'Mr. Illinois Central Historical Society' stepping aside at end of year

PAXTON — Ever since the Illinois Central Historical Society bought an old railroad depot in downtown Paxton in 1990, Paxton resident Chuck Werner has been the go-to guy for anyone wanting to check out the organization’s massive collection of historical materials stored there.

Werner has also been the point man for arranging tours of the museum and accepting donations for its archives. He has also served as the museum’s manager, groundskeeper and handyman.

And for the past 18 years, Werner has served as the organization’s treasurer, which requires him to pick up the mail each day from the ICHS’s post office box in Paxton, keep the bills paid each month and prepare the historical society’s annual budget for the society’s board of directors.

But all of that is set to change at the end of this year, when Werner retires as the historical society’s treasurer and museum manager.

“His shoes are going to be the hardest to fill that we’ve seen in a long time,” said Frank Willis, a resident of Colorado Springs, Colo., who serves as president of the organization.

Even the 77-year-old Werner will admit that.

“I’m the whole ball game,” Werner said. “I mow the grass (at the museum property). I shovel the snow. ... They’re not going to replace me. They’re not going to get anybody to replace me.”

Last month, Werner notified the ICHS of his resignation, effective Dec. 31, 2016, when his elected term as treasurer expires. Werner, a retired Ford County supervisor of assessments, said he decided to resign because he wants to spend more time with his family.

“My wife is just so happy,” Werner said. “Now I can be retired. Now I can do what I want to do. Right now, I can’t go to anything railroad- and church-related on the second and fourth Saturday (of each month when the museum is open) because I’m tied up (with museum-related duties). ... This way, I’m going to be untied up.”

How exactly the ICHS will fill Werner’s positions is still being worked out.

“That’s a pretty tall order, isn’t it?” Willis asked rhetorically.

Werner said the ICHS has been in contact with the Monticello Railway Museum, a non-profit railroad museum located in Monticello, to gauge its interest in taking over the “financial side” of the museum’s operation. According to Werner, it would be the 18th facility controlled by the Monticello Railway Museum.

Willis said nothing has been finalized, but he hopes some kind of arrangement can be agreed upon at an ICHS board meeting on Oct. 29.

Willis stressed that even if the situation is not resolved by the end of this month, there still will be plenty of time to get things in order prior to Werner’s departure as museum manager and ICHS treasurer.

“This all has to happen on the 31st of December, so it’s not as if the 29th of October is necessarily the day things must be finalized,” Willis said. “We’re hoping they will, but we have until the 31st of December to finalize our ongoing effort that we hope will allow the museum to continue much as it is today.”

No matter what happens, Willis said, the museum at 250 N. Market St. in Paxton will not be closing. The only thing that might change is the museum’s hours of operation, Willis said.

“We hope to at least maintain our archiving activities to be able to occasionally conduct tours for school kids, Scout groups and other interested people, that sort of thing,” Willis said. “So we’re working to try to be able to continue — if not day-by-day operations — certainly fairly frequent, periodic operations.

“And four times a year we gather for about a week to concentrate our efforts on archiving our holdings, and that will continue. So we hope to be able to continue to occupy the building, to do all of those things I just mentioned.”

The ICHS acquired the building that houses the museum — known to ICHS members as the “Paxton Depot” — in July 1990. Werner, who had already been a longtime member of the ICHS at the time, immediately took over as the manager of the museum, which serves as the ICHS’s headquarters.

Werner has held that job ever since.

“To many people in our organization, Chuck is ‘Mr. Illinois Central Historical Society,’” Willis said, “because any contact that (people) have with our headquarters or with our organization comes through Paxton, and Chuck has answered that phone for years and years and years. He has been the one who has responded to their requests for information from the society.”

Werner has also been the “operational person” of the museum’s retail facility, which the ICHS calls the “company store,” Willis said. The company store sells books, magazines, hats, coffee mugs, belt buckles, model trains and other items that “refer to or are reminiscent of the Illinois Central Railroad.”

“He is not necessarily the manager of the company store, but he is the one who receives all the orders for purchases, fulfills those orders and has them shipped to the purchaser,” Willis said.

Werner also is the man in charge of receiving and cataloguing donations for the museum’s archives, Willis said, “until our archive people can get to them and actually take care of them, process them and put them in containers that are made to preserve that kind of information.”

The museum currently houses an estimated 3,000 cubic-feet of documents related to the railroad, Willis said.

“Chuck has received many of those,” Willis said. “But, of course, he gets help from others in our organization to store them, to inventory them and make sure that the building is secure, that the heating and cooling systems are working properly (to properly preserve them).”

Werner also leads tours of the museum and has overseen “work days” in which volunteers come there to help archive materials.

Werner is the museum’s groundskeeper, handyman and manager, too.

“And that means a lot of things that you would have to do as in any business,” Willis said. “We are an Illinois registered corporation that is not-for-profit, and, therefore, he’s the face. He has to go to the mailbox to get the mail; he has to go to the bank and accept mail from a lot of people.”

Since 1998, Werner has also served as the ICHS’s treasurer.

“That means paying the bills, recording those payments and preparing and recommending to the board of directors the budget for every year,” Willis said.

“And that means countless hours, countless skills and dedication that people like us, a volunteer organization, cannot do without.”

The ICHS was chartered to preserve the historical materials of the former Illinois Central Railroad and its predecessors, affiliates, subsidiaries and successors, Willis said. The Paxton museum houses such documents, which include materials that came directly from the railroad,  which merged with the Canadian National Railroad in 1999.

“That includes photos or negatives or both from official Illinois Central photographers,” Willis said. “Some of those date back more than a hundred years and are in the form of glass-plate negatives that were taken back in the early 1900s. Some of them are as large as 8-by-10 negatives.”

Willis said the ICHS today has around 500 members. The 77-year-old Willis, a Clinton native and grandson of a railroad engineer, was among the ICHS’s charter members, having joined in 1979 at the time of its formation. Willis became a member of the ICHS board of directors in 2004 and was named its president in 2007.

Willis said the ICHS’s membership has been “steady over the past two or three years,” but, like other railroad historical societies, some of its members are getting older, “so we’ve faced that same kind of natural attrition that other railroad historical societies do.”

Werner said he will remain a member of the ICHS for the upcoming year. He has been a member since the organization’s second meeting in Chicago Heights. He forgets the year that was — “It was in the ‘80s,” he said — but he remembers that the dues were $7 a year, about one-sixth of the amount the dues are today.

Werner said he also plans to continue serving as president of the Paxton Service Club, which meets each Monday at the Arcade Cafe. The club assists with the installation of the Christmas tree in downtown Paxton each year, and it also helps with the Goodfellows program, which each holiday season distributes gifts to children in need in the area.

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Paxtonpersonfromyearsago wrote on October 12, 2016 at 1:10 am

God Bless Chuck Werner and his family past and present!