Thursday, April 28, 2011

McHenry County Historical Society opens with tribute to Harvard

Northwest Herald: McHenry County Historical Society opens with tribute to Harvard
Every town in McHenry County has a story to tell. Now it’s Harvard’s turn.

The McHenry County Historical Society will open for a new season Sunday
with “Arrival – Harvard, Circa the 1880s.”

The two-year exhibit will highlight the history of the city, once the railroad hub of McHenry County.

And the best way to tell that history is through people, said Grace Molina, exhibit curator for the society.

“What I really like to do in an exhibit is focus on the people and their personal stories,” she said.

As part of Sunday’s opening, a panel of longtime residents will share their thoughts and experiences at 1:30 p.m.

One of the panelists, 95-year-old Margaret Kistler, put together a history book in 2006 for Harvard’s Sesquicentennial.

She grew up in town, attending a one-room school house “with a big round furnace in it” until seventh grade when the city’s first junior high opened.

“I often wonder how those poor dear teachers ever taught us kids what we needed to know,” she said. “You’d listen to the grades below you and the grades ahead of you and you’d learn by listening.”

Through the exhibit, visitors also will get to know deceased members of the Ayers family, including Elbridge Gerry Ayer, known as the founder of Harvard.

He made a deal with the Chicago, St. Paul and Fon du Lac Railroad. Bring the tracks to Harvard, and the town will provide free land, a hotel, a restaurant and anything else needed to meet the needs of the people and workers traveling on the trains.

“He ended up getting a lot out of this deal,” Molina said. “He made the railway.”

Harvard soon became the busiest railroad yard in the county with a locomotive roundhouse large enough to accommodate 25 engines.

A turntable basically turned the trains, so they could be placed in the roundhouse and serviced, Molina said. Many railroad people moved to town as a result.

It was an important time for the city, Museum Administrator Nancy Fike said, and that’s why it was chosen.

As part of its two-year displays, the 35-year-old museum picks communities and highlights various eras.

Previous exhibits have featured Marengo in the 1890s and Fox River Grove in the 1920s.

“It just takes you back to a whole other period,” Molina said.

The new exhibit will include an operating model train as well as an original painting done by the late Elbridge Ayer Burbank of Harvard, nationally known for his work portraying Native Americans.

He was the only artist to paint from life the legendary Geronimo, a prominent Native American leader who fought against the United States in the Apache Wars.

Elbridge Ayer’s oldest son, Edward Ayer, went on to help found and serve as first president of the Field Museum. His nephew was Burbank.

Other highlights of the exhibit include a “ghost,” who will talk about how at the age of 16, he once guarded the safe of Alonzo Axtell. Axtell owned a dry-good business at the time, and loaned money on the side.

He rigged up a pail of water over his safe and asked a young Frank Phelps to sit by the safe at night and pull the rope if a robber appeared.

The thought was that the commotion would wake up Axtell, sleeping upstairs, Molina explained.

Axtell went on to found a bank in Harvard, and Phelps became a cashier. He later served as vice-president of the bank.

“There’s always a neat story,” Molina said.

The exhibit, as well as previous exhibits, couldn’t have been accomplished without the help of volunteers, including a group of men from Intren, Inc., in Union who helped move heavy parts of the display up and down the stairs, Fike said.

“These things come about because of cooperation,” she said

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