Illinois State Military Museum gets new home

Sunday, June 15, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Under camouflage netting, facing a map of the seven continents, visitors to the Illinois State Military Museum begin their journey through decades of the Prairie State's participation in combat.

"This is a lot like a military briefing area," said Mark Whitlock, the curator of the museum, which opened in new quarters this week.

The corner of the room is decked out like a modern information center, much like that which Illinois National Guardsmen might have been summoned to during recent overseas conflicts.

But instead of learning about the enemy's vulnerabilities, visitors learn the colorful history of the state's armed forces. Included in those annals are the notorious capture of Santa Anna's wooden leg and how Abraham Lincoln, as president, made his own test of a rifle when a gun salesman came calling.

Illinois has sent soldiers into combat since the Revolutionary War. It contributed 250,000 fighters to the Union cause in the Civil War and the National Guard is also serving an active role in the ongoing war on terrorism.

While there are no exhibits from the current conflict, visitors can stroll through a two-story museum at Camp Lincoln to see parts of what is a 10,000-piece collection of artifacts including photographs, weapons and uniforms.

The 100-year-old, castle-like structure provides a permanent home for the materials that have moved from place to place since the museum's founding in 1878.

Although small, the new museum is more spacious than previous quarters and will be a place where people can come for generations to keep Illinois' military history fresh in their minds, Whitlock said.

"It's a living facility," Whitlock said.

Curious exhibits

Among the more interesting -- and curious -- exhibits are the artificial leg of Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, which Illinois soldiers captured in the Mexican War.

Surprising Santa Anna while he munched on chicken on April 18, 1847, the 4th Regiment Illinois Volunteers ate his lunch and took his leg. The Mexican government has asked for its return several times over the years, but Illinois has refused.

And then there's the board that Lincoln used for target practice, but not during his brief stint as captain of a company of mounted volunteers in 1832 during the Black Hawk War.

This one was set up in 1863 near where the Washington Monument now stands. Lincoln himself fired off the repeating rifle that manufacturer Christopher Miner Spencer had taken to Washington to try to smooth over some of the Union Army's complaints about it.

The Illinois Military Museum has been around for more than a century, but lack of state funding in past years kept its contents on the move. Artifacts have been in various places around Springfield, including the Capitol.

Most recently, the items were in a cramped, 700-square-foot barracks with no bathrooms.

"It didn't offer what the public expected for a state military museum," Whitlock said.

Whitlock said about 6,000 people visit the museum each year, including those who come out to see some items displayed annually at the Illinois State Fair. He said he hopes that number will quadruple with the opening of the new facility.

It took three years and $1.2 million to renovate the former supply warehouse into a climate-controlled, handicap-accessible building with gift shop and educational areas.

Whitlock said interactive exhibits are planned. In one area children will be able to dress up in military uniforms and another will allow visitors to look down the barrel of a rifle at the target Lincoln fired at 140 years ago.

The first floor includes an open area for historians to set up their own displays or give lectures, and for schoolchildren to gather.

Don Ferricks of Athens was on hand at the opening of the museum Tuesday, decked out in an early 19th century soldier's uniform.

He said the museum's opening will encourage him to dress in period costume more often and travel to Springfield for history lessons.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.


For information about tours call (217) 761-3910.

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