PROPHETSTOWN – It’s a sound we’re all familiar with: the roar of lawnmowers cutting grass.
A sound not so familiar? The roar of a factory making lawnmowers – unless you grew up in Prophetstown, that is.
Today, the march of time has eclipsed that sound, but a local group is dedicated to making sure people don’t forget the echoes of Prophetstown’s past.
Younger generations, or people new to town, never may have known about the Eclipse Lawn Mower Co., were it not for the efforts of the 25 members of the Prophetstown Area Historical Society.
Eclipse’s story is just one of many that can be found in its downtown museum, where visitors can learn about local topics from prehistoric days to the recent past – including the 2013 downtown fire that destroyed several businesses and homes and nearly destroyed the society’s artifacts.
“We try to emphasize the things that make Prophetstown unique and different,” longtime member and society vice president Beverly Peterson said. “The Eclipse Lawn Mower factory was here for years. We have a state park. We were the site of an Indian village. We’ve had two men from here that have served in the state Legislature: George Brydia and Calvin Schuneman.”
Society members wouldn’t let the 2013 blaze deter them. Not too long after the fire, they made a new home in a building at the north end of what was once the row of buildings along the west side of downtown Washington Street.
“[It’s] definitely better, because we have a lot more room,” Peterson said. “We were really lucky. The firemen did a wonderful job to save our collection. We got a lot of stuff out of there, I don’t know how many pickup trucks full of stuff.”
Lorraine Thompson, the society’s president, said she enjoys sharing Prophetstown’s history and the fellowship of other members and guests.
“We do appreciate all donations, whether it’s newspaper clippings or pictures,” Thompson said. “Each one brings something to us, and we appreciate them all.”
Member Diane Roman grew up in town and returned after some time away. Like Peterson, her brother was an original member of the society and persuaded her to join.
“I had no desire to be involved in history, but I did join because my brother invited me, and I’ve really enjoyed it,” Roman said. “I like to come and I like to be one of the hostesses, and I like being with the members tremendously. It’s been real nice to get to know them personally, and maybe get to contribute something once in a while.”
Preserving history took on a whole other meaning on July 15, 2013. That’s when two brothers, ages 12 and 16, started a late-night dumpster fire that turned into an inferno that destroyed eight buildings, including the one that housed the museum.
Several items were salvaged and restored, but several pieces of historical clothing on the second floor of their building, as well as some city records, were lost.
Anita Oetzel donated the building to the society after the fire. New display cases came from a military museum in Springfield.
Today, the museum is in space once occupied by three stores. The front room has recently donated displays and artwork of Native Americans. The Black Hawk picture is prominent; in it, he is standing next to his son, Whirling Thunder. The painting was done by John Wesley Jarvis in 1833, a year after Black Hawk was captured by federal troops during the war that bears his name.
One picture above the fireplace is believed to be the prophet Wabokieshiek, an adviser to Black Hawk. It’s a copy of a George Catlin painting; the original is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Black Hawk would come to Wabokieshiek for advice for himself and his band of followers.
One of the federal soldiers who was responsible for chasing after Black Hawk and his tribe along the Rock River was future president Abraham Lincoln.
Another area houses an exhibit dedicated to both the Eclipse Lawn Mower Co., which kept plenty of residents working from 1900 to 1960, and Penberthy, a casting company that made sump pumps, level gauge valves and eductor-jets.
Other exhibits feature Prophetstown’s schools, first responders, veterans, “Gasoline Alley” comics and artwork by the town’s Zschiesche family, and much more.
Bob Zschiesche was an editorial cartoonist hired in 1950 as an assistant on Frank King’s long-running “Gasoline Alley” comic strip. By 1980, he had parted ways with the strip and moved on to syndicating his own editorial cartoon series, “Our Folks.” He later retired to the family farm in Prophetstown, and died in 1996.
Historian Fred South has written several spiral-bound books about Prophetstown, which are on sale at the museum.
Some materials consist of local history lessons South taught over 30 years at Prophetstown High School until retiring in 1994.
The building itself, built in 1892, has plenty of history: It once was the Bank of Prophetstown, South said, and also housed Farmers National Bank at one time.
George E. Paddock started the Bank of Prophetstown in 1892, but ran off with all of the bank’s money in January 1921 and eventually was captured in California.
“He was playing the grain markets with the money,” South said.
The front room also has a seating area where, during the 2 hours it’s open every Saturday morning, visitors can talk and share memories of the town.
Plenty of stories, such as how the paving of local roads was a mixed blessing, have been shared. While the paved roads were an improvement, they also made it easier for vehicles and wagons to travel to larger cities such as Sterling and Rock Falls for business, taking a toll on Prophetstown’s economy.
Before the railroad came to town in 1871, Prophetstown’s most commercial road was Third Street, South said. A two-story brick building that housed another bank still stands along that road, just east of downtown.
Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, the society also opened up the Asa Crook Home on the town’s east end on the first Sunday of each month. Crook was Prophetstown’s first white settler; he arrived in 1834 from Michigan. The house, built in 1839 was restored and the society hopes to reopen it soon.
Pay a visit
The Prophetstown Area Historical Society, on the southwest corner of Washington Avenue and Third Street, is open from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.
For information or to schedule an appointment for another time, call Lorraine Thompson at 815-537-5412, Beverly Peterson at 815-537-2668, Janet Goodell at 815-499-3441, or Fred South at 815-537-2029.
The Prophetstown Area Historical Society also is on Facebook.
Source: The Daily Chronicle