White County Historical Society

Museums and History


The WCHS was founded in 1957, and established its first museum in Carmi when the Ratcliff Inn was saved from destruction in 1960. Abraham Lincoln stayed in the Inn in 1840, and its original owner served in many county offices from 1818 to 1848. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency awarded the society a grant in 2001 to replace the heating system, add plate glass windows, and remove soft bricks that were thought to be wicking moisture into the first floor. It turned out that soft bricks were not the major cause of the building's moisture problems, but that the foot of dirt and rubble that had settled on the original stone floor of the Ratcliff basement was causing much of the problem. A channel was dug around the basement with tiling used to draw off wetness. The workers also found a lack of a proper vapor barrier on many interior surfaces of plaster covered bricks. Problems with moisture persist in the building. Lots has changed in Carmi since the Inn was constructed in 1828, including the depth of streets and sidewalks.

The first floor of the museum contains one room with the parlor furniture of Mose and Carrie Day, donated by their daughter Vivian. James Ratcliff's bookcase sets off the front hallway, which has a number of plaques and pictures relating to the museum. The other downstairs room is being used for meetings and events. Upstairs the museum has many artifacts from the past, including Senator James Robinson's cloak, glassware from the Damrom House, firearms, quilts, fans, and a bedroom with rope bed.
 

The 1814 Robinson-Stewart House was donated to the society in 1966 by its last owner, Miss Mary Jane Stewart, granddaughter of a U.S. Senator from Carmi.  All of the home's furnishings, many of which date to the 1830s, were also given to the society, including a desk originally used in the Ratcliff at which Lincoln might have worked during his stay at the Inn, and a silver drinking cup which Lincoln used as he accompanied little Patty Webb of Carmi to Mt. Carmel on the stage coach trip north.   There was a virtual tour of the museum at Robinson Stewart House tour by the local school district, but it may have been moved. This building has been getting lots of work the last few years,  such as painting the exterior and fence, removing the crumbling rug in the parlor and reupholstering one of the sets of parlor furnishings. The building got a new roof in June 2003, using donated funds and discounted labor and materials. In June, 2002 the society hosted several members of the family of William Stewart, a revolutionary war veteran and ancestor of Miss Mary Jane. We determined that the silver-topped cane in one of the display cases is the same one that William had in the photo taken shortly before his 1856 death. I give several tours of the building each year, and have even started wearing Victorian clothing during special events.

The L. Haas Store museum (built 1896) was purchased in 1992 to house the Society's growing collection of artifacts. It now contains everything from native american artifacts (on loan from the Rebstock family) to a circa 1918 mail rig to hundreds of tools, photographs, and vintage clothing.  One highlight are the hanging tools of Hawthorne township farmer Phil Hanna, "the humane hangman", who ended the life of Southern Illinois' most famous or infamous outlaw, Charlie Birger. Hanna presided over many early 20th century executions.  The Haas Store building is a wonderful example of a cast iron storefront, and is located directly across from the Ratcliff Inn.  You can tour the museum on line at L.Haas Store Museum. The museum underwent repairs in 2001 and has been organized with church and kitchen areas, communications, homelife, Native American, medical, military, and Carmi sections. In November and December 2005 the museum hosted a Smithsonian Exhibition on Food throughout history, called Key Ingredients. You can see the schedule at  keyingredients.org.

In May, June and July 2010 the society is hosting another Smithsonian, on music, called New Harmonies. Several concerts are planned to go along with the travel and local exhibits.

 
 

The State of Illinois contacted the Society in 1994 about a covered log cabin located along the right of way of Illinois Route 1 and in 1996 the Matsel Cabin was opened to the public.  The state provided research and moving services on the structure, located approximately three miles south of Carmi.  The society purchased a lot next to the Old Graveyard, which had been deeded to the society by its trustees in 1990, and secured a $20,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs to restore the structure.  In the process we learned a lot about 1850's era log cabins, which were built with the logs as a frame and were generally meant to have clapboard siding. The front room was painted with milkpaint and furnished in the manner that the Matsel family would have lived in the 1850s. The kitchen, which was added in the 1890s and is constructed of "beaded board", a form of tongue and grove siding, was restored to that era.
 
 

The Ratcliff Inn is shown at the top of the page, and the Matsel Cabin is just above. Past President Gary Edwards, who died early in 2001, made these attractive line drawings.   You used to be able to see photos of these and many other historic structures of the area at CARMI ONLINE http://www.cityofcarmi.com, but the site has been redesigned and the pictures are currently unavailable. Go there anyway to learn more about Carmi. Please contact me if the background interferes with your use of the page.

The society also maintains Carmi's Old Graveyard, which saw its last burial in 1966. There are supposed to be hundreds of unmarked graves of early residents, and many of the weathier families had fenced plots. There is a great book on the cemetery commissioned by Claire Williams, descendent of the Shannon and Williams family.

For the year 2003 the society's museums and library were open in May and June  without getting much business, so they are only open by appointment. All buildings are be open on Corn Day, which will be October 8 in 2005. As mentioned above, the Key Ingredients exhibit is our big event for 2005. The Ratcliff Inn hosted a quilt show and craft demonstration in 2001, as part of Illinois Family Heritage Weekend..

General membership meetings are held in the spring and fall, with the latter featuring the annual Heritage House Award presentation. The background of this page is the Heritage House Plaque, and I have added a listing of all 32 houses honored since 1971, called heritagehouses.html.

Call or e-mail us for more information. Members receive a quarterly newsletter, which features queries and articles, which helps to link our 350 members from all corners of the US and several foreign countries.  We had some good info about the 1925 tornado in a recent issue, and usually run a page of corrections to Harriet Vaught's cemetery books. Barbara Hughes is the editor. The photo below is of Carmi in the 1920s or 30s, apparently taken from the current location of the Carmi city building. The Ratcliff is in the foreground, while the tallest building in the background is the old Hay-Webb bank, which was called the Radio Building by the time I knew it. The structure was destroyed in a spectacular fire around 1984.

 

The Society's 2010 projects include working on our old buildings, especially the Robinson Stewart, a spring meeting with a guest speaker discussing Illinois place names, several education programs, along with New Harmonies. We are working with the Southern Illinois Association of Museums on marketing, preservation and tourguide training.


Related Resources

Read about the outlaws of Southern Illinois, and other historical high/lowlights at  The Birger Gang before you visit the Haas Store Museum which contains Phil Hanna's hanging tools.

Learn about the county seat: Carmi History Page.

Cindy's home town: Enfield Mule Day Home Page.

Read Margaret Land's history of Enfield: History of Enfield, Illinois.

Read the history of Enfield's Catholic Church: St. Patrick's Catholic Church.

Visit White County on the USGenweb project White County, Illinois Included are  weekly genealogy columns from the CARMI TIMES, queries, a short history, and look-up information. Here is the page for our neighbor to the south Gallatin County, Illinois

Don't forget the Rootsweb home page, where you can find a wealth of information : Rootsweb Home Page


Last updated 9/14/2005. Please send corrections and comments to cbconly@midwest.net Your help will be appreciated.