a hamburger and fries fast food restaurant chain founded by three Kewanee businessmen in 1958- Gust Lundberg, Paul White and Robert Wenger.
After failing to secure a McDonald's franchise in Peoria and surviving a lawsuit filed by McDonald's owner Ray Kroc, the Kewanee men opened their first restaurant in 1958 in Peoria.
Success followed, and in 1965, they opened their 100th store, the first in their hometown at 425 Tenney Street, the present site of LaGondola Restaurant. Many of the franchises throughout the Midwest were owned by fellow Kewaneeans.
The company rented office space for 10 years until an impressive headquarters was built in 1968 on Route 78, south of Kewanee. The uniquely designed building still stands today.
By 1972, Sandy's had 240 franchise restaurants. That would be the maximum as business reasons prompted a merger with Hardee's of North Carolina.
The Route 78 office became the Midwest Regional Office for Hardee's until closing in 1978. Hardee's added a second restaurant in Kewanee, but by 2006, both had closed.
Kewanee Iron Lung
Housed for decades in a brick addition of Kewanee City Hall, the Iron Lung has found a home at the Kewanee Historical Society. The plaque shows "provided by the people of Kewanee and the Tri-Counties."
The history behind the acquisition was because of Jim Helmer, son of Kewanee dentist Phillip Helmer. Jim attended Visitation and Kewanee High in 1932. After graduating from college in 1937, he came down with a cold which later was diagnosed as polio.
The Iron Lung helped victims of infantile paralysis to breathe. However, the closest iron lung was in Chicago, 250 miles from Kewanee. The 9-hour ride by rail was taken in 6 hours but the paralysis had gone too far and he died the next day.
Helmer's death in 1937 and the sweeping polio epidemic inspired Kewaneeans to raise $2,800 in two weeks for the Iron Lung. With the development of a vaccine for polio, the Iron Lung is no longer needed,
This information was taken from a Star Courier article about the Kewanee Iron Lung written by Dave Clark in 1992.
Matchbook collection of Gil Hernblom Sr. and Jr. Gil Jr. created the display of Kewanee's Sesquicentennial in 2004. All the matchbooks were from Kewanee area businesses.
Cornhuskers Hall of Fame
Kewanee Historical Society has dedicated an area of their museum to the corn husking contest and the people that participated in them. Pictures of the National Corn Husking Contest and the champions of the 80-minute contest that were held from 1924 through 1941 are on display. Newspaper and magazine articles from the first contests have been arranged by year and contestants. An extensive display of the corn husking hooks and pegs are hung for easy view. Articles on the revived Illinois State contest and National contest have also found a place at the museum. (Source: IllinoisCornHusking.com)
It is stated in the July 1977 meeting minutes of the Kewanee Historical Society that President Robert C. Richards proposed establishing at Kewanee, Illinois, the National Cornhuskers Hall of Fame. National contests were held from 1924 to 1941. He wrote up a resolution to that effect and presented it to the City Council of Kewanee. It was adopted by the Council September 8, 1978. The resolution was presented to the Henry County Board of Supervisors by Mr. Joe Dragolovich. The Board adopted the resolution.
Richard Mauntino, state representative, presented the resolution to the Illinois State Legislature. The resolution was adopted by the state March 14, 1978. Tow Cornhuskers Hall of Fame conventions were held in Kewanee. The years 1979 and 1980, the Cornhuskers participated in the annual Labor Day parade. The records of several Cornhuskers were Xeroxed and are in scrapbooks for the public to read. Leonard Jacobs, of Phoenix, Arizona, collected pictures and records of all Cornhuskers from 1924 to 1941. Bob Richards wrote to him and he sent all his Cornhuskers history. Copies were made and that made nearly a complete Cornhuskers history.
An early version of a phoropter and a trial lens set, donated by Doctors Robert and Ned Hubbard.