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Dixon Historic Center adds regional farm and Native exhibits
Illinois Correspondent

DIXON, Ill. —  Dixon Historic Center hosted an open house Jan. 20 focusing on its two new exhibits: Native American influences in the Midwest, primarily the Black Hawk and Sauk, and the American farmer’s settling of the prairie.

The new permanent exhibits were created to enrich understanding of regional Native American life and early farming. The American Indian exhibit features speaking lifelike figures of Black Hawk and his father. It is educational, as well as sad, to hear the narrative details of the natives’ struggle to keep their land.

According to Center information, by the middle of the 1700s the Sauk had moved from the Lower Wisconsin River to a site on the eastern shores of the Upper Mississippi River known today as Rock Island, Ill. There they developed the largest village of the time and named it Saukenuk.

At its height, it sustained 2,000-3,000 inhabitants who cultivated up to 800 acres of glacial-fertilized land. A handful of additional Sauk villages were established nearby, “but none approached the grandeur of Saukenuk.” Visitors learn while the Sauks were in their winter hunting grounds, settlers took over their huts, started farming over their burial site and assumed control of the rich land where Black Hawk was born in 1767.

Exhibits also focus on aspects of the settlers’ lifestyle, plus implements and tools that helped them move West. The American farm section of the Center offers the story of 1800s America. Besides the farm home, in the back of this section is a replication of a working blacksmith shop.

Local farm tool and equipment collector Al Laidig is one of the contributors to this section. He owns an extensive collection of farm tools and donated several to this wonderful exhibit. Laidig had planned to put his blacksmith tools on a trailer for display, but when the chance came to share them at the center, he brought them here instead.

Round arena model

For anyone who enjoys the beauty of round barns, a look at the lovely model of the 1887 Rock River Assembly’s arena is in order. It was designed originally by architect Morrison H. Vail from Chicago and was built for training Sunday school teachers and to serve as the theater for the Chautauqua gatherings.

According to the Center, constructed in 1899, the building had the largest clear interior span of any building in the United States and could seat 5,000 people. The Rock River Assembly went bankrupt in 1927 then was purchased by Dan Holbrook, who turned it into a roller rink. The rink remained open until destroyed by fire in 1949.
Architect Peter Wentworth was hired to create the rendition of the scale model arena for the Center. He explained, “Vail designed this as a standard structure to be repeated. There is another in existence in Shelbyville, so if you want to see it, you should go to Shelbyville (Ill.). The model I built is almost identical (to it).”

Information from the Shelbyville Chautauqua Auditorium Preservation Committee explained it is a 20-sided structure made up mostly of wood. The Rock River structure was a 24-sided structure and had a clear span of 160 feet.

The aesthetic of the Shelbyville building was intended to resemble a large tent, which exhibits some of the early beginnings of the Chautauqua movement. The building has a series of 40 operable clerestory windows, 18 large windows located on the main floor level and 10 large vertical overhead doors.

It took Wentworth about a year to build the model, which he designed a little larger than 1/32-scale. Once completed, he said the challenge was to get it out the door and to the museum. “That was a big consideration.”

He had to turn the model at a 90-degree angle to get it through the door of his home and the door of the museum. The construction of this model was a great pleasure for Wentworth because of the historical significance of the building.

The Dixon Historic Center is a History Research and Learning Center created after former President Ronald Reagan made a visit to Dixon in the 1980s. His friend, Norm Wymbs, assisted with the restoration of Reagan’s boyhood home, then followed up with work on the 1908 South Central School building, where Reagan attended school. Wymbs purchased the building and grounds for $500, then began the restoration process until the building was complete.
The city of Dixon is named for John Dixon, who purchased a ferry business in 1830. This center is an amazing place to see and learn local and national history. Affiliated with the Smithsonian Museum, the first-class displays will make any collector glad they took the time to stop and check out some of the tools used to break ground and set down roots in the fertile Midwest soil.

Contact the Center at 815-288-5508 or with questions. It is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. The Dixon Historic Center is located at 205 West Fifth Street, Dixon, IL 61021.