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Views and opinions: Farm and other local history part of Alton museum’s lore


On the campus of the Southern Illinois Dental School, formerly known as Shurtleff College, sits the Alton History & Art Museum. Founded in 1971 to preserve the heritage of the Alton community, it draws many to learn about the history of Alton’s “gentle giant,” Robert Wadlow, who was born on Feb. 22, 1918.

Robert died at the young age of 22 and was the tallest man to ever live. He grew to be 8’11’ and weighed 490 pounds. He suffered from a pituitary gland disorder and still holds the Guinness Book of Records place even today as the tallest man.

Brian Combs provides tours of the museum, and said that it is the second-oldest college building in Illinois. It is original to Shurtleff, which was begun by John Mason Peck, a Baptist minister, in 1818. This building was constructed in 1832 and has had continuous use.

The museum also covers the history of Elijah Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister who came to the area from Albion, Maine. Writing for a press in St. Louis, he spoke out against slavery. “He was ahead of his time, and outspoken a quarter of a century before the Civil War,” Brian noted.

After a mob threw his press into the river in St. Louis, he moved to Alton to continue his work. Three times they destroyed his press and the fourth time the mob also killed Lovejoy. Others were able to recover a portion of the press that was thrown in the river, and there is a picture of that at the museum.

There is also Abraham Lincoln history, and World War II history linking to Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. The pilot who flew the Enola Gay, Paul Tibet, attended Western Military Academy.

Along with all this is some farm history that collectors will enjoy. In one room devoted to transportation that focuses mostly on riverboats and trains, there are artifacts such as the chest filled with tools that Brian said would have been used on the boats.

One corner also offers insight into a harness shop with the tools of the trade. In this same room a horse-drawn wooden structure hangs from the ceiling, and when I was there, visitors were debating over its exact use.

In the pioneer history area there are some scenes set up, like the trunk filled with Blue Willow dishes ready for travel. It is amazing to think these would survive the trip without breaking. They appear to be packed in straw.

To work the land are several plows, on display, one of which is a Hapgood. The Hapgood plow company was located along the Riverfront. It was founded by Charles Hutchins Hapgood in 1870 and moved to St. Louis, then Alton after the Great Chicago fire.

Alton Telegraph archives here have an ad from the office of the Hapgood Plow Co.: “Manufacturers of all kinds of Walking and Riding Plows Cultivators etc.” from July 16, 1894. It shared the glories of their plows: “That our sullies and gangs will run lighter than a common walking plow.”

The tool display also includes those used by the barn builders. Some of these are a broad axe, maul, framing hatchet and more.

A visit to the Alton History and Art Museum is a step back in time. Log onto for details and check with the Alton CVB at for information about more things to see and do in the area.


Readers with questions or comments for Cindy Ladage may write to her in care of this publication. Learn more of Cindy’s finds and travel in her blog, “Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl,” at