The museum is now open to the public, pre-registration is required.

New exhibits recount seminal moments in county's past

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Mask up, hitch a ride in your "wagon "and visit the McHenry County Historical Musuem's newest exhibits

The Fight for Illinois Suffrage: On June 10, 1919, Illinois was one of the first states to vote in favor of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Surprisingly, McHenry County newspapers took almost no notice of that ratification. The truth of the matter is that Illinois women were, since 1913, free to vote in township and municipal elections. The fight for suffrage in Illinois involved the support of county chapters of the Illinois “Anti-Saloon League” and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In McHenry County, both groups had extremely active chapters led by women of great note. Learn how women, like Marengo’s Elizabeth Shurtleff, worked alongside Illinois Suffragette Grace Wilbur Trout to promoted women’s suffrage in Illinois.

Travel by Horse & Buggy: To the first settlers of McHenry County, traveling the “roads” in the mid-1830s in their cumbersome horse- or ox-drawn wagons was a challenge. Learn how the first settlers tamed the prairie to build the county’s first roads. Explore how important the role of horses was to pioneer life and the blacksmith and harness maker professions.
Riding the Rails: During the mid-19th century, McHenry County’s unpaved roads did not adequately meet the county’s transportation needs. The roads were dusty in dry weather and nearly impassibly muddy in wet. In time, McHenry County depended on the railroad for transporting both people and goods. The railroad rapidly became an economic engine that influenced the landscape of McHenry County. Learn how Harvard became a railroad town and the history behind Crystal Lake’s three train depots.
Call to Arms: McHenry County had close to 20,000 inhabitants within its boundaries when Fort Sumter was fired upon April 12, 1861. This act signaled the start of the Civil War. McHenry County’s citizens responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers by sending a total of 2,533 men to the Union Army. Learn about soldiers in the 95th and 15th Illinois Infantry, how McHenry County supported the northern homefront, and what life was like for soldiers returning home after the Civil War.

Prairie Trails to Strange Tales: McHenry County’s Earliest Years: McHenry County was a challenging and often dangerous place in the early 19th century.

“Deer, wolves, foxes and other animals at that time [1835] roamed over the prairies and through the openings, as many and free as the Indian,” the 1877 McHenry County History Book states. “The men hunted the deer during the day and the wolves hunted the sheep and pigs during the night.”

The 1885 county history book talks of hills of “considerable elevation.” It also mentions numerous, densely covered marshes and peat bogs – just waiting to swallow up a heavily laden wagon or ox cart.
 “They had journeyed from their far distant homes, through a rough country, over bad roads, river, swamps and marshes – passing nights with no shelter above them and toiling forward by day, meeting new obstacles over and anon.”

This exhibit features tales of the first pioneers who settled on the prairie and how they influenced McHenry County’s earliest communities. Following the end of the Blackhawk War in 1832, land-thirsty settlers began entering McHenry County. Pioneers packed all of their earthly belongings and supplies into a covered wagon and headed into the unknown – battling “uncultivated heathen,” malaria, the cold and rugged terrain without the aid of a compass or primitive conveniences.

Like many who came here, Juliette Kinzie was a native New Yorker. The celebrated author of the 1856 travelogue, “Wau-Bun: The Early Day in the North-West,” Kinzie relates what she saw in the late 1830s en route to visiting her husband, John – an Indian agent in Portage, Wis. She was the first white person to write about Crystal Lake, which she named. In the last half of her book, she wrote of crossing the Fox River at what would become Algonquin. She also traveled along what would become Route 14 to the Woodstock area and what would become Alden Road toward the Wisconsin state line.

At one point Kinzie writes:

“In this open country there are no landmarks. One elevation is so exactly like another, that if you lose your trail there is almost as little hope of regaining it as of finding a pathway in the midst of the ocean,” she wrote. “The trail, it must be remembered, is not a broad highway, but a narrow path, deeply indented by the hoofs of the horses on which the Indians travel in single file. So deeply is it sunk in the sod which covers the prairies, that it is difficult, sometimes, to distinguish it at a distance of a few rods. … So great was our anxiety to recover our trail, for the weather was growing more cold, and the wind more sharp and piercing, that we were not tempted to turn from our course even by the appearance, more than once, of a gaunt prairie-wolf, peering over the nearest rising-ground and seeming to dare us to an encounter. … Just before sunset we crossed, with some difficulty, a muddy stream, which was bordered by a scanty belt of trees, making a tolerable encamping-ground; and of this we gladly availed ourselves, although we knew not whether it was near or remote from the place we were in search of.”

Early surveyors, such as Crystal Lake’s John Brink, helped bring order to the chaos. Before land could be sold, a surveyor was hired to draw township maps. That necessitated that they walk through the entire county and take fastidious notes.

Maps dating back to 1812 show that white men were aware of the existence of the Fox River, Chain O’ Lakes and the Kishwaukee River. But knowing about them and getting across them were two different things.

“My husband took me to the bank to look for a moment at what we had escaped. The wind was sweeping down from the north in a perfect hurricane. The water was filled with masses of snow and ice, dancing along upon the torrent, over which were hurrying thousands of wild fowl, making the woods resound to their deafening clamor,” Kinzie wrote. “Had we been one hour later, we could not possibly have crossed the stream, and there would have been nothing for us but to have remained and starved in the wilderness.”

 Nevertheless, they endured and established small communities – typically alongside creeks that could power mills. Pioneer communities such as Barreville, Brookdale, and Ostend seemed to have bright futures in the 1860s and 1870s … until the railroad located elsewhere. The exhibit revisits them during their heyday and explains what is left today.

“The life of a pioneer is humble yet glorious,” noted the 1885 county history book. “He prepares the way for advancing civilization, endures poverty and hardship, toils without recompense, that his posterity may enjoy the full fruition of his labors. He is the adventurer in fields untried; the pathfinder, the discoverer, the advance agent leading other to a land of promise.”

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