Grassroots movement saving Illinois history
By Alexandra M. Newbern
Imagine a place where you can travel back in time and become part of the 18th century, a place where kids can have fun while discovering history and adults can enjoy watching their children learn. You can escape the demands of modern technology and take pleasure in the simple life by going to Fort de Chartres during the annual Rendezvous. The Rendezvous is the largest and oldest 18th century re-creation in the United States – and it takes place in Southern Illinois! Similar experiences of “traveling back in time” can be had at all of the historical sites Illinois has to offer.
Illinois is a history-rich state with more than 60 historic sites recognized by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Each year, approximately 2.5 million people tour these historic spots. Despite the abundance of history and the amount of tourism in the state, the recent financial crisis has forced many historic sites to close temporarily until funds can be found to reopen them. While there are many problems with shutting down historical sites, the main issue is many have a difficult time reopening. How can Illinois keep from losing its history when the funds to save the historical sites are nowhere to be found?
Sarah Schatte, CEO of the organization aptly named Save Illinois History, believes she has the answer. Save Illinois History was founded in November 2008 when Schatte and a small group of people were sitting around a campfire talking about the large number of site closures throughout the state. From this campfire talk, a grassroots movement was started to save four of the historical sites in Southern Illinois – Fort de Chartres, The Pierre Menard House, Fort Kaskaskia, and The Cahokia Court House.
The Save Illinois History group is a not-for-profit organization that relies on fundraising, sponsorships and donations to operate. Schatte is very passionate about drawing a larger and more diverse crowd of people to the four sites in Southern Illinois – especially to Fort de Chartres, which she refers to as “one of the finest historic sites in not just the state, but in the country.”
One of the ways she plans to attract different types of people is by holding various events at the sites. On April 9, 2010 an event called School Days, which helps young people experience history, was held at Fort de Chartres. Gathering a crowd of 400 children, Schatte described School Days as a success and plans to host it again next year in hopes the attendance will be even larger.
An annual bluegrass music festival is held at Fort Kaskaskia. “This year,” Schatte said, “We are looking to beef up and add some acts that will entice a younger crowd, a younger group. People that wouldn’t normally come to historical sites, but might want to come to hear the bands.” The festival will be held this year on September 25 and 26.
Save Illinois History is partnering with the Boulevard Brewing Company to put on a Brewfest event at Fort de Chartres on Oct. 9, 2010. The Brewfest will be a beer tasting with an 18th Century theme and 3,000 guests are expected to attend.
Not only do these events bring more visitors into historic sites, they help to raise funds to operate and improve the sites. Save Illinois History would like to raise $49, 850 this year to complete a few improvement projects at each of the four sites. However, Schatte said, these enhancements are a minimum because it would be “exponentially more, millions and millions of dollars” if each site received all of the necessary upgrades.
Schatte and her organization believe it is crucial for the historical sites throughout Illinois to remain open because without them Illinois history will be lost. Also, adults and children alike will miss out on a valuable learning experience.
Currently, the state allocates $7.9 million annually to help fund all of the historical sites. According to David Blanchette, spokesperson for the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency, “We are currently operating historic sites at a significantly lower budget than we had several years ago … I cannot say the exact figure that is actually needed, but I can say that it is significantly higher than what the budget is now.”
Although many may think funds are divided among the historical sites based on the number of visitors each year, the truth is funds are given based on the number of employees and the cost to operate the site. “Many times,” Blanchette said, “it is the small house museums that cost the most to run because they must be cleaned on a daily basis.”
Blanchette also said, “We sincerely appreciate the commitment by members of Save Illinois History to keeping our historic sites open to the public. The Agency and Save Illinois History both realize the value of the historic treasures we have in southwestern Illinois and hope we can keep these sites open to the public as much as possible.”
If state funding is cut, the responsibility to keep historic sites in operation will be left to the local communities. Some things community members can do to help include volunteering at the sites, becoming a member of support organizations, making monetary contributions and spreading awareness about historic sites.
For more information go to www.saveillinoishistory.com, call 618-334-2741 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.