In The News

Dive into how water has shaped history; Lawrence County Historical Society hosting Smithsonian exhibit

This article appeared in the Vincennes Sun-Commercial on August 28, 2016. You may access the original article here


LAWRENCEVILLE, Ill. — Locals with a thirst for grand exhibits hosted by big museums won’t have to travel far.

Next weekend, one of those impressive displays will debut right here in Lawrenceville.

Water/Ways, a Museum on Main Street exhibit from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., will flow into the first floor of the James N. Neal Law Office, 721 12th St.

Designed for small and rural museums, the exhibit that will from Sept. 4 through Oct. 16 will focus on the relationships between people and water.

Lawrenceville is one of only six Illinois locations to host the traveling Smithsonian display.

The exhibition will also include a more localized project spearheaded by the Lawrence County Historical Society at the History Center, 619 12th St., that dives into the integral role of water in Lawrence County’s culture, economy and history. Different exhibit spaces at the history center will explore how water has shaped our landscape, communities and the way we live, work, play and farm.

It also runs Sept. 4 through Oct. 16.

Both exhibits are free and open to the public.

There will be a special members-only exhibit opening at the two locations on Saturday.

Historical society director Donna Burton said she was first contacted about potentially hosting the Smithsonian display by Illinois Humanities last year after the organization’s staff took notice of the society during a dinner at the Illinois State Historical Society, when they received several awards.

“Illinois Humanities noticed us and they asked us to apply (for the Smithsonian exhibit), so we did. And the first line of my application was, ‘One-third of Lawrence County floods on a regular basis,’” Burton said. “They later said that we had them at that statement. There were 22 applicants and we were the only all-volunteer group chosen in Illinois, and really the only group that’s mainly a rural community.”

She first received an email from the Smithsonian notifying the society that Lawrenceville had been chosen as a host site a year ago.

“We were speechless. And we were a little in shock, too, because we thought, ‘Well, now we have to do it!’ But it’s all coming together and we’re just so excited to show it to everyone,” Burton said.

“Being selected for the Illinois tour is a great compliment to each of the host communities,” said Museum on Main Street project director Robbie Davis. “Lawrenceville has already put a ton of work into Water/Ways.”

The society was assigned design consultants and program consultants who worked with locals to help coordinate both the Smithsonian branch of the exhibit and the display in the History Center, and historical society members and volunteers have been hard at work for the past 12 months putting the exhibit together.

It’s a sprawling, multi-faceted display comprising 12 mini-exhibits that takes up just about every spare inch of the History Center’s floor space and walls. The local exhibit touches on different topics and subjects, starting with a giant flood wall in the main lobby that’s been turned into a timeline reflecting different local floods from 1776 to 2013.

“These aren’t all the floods in Lawrence County history, these are just some of the floods we found great stories for,” Burton noted.

There’s another space dedicated to glaciers and mastodons — including a glass case displaying a mastodon tusk that was discovered in a local gravel pit — and another mini-exhibit exploring the mussel shell industry that thrived around the Wabash and Embarras rivers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Other exhibits explore how water has shaped recreation, including an 1880s health spa known as Stivers Spring as well as Lake Lawrence and the lake dug at Red Hills State Park in 1954.

Water has also shaped where people settle, so another exhibit space tells the story of a family’s migration from Scotland to Lawrence County and shows an array of items they brought overseas to their new home.

Another area touches on how the lack of water can affect a community by retelling the Bridgeport fire of June 13, 1913 — Black Friday — when the municipal water service was not yet turned on, so crews had to use dynamite on several buildings to halt the spread of the flames.

There’s even a makeshift movie theater in the history center that will display a movie about the making of Red Hill State Park’s lake, the pearl fishing industry, and some interviews of locals conducted by area high school students.

“We applied for a grant after we received the traveling exhibit and we’re one of six in the nation to get this grant for our high school kids,” Burton said. “They got $4,000 worth of technology equipment to do interviews with local residents about water and its affect on them here in Lawrence County.

“That’s an honor that the kids can include on their applications to college that they worked on a project with the Smithsonian.”

Burton encourages folks from far and wide to come wander through the Smithsonian exhibit, which will start taking shape early next week, because it’s especially thought-provoking, while the local exhibit is not only entertaining and jam-packed with information — it’s also fun.

One of the primary motivators behind applying to host the Smithsonian exhibit was to ensure high-caliber exhibits like this one are accessible to everyone, Burton added.

“We didn’t just apply for the historical society — we applied for the whole county,” she said. “There are many children here that might never get to Washington, D.C. to see the Smithsonian so this is an opportunity for them, plus it’s outreach to the schools.

“It’s a chance for people from surrounding areas to come and see what we can offer.”

For more information on the Water/Ways exhibit and the history center display, visit or check out the “Water/Ways Lawrence County Smithsonian Exhibit” Facebook page.

Museum on Main Street is a special collaboration between the Smithsonian and state humanities councils. It was adapted from an exhibition organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

According to Davis, Illinois is the state that has hosted the most Museum on Main Street exhibition tours in the 21-year history of the program.


Regular hours to see the Smithsonian traveling Water/Ways exhibit and localized Lawrence County Historical Society exhibit from Sept. 4 through Oct. 15 are as follows:

Friday: 1-8 p.m. CDT

Saturday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. CDT

Sunday: 1-4 p.m. CDT

Admission is free.