Some people might call Pinckneyville’s Charlie Greer a hoarder. After all, he’s collected for years and his accumulation ranges from antique tractors to tools and telephone equipment. But unlike those for whom gathering can become a serious problem, Greer’s collection instead is a source of preservation, education and remembrances.
Greer and his wife Mary are the founders and curators of the Illinois Rural Heritage Museum, a growing showcase of the way life used to be in small towns and on farms. Walking into the museum in the Perry County seat is like stepping back in time 75 years. Visitors are transported back to years long gone, but not forgotten.
“I’ve always believed we need to know our past in order to have a future,” Greer, a member of Egyptian Electric Cooperative, says. “This is a way to educate younger people or those that don’t live in the country to the way it was, as well as bring back memories to some of the older people.”
“I wanted to do this because I was raised on a farm and love small communities. I’ve always wanted to have something so our kids could learn about the past,” he explains.
Inside the 32,000 square-foot museum, patrons will find everything from vintage farm equipment and tools to turn-of-the-century home furnishings and items from mercantile stores, feed mills and more. Century-old furnishings from a local physician’s office are displayed next to early 20th century dental equipment.
“We didn’t target just the farm,” Greer explains. “We want to portray small communities, too. When we first started people thought we were going to have a tractor museum, but it’s not just tractors. It’s all about the country lifestyle.”
Many of the items on display are on loan to the museum from businesses and individuals. Some supporters have allotted small items such as clothing or hand tools, others have loaned much larger items—an 80-horsepower Case steam engine is on loan from The Mashoffs, a Carlyle-based pork production company.
“Some of the items are mine and Mary’s but most, like 90 percent of the things in the general store, are here on loan,” the retired farmer and coal miner adds. The store features several thousand items by itself. Many of the displays include signage and written descriptions. More often than not, Greer accompanies visitors as they tour the museum, adding a personal narrative about each item. In that way, a visit is like a walk through history with a touch of southern hospitality thrown in.
It is a labor of love for the Greers, who also comprise the museum’s entire staff. The facility officially is open all day Thursday through Saturday, as well as Sunday afternoons. “But if anyone calls and we can be here any other time, we’ll be open,” he adds. On other days the couple can be found rearranging displays, preparing newly-acquired artifacts for exhibition or talking with potential donors and sponsors. Funding for the museum comes from visitors (adult admission is $7), grants and donations, as well as proceeds from an annual tractor drive and banquet held the first Saturday of June. Greer says support for the museum comes from “donations and begging.”
Individuals, area businesses and national corporations have made both financial and in-kind donations. Displays from companies such as Monsanto provide insight and information about modern agriculture so that visitors can compare old and new. A dedicated educational room allows space for tour groups, school classes and organizations such as 4H clubs and FFA chapters to discuss museum exhibits.
“We want older people to enjoy the museum, but we are targeting the younger people.”
Since its official opening this summer, the museum has garnered a lot of attention and brought in visitors from around the world. Greer says rural enthusiasts from New York and even Australia have signed the facility’s guest book. But he adds that it’s been people who grew up on or near farms in the Midwest who truly enjoy all of the displays.
People like 82-year-old Lynn Blair of East Moline. Blair was born and raised on a farm near Culter. During a trip this summer to a family reunion, Mary Greer says Blair went looking for some of the places he could remember.
“His farmstead wasn’t there anymore,” she says. “Neither was the home of a former friend or even the high school he attended. Someone suggested he come to the museum. Here he was able to relive some of his past.”
Blair says the visit was enjoyable.
“Being from a farm, I enjoyed the tractors and tools, but there also were all kinds of antiques. It brought back a lot of memories.”
In fact Blair’s son, Brian, says the visit lasted almost three hours. Greer says that’s a common occurrence for visitors.
“You can spend a lot of time here,” he says.
Greer says he wants to continue to expand and improve the museum, so that displays are always fresh.
“I don’t want people to come back in six months and say, ‘I’ve already seen all of this before.’ I want to keep it new,” he says, adding that future plans include additional phases to improve display areas and new exhibitions, including a room dedicated to mortuary services of the early 1900s.
Greer says additional phases of the museum are planned, as are new additions and exhibits. “It’s a growing museum,” he says, adding that the gallery is attracting visitors from around the country. “There are a lot of people who want to preserve this way of life and keep their ancestor’s ways for reminiscing and for educating kids.”
Greer says he is very proud of what has come of his vision for a museum. “I never dreamed that it would turn out like it has. It is immaculate.”