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PAXTON — For a few days last week, a crane blocked traffic on Holmes Street by the Illinois Central Historical Society’s museum on downtown Paxton’s north side.
Workers used the huge piece of machinery to lift a huge piece of history.
An old mail storage rail car — dating back nearly a century, according to one observer — was lifted off of the ground where it had remained for many years. It was put on a semi-trailer and then hauled away to the Union Depot Railroad Museum in Mendota in LaSalle County.
In Mendota, the historic rail car will be restored and painted and then put on display for public tours.
The ICHS agreed to donate the car to the Mendota museum, which agreed to pay for its relocation. The move leaves two old rail cars left outside the entrance to Paxton’s museum — a caboose and box car — but those, too, could find new homes in due time.
“The main thing is those cars have to be repainted after five or six years (when left outside),” said John Fortner, a 66-year-old retiree from Watson, La., who began serving a two-year term as president of the ICHS board of directors on Jan. 1. “The sun is the worst enemy on that, because the ultraviolet rays just deteriorate the paint to the point where it needs to be repainted.”
The No. 1 goal of the ICHS is to preserve the history of the Illinois Central Railroad, which merged with the Canadian National Railroad in 1999. The organization has used its museum at 250 N. Market St. in Paxton for that specific purpose for 27 years, with the facility currently housing an estimated 3,000 cubic-feet of documents related to the railroad.
Although the ICHS’s mission is not changing, the operation of the Paxton museum will be. The removal of old rail cars from the property is just part of the changes coming.
“With our decreasing membership, we just don’t have the money to maintain those cars,” Fortner said.
Control turned over to MRM
Last Saturday, the ICHS’s board of directors approved a proposal to allow the Monticello Railway Museum (MRM) in Piatt County to take over the operation of the ICHS’s museum in Paxton.
Under the proposal, the ICHS’s documents and records will remain in Paxton for the next five to seven years, but they will eventually be moved to the Monticello museum once the MRM builds a new archival facility in the Piatt County seat, Fortner said.
“Right now, it’s going to be five years or so before they get that building built,” Fortner said. “So it’s going to be a while before we can move them over there. In the meantime, we’re going to keep going through our archives and put them in archival sleeves and boxes that are acid-free (to keep them preserved). We have a lot of stuff, like photographs and documents, that we’re going to preserve, so that’s what we’re working to do until they are eventually moved to the new archival facility in Monticello.”
Fortner said the ICHS will continue to own the Paxton museum until the transfer of the records is complete — at which point the MRM will take over ownership of the facility, Fortner said.
According to Paxton resident Chuck Werner — who retired as the ICHS’s treasurer and museum manager as of Dec. 31, 2016 — this would be the 18th facility controlled by the MRM.
The Paxton museum’s name will eventually be changed to the Monticello Railway Museum’s North Campus, Fortner said, but the ICHS will still be headquartered there.
Meanwhile, the MRM intends to continue to conduct public tours at the Paxton museum, which is located within a former railroad depot, Fortner said. Tours can be arranged in advance by contacting the MRM, he added.
Fortner, however, said he was not sure how often the museum would be open for regular business.
“It will probably be open most weekends,” he said.
Reasons for changes
A lack of available ICHS members to staff the Paxton museum and a lack of suitable storage space there led to the ICHS board’s decision to give control of the museum to the MRM.
“We don’t have very many people in our society who live in Paxton,” Fortner noted. “In fact, we have only one member who does. ... We just don’t have anybody up there to keep it open. So the Monticello Railway Museum will be doing that for us.
“And one of the things we’ve got a concern about is the fact that the building that we have (in Paxton), the depot, was an old freight house, and we have a lot of archives in there. And with archives, if there was anything that was toxic in the building, it is not good for archives. And that building, being a freight house, probably had toxic chemicals in there at some time.
“Also, the way that depot was built, it’s hard to be able to control the temperature and humidity inside the building, so our archives would not last as long (if they remained there). So we’re trying to move our archives eventually, and we are trying to partner with the Monticello Railway Museum to do that.”
Making sure the rail cars that have been parked outside the museum are preserved was yet another aspect of reorganizing the museum.
“Eventually, the other two will go, but right now we’re using the box car as an overflow (storage) area for our archives until we get them moved to Monticello or get enough room cleared out in the upstairs part (of the Paxton museum) to properly store the boxes of documents in there (temporarily),” Fortner said. “The environment in there (in the box car) is a lot harsher than in the depot itself, so we’re trying to get it up there (in the upstairs). But at least this way (by storing them in the box car) we have the documents organized and cleaned up.”
When asked if the Paxton museum is expected to remain open in the long term after its archives are moved to Monticello, Fortner could not provide a definitive answer.
“We haven’t gotten that far in our discussions, as to what they’re planning on doing,” Fortner said. “They may keep that museum open just to give tours, because as far as the stuff that’s in there, they can leave that on display without any problem, because there are a lot of artifacts in there that don’t require the temperature, humidity and climate that an archival facility requires.”