Downtown Sibley being brought back to past glory

By ROSS BROWN
bluehavanaross@gmail.com


SIBLEY — As one drives through Sibley, it is easy to see what the town used to be like.

The northwest Ford County village of 250 people was once a vibrant community that featured many of the same amenities and features that are now only found in larger municipalities.

Empty lots mark the locations of the Sibley Grade School, Methodist church and the long-gone Sibley Hotel. A softball diamond that once hosted men’s fast-pitch softball games now sits empty, collecting memories of the past. The old Triangle Restaurant at the highway corner is long abandoned with its roof caved-in.

Sullivant Township Hall is the town’s de-facto museum, featuring memorabilia and photos from days gone by. Visitors can look at the mounted album featuring every Melvin-Sibley High School graduating class (1950 to 1993). Walk back behind the stage and there are hundreds of names written on the walls, thought to be from at least 80 years ago.

It is not hard to tell how Sibley was two generations ago — and, thankfully, a small group of residents are attempting to bring that back.

Corky Meyer is a Sibley native who has lived in the now-Chicago suburb of Minooka for many years. Whenever Meyer returned home to visit family, he was disgusted with how the once-lively structures on Sciota Street looked.

“There were windows broken out and curtains flying freely in the wind,” Meyer said. “It looked bad, and I decided something needed to be done.”

So Meyer, along with Sibley residents Greg Brucker and Paul and Marge Vetter and local historian Derrick Babbs, have banded together to help raise funds to restore Sciota Street to what it looked like a few decades ago.

They have already made some progress.

Three buildings received much-needed structural improvements recently. A small building north of the Corner Store, the Sportsmen’s Club and a long-vacant business connected to the south have new doors, windows and tan-colored siding. New handicapped-accessible sidewalk curbs have been installed at the corner of Ohio and Sciota streets, and Vetter said the entire sidewalk will be replaced in the future.

The improvements helped stabilize the structures, some of which were in danger of imminent collapse.

Meyer said the roof on top of the former Amacher building had already collapsed, and the inside was exposed to the elements. In just the past few days, Meyer helped secure the roof in place and pour a concrete pad inside the structure, which made it a usable building.

The Amacher store connects to the north with the Sportsmen’s Club, where a group of residents still meet every morning for coffee and chit-chat. Recently, the group had to fend with buckets around the inside which would collect water from the leaking roof. The roof is being repaired and the interior is undergoing improvements now. The interior boasts several figurines, including mounted animals and a wood cash register.

Immediately to the club’s north is the old Star Cafe/Sarsaparilla building. At first glance, one can see what the building’s exterior once looked. The baby blue-colored painted wood panels have been stripped away to reveal a red-brick exterior and two boarded-up window areas. An old photo at the town hall shows two men standing in front of the then-Star Cafe about 50 years ago, when the restaurant was still serving food.

Despite closing about 30 years ago, the building was used for special events and gatherings until about five years ago. Sibley’s senior citizen Sunshine Kitchen Band performed there regularly, and the bar was utilized for the firemen’s Christmas party.

Today the interior of the bar appears as it always has. The long countertop extends the length of the building and wooden bar shelves exist along the north and east walls. A player piano brought in by former owner Stanley Bellis sits toward the entrance along the south wall and is still functioning.

Besides a chandelier not working, the only visible problem is the building’s floor. Walk near the back of the seating area and you will sink a few inches into the ground due to a rotten wood floor underneath. However, the Amacher building’s new concrete floor is in excellent shape, and one would imagine that it would not take much effort to put the Star back in working order.

Two years ago a new resident had plans to reopen the bar as a drinking establishment, but those plans did not come to fruition.

The Star was owned for a few years by Bellis but has since been given back to the village board. Some of his personal items still hang inside the structure, along with some Sibley-related items.

Brucker, a village board trustee, said the village is willing to hand over the space to someone should they want to have something new inside.

“We’ll sell it for a dollar,” Brucker said, “but they have to have a business model in place.”

While the middle section of buildings is being renovated, a vision of hope for the future exists at the north end of the block, with a pair of buildings owned by the Vetters. Connected to the land office building is the former Sibley Bank building, where Marge Vetter operated her “Nickels and Scents” boutique store from 1996 until 2006. The retired Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School special-education teacher also owns the former locker plant immediately to the south, which she and Paul use for storage.

During last year’s Fourth of July celebration in Sibley, Vetter and Babbs were stationed inside her former store space to sell historical books and other items, including showing a display of historical photography.

Since 1996, a group called the Sibley Business and Historical Association, which Vetter heads, has been raising funds for the restoration project, though it did not take place until now.

Each year around Christmas time, the group releases a ceramic Christmas ornament with a Sibley landmark on the face side.

Those who remember Sibley’s 1977 centennial celebration might own a copy of the commemorative book that was published that year, or have at least read it. The lengthy book tells the story of Sibley’s past and includes family histories that residents submitted.

Vetter said the group is planning to publish a new book soon which will include information not covered in the original publication.

“It will have stories of other old events up until 1933,” Vetter said. “This book is also going to carry interviews that Mrs. Ames’ students did with various people in town.”

Vetter said the new book will have facts and tidbits that most people have not heard before.

“It still talks about Burr Oak, but it has offshoots of information about different people from Sibley,” Vetter said.. “It also has information about Mount Hope Cemetery. The first tombstone burial was in 1874. I also found an article about the Sullivant Township Farmers’ Club in 1900.”

The township was founded by businessman Michael Sullivant and the village by Hiram Sibley, a wealthy businessman who founded the Western Union telegraph (now monetary transfer) service. Vetter said a section of the book will mention how Sibley’s estate was divided among three relatives after Sibley’s death. Today, the estate is down to only one farm — a piece of land that Paul Vetter’s brother farms and resides on west of Sibley that is owned by the children of one of Sibley’s nieces.

Among the stories the book will feature is a former steamboat that the village operated in its early years. At the time, swampy Ford County still had numerous lakes, and Vetter said the ship made excursions to area bodies of water that no longer exist today.

“There used to be a lot of lakes around here,” Vetter said.

While a portion of the downtown’s renovation has been completed and more are still to come, Vetter said she hopes to have everything completed in time for this year’s Fourth of July celebration. The 2018 version is the 60th year for the annual event, which draws in more than 1,000 people from around the area.

The historical association is raffling one of the last unsold copies of the 1977 centennial book in a silent auction, which can be bid on now through the Fourth of July.

The group received a major boost on Friday when Tracy Epps, president of the Bank of Gibson City, presented a $5,000 check to help fund the revitalization efforts.

Donations to the project can be mailed to: Sibley Main Street Renovation Project, c/o Sibley Business and Historical Association, P.O. Box 175, Sibley, IL 61773.

Categories (4):News, Miscellaneous, Living, Business
Location (3):Local, Ford County, Sibley

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