Two-piece hollow cast-iron bull with black and white paint, sometimes known as a “Baloney Bull,” manufactured by the Simpson Windmill and Machine Company.
The DuPage County Historical Museum in Wheaton, Illinois, opened the exhibition Early Illinois Folk Art 1825-1925 on April 13. The exhibit, which offers the opportunity to examine the folk art of Illinois, continues through September 15.
The objects in the exhibit have been chosen to inform and inspire visitors about the history of Illinois. The exhibit includes a range of items, from tools to decorative articles for the home, that were typical throughout the state during the hundred years that the prairie was transformed from wilderness to settled farmland.
The exhibit was inspired by Bob and Caroline Jacobsen, longtime Wheaton residents and collectors of American folk art who volunteer for the museum’s foundation.
Bob Jacobsen, an entrepreneur with as sharp an eye for business as for collecting beautiful objects, said he is concerned about local history. “Our history has been and continues to be removed from the state of Illinois. This is happening all across America. Pickers come in and recognize the value of what we have, purchase it, and sell it elsewhere. Our history ends up all over the map.” Keeping “local history” local will require educating the public about the significance of these everyday objects. Jacobsen is convinced that “exhibits like this help young people learn to love history.”
Keith Letsche, another museum foundation member and folk art collector, agrees. “This exhibit is a unique opportunity to view Illinois culture in context. Together, these objects present a fascinating picture of life in our state. And to see them all together in this building—which Ellsworth Brown, the former director of the Chicago Historical Society [1981-93], called ‘our greatest artifact’—is particularly meaningful.”
The DuPage County Historical Museum is a registered historic site and was designed by architect Charles Sumner Frost, who also designed structures such as Chicago’s Navy Pier and the Maine State Building for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Originally the Adams Memorial Library, one of the first libraries in the county and dedicated in 1891, the museum is an example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style.
The exhibit features domestic items, many of which come from personal collections and have not been displayed previously. Objects used outside the home include windmill weights, weathervanes, whirligigs, and carved decoys. Items used indoors include coverlets and pottery, including extraordinary examples of locally produced Galena ware that have never been seen by the public. Tinware, lighting, prints, and several samples of pen-and-ink calligraphy are on view. There are several examples of portrait paintings by Sheldon Peck (1797-1868), a folk artist who settled in DuPage County.
Jacobsen thinks that folk art exemplifies innovation and has many lessons to teach the current business world. “I believe the creative innovation seen in this exhibit is part of the key to the strength of our nation. I come from the manufacturing industry. I saw lots of innovation in my field. And I’ve always believed, heck, I’m not trained, but I learned to be innovative by watching what was happening around me in my field. I think people will be inspired by the exhibit. You can see the evolution of objects. One guy would take a look at something and ask himself, how did that guy make that thing? How can I do it better?”
The objects in the show are chosen to represent the problem-solving skills of Illinois settlers. “People needed water when they first arrived here, and plenty of it. Farmers needed water. Trains needed it. They knew how to get it out of the ground using technology from back east—Dutch windmills. But no one could afford the massive ones that they built back east. So they made smaller ones, which were more affordable, and they put great big blades on them to help pull the water from deep underground. Problem was, those big prairie winds coming out of the west would just knock the smaller windmills over. They tried putting a heavy box on it to weigh it down, keep it from falling over, but a box is boring. Let’s put an animal on it! Chickens, horses, cows—all the farm animals were welcome.”
Excellent examples of windmill weights include horses made by the Dempster Mill Manufacturing Company and a handsome two-piece hollow cast-iron bull with black and white paint, manufactured by the Simpson Windmill and Machine Company and sometimes known as a “Baloney Bull” because of the stuffed cylindrical quality of the metal figure as well as the meat in baloney.
Squirrels are common farmland animals that are not widely represented on weights or weathervanes. A rare example created by the Elgin Wind Power & Pump Co., Elgin, Illinois, is in the exhibit. Why so few squirrels? “Squirrels didn’t sell well because farmers hated squirrels,” Jacobsen pointed out.
According to Caroline Jacobsen, co-owner of the Sign of the Whale Antiques, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, popular animals that sold well were sometimes given names. “Roosters came in all types. There were hummers, rainbow tails, and barnacle eyes. Everyone always likes to be a little different from their neighbor.”
Creating those differences illustrates another layer of innovation. Each molded metal chicken or rooster would start out the same, but the farmer’s wife often painted the animal to make it unique for their farm. If another farmer liked her version, she might be hired to paint more. “Innovation is a group process,” said Bob. “It’s team play. You work together to improve something for the common good.”
Another challenge posed by the Illinois prairie was fire. Barns were vulnerable when late summer droughts made lightning more dangerous. Weathervanes that doubled as lightning rods became a fixture on farm buildings.
Because of local weather concerns “many lightning rod companies were founded in the Midwest,” said Bob. “But they didn’t stop with just a pole.” Companies added chickens to the weathervanes for hen houses. Glass balls, scrolled metal wind direction arrows, and stamped zinc animals added charm to a home or color to the roof of a barn that could be seen from the road.
“Handmade means well made,” said Caroline. “People expected and needed things to last. Women who lived in prairie homes liked to make colorful things. They added beauty to a drab life.”
Quilts were often made of scraps of old colorful cloth for just this purpose. “In the modern world, it’s called recycling,” Caroline said. “Using things that have been loved and cared for again and again, reinventing them as something new and useful.” Several coverlets chosen for the show illustrate the folk artist’s sensitivity to the well-made colorful object. One stunning piece is the jacquard single-cloth tied Beiderwand bedcover created by Jeremiah Sayler, in cream and red cotton, dated 1851.
The Jacobsens see the folk art show as more than a temporary exhibit. This is an opportunity to re-create the museum’s role in the community. They hope to inspire their friends and neighbors to help the museum create a sustainable collection of folk art that represents the history of Illinois.
“If we are going to protect our local history, we need gumption. We need to push,” said Bob. “We need to teach young people the joy of history.”
Caroline agreed, “We’d love to see more people interested in our history.”
The Jacobsens hope more people will understand the value of this important art form. Caroline recounted the tragic story of a young man who described tossing the contents of his grandparents’ farm home into the yard and burning everything as a means of quickly clearing out the house for sale. “We’ll never know what treasures were lost in that fire. We must teach people the value of these objects in order to protect and preserve our history.”
Keith Letsche is excited about the potential to create a deeper appreciation for the objects created in Illinois and about saving that history for future generations through the folk art exhibit. “We had one dealer who made an acquisition and stepped forward to donate it to the museum. Our community is going to be the real beneficiary of this exhibit.”
Bob Jacobsen is aware of the challenge ahead. “This won’t be easy. We will achieve it. This folk art show will be a shining light.”
A catalog is available. The museum is located at 102 East Wesley Street, Wheaton, Illinois. For more information, see the museum’s Web site (www.dupagemuseum.org) or call (630) 510-4941.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest