- Associated Press - Saturday, August 2, 2014

EFFINGHAM, Ill. (AP) - If the walls of the old Effingham County courthouse museum could talk, they would tell of a rich local history. Delaine Donaldson and his group of tireless volunteers want to the give the historical structure a renewed voice, one that will preserve the county’s shared history for years to come.

“It is a grand history that we have to tell in Effingham County, and we are showcasing that,” said Donaldson.

After a lengthy battle to save the historical structure built in 1870-71, the courthouse reopened on Nov. 11, 2012 as a museum. Since that day, the Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum Association has showcased the transformation of the main floor from a functioning courthouse into a functioning museum.

“The thing that I have noticed is whenever people look at our museum, they say, ‘This is really nice’,” said Donaldson. “They say, ‘Who put this together for you,’ and we say, ‘This is all volunteer, we did it ourselves.’ People are amazed.”

First-floor features share the history of transportation through a large model train and roadway display; the prominent history of military service by area veterans; historical figures like Ada Kepley, who was the first woman in the country to earn a law degree; the 1949 St. Anthony’s Hospital fire; Effingham native George Bauer, who helped write the G.I. Bill; and many other stories and displays.

Donaldson and the 50 or so volunteers who make the operation of the museum possible have now set their sights on the second floor of the old courthouse. Donaldson hopes to repurpose what was originally the main courtroom into a meeting area to hold everything from class reunions to wedding receptions.

“We want to make that second floor a place where we can generate funds to run the courthouse,” said Donaldson. “From day one we have had people say, ‘My daughter is getting married. Can we have the wedding in the courthouse?’”

For the last several months, volunteers have been unearthing the original design of the second floor, which was renovated into office space for courthouse officials over the years. Much of the Formica and old carpet from the last major renovation in the 1960s has been removed to reveal the rustic stately beauty of the era.

“This is like archaeology for a building,” said Donaldson. “When we pulled up the carpeting, we could see the cut marks for the curves in the original flooring.”

With significant work needed in the space, Donaldson and fellow volunteer, Jim Lange, approached the Effingham City Council recently to request the city’s financial assistance for the project. Donaldson asked the council for $75,000 in assistance, which would be put primarily toward restrooms on the second floor.

“If we are going to have events up there, we need restrooms,” said Donaldson.

During the council meeting discussion, Mayor Merv Gillenwater expressed optimism about the city’s assistance, but informed Donaldson that that amount of money wasn’t figured into this fiscal year’s budget. Commissioner Matt Hirtzel suggested a multi-year assistance package for the project, which would stretch the $75,000 over several years. The issue is being considered by the council and will come back at a future meeting for a vote.

Donaldson did inform the council that the museum is exhausting all possibilities to generate money for the project. The Effingham County Board pays the utility bills for the museum, which reach over $10,000 a year, and the museum is considering corporate sponsorship.

Ideally, ECCCMA would like to have the project completed by Christmas, but that “totally depends on the cash flow,” said Donaldson.

The expansive second floor is a step back in time and space. Completely open after the recent removal of a drop ceiling and office partitions, a large amount of work is clearly needed.

“We plan on putting the original courtroom back the way it was,” said Donaldson. “From historical records, people in the area were most proud of this space.”

Volunteer carpenters have rebuilt the raised area where the court proceedings were held, said Donaldson. He added that two old banisters, found by a volunteer, will help complete the look.

“We don’t have any pictures of how this looked,” said Donaldson.

Donaldson pointed to the cost of the banister posts, which were priced at $75 apiece for 150 of them, as an example of the cost of the building.

Other work includes repainting the tin ceiling throughout the second floor and refurbishing plaster work in the dome, which was uncovered when the drop ceiling was removed. Donaldson said Dr. Ruben Boyajian has offered to paint murals of local historical scenes in the large domed area, which reaches to the peak of the three-story building. Hardwood flooring, fire safe doors, a side room renovation for a catering space and many other features are in the works. Donaldson said a contractor assessed the project before volunteers started on it, and the total cost to renovate the space was an estimated $350,000. He added that price will continually be reduced by the massive amount of volunteer hours.

“We are working diligently to showcase this area,” said Donaldson.

As part of his rationale for the city providing funds for the project, Donaldson pointed to the tourism dollars generated in Effingham by the existence of the museum. In 2013, 2,160 people from around the state, country and world visited the courthouse museum. Donaldson said about a third of those who visited didn’t sign the guestbook.

“We had about 3,000 visitors last year, and we are on track to meet that again this year,” he said, noting that mobile displays will be featured on the second floor for regular museum visitors. “People tell us they want to come back and see the museum again when the second floor is

For Donaldson, who taught history and sociology at Effingham High School for over 30 years, the incalculable hours he and other volunteers have put into the project are completely worthwhile.

“One of the things that sociologists look at is that in a lot of towns across America today, especially in towns along the interstate, is that they all have the same feel to them,” he said, calling the trend “Generica.” ”The thing that is very important is that we don’t do that. We aren’t a generic community. We are so much more than what sits along the interstate exits.”

Having a strong sense of local history and community is also what creates value in locals’ minds.

“I taught sociology for many years, and the thing that I have found in terms of what attracts people to live in a community is that it doesn’t have a generic sense,” said Donaldson. “That when people leave the town, they have a sense they lost something. The courthouse museum helps provide that feeling.”

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Source: Effingham Daily News, http://bit.ly/VMPjD7

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Information from: Effingham Daily News, http://www.effinghamdailynews.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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