Grantee Partner Spotlight: Clinton County Historical Society

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By Mark Hallett, Director of Grants Programs

Read Time 9 minutes
March 12, 2024

Founded in 1976 by local historian Harold Gentz, the Clinton County Historical Society is dedicated to preserving Clinton County’s heritage through education, written and photographic documentation, artifacts, and oral histories. Mary Essen has been president of the volunteer-led Clinton County Historical Society for nine years. Under her leadership, the Society has developed a dedicated, talented team of volunteers who keep the society's doors open, produce quality programming and displays, and spread a deep appreciation for the area's historical heritage.

The Clinton County Historical Society received an Illinois Humanities General Operating Grant to meet monthly expenses, improve current displays with new information signs with QR codes, interactive displays, and storytelling, improve the space that houses the free community library, and create space to display artifacts related to the region's agricultural community.

Read more about the Clinton County Historical Society and its work in the following Q&A.

A Q&A with Mary Essen

President of the Clinton County Historical Society

Tell us a little about the Clinton County Historical Society, and how you became involved with it.

I moved to Carlyle 18 years ago.  I lived in St. Louis, where I have my whole heritage and roots.  The plan was to never leave the city, but I'm a lake person.  I loved the beautiful Carlyle Lake area, and the people were warm and inviting.  I was given an opportunity to teach at Kaskaskia College, so after my dad passed away, and our family steel business closed its doors, my mom, son, and I decided to move to Carlyle. 

I’d heard of the Clinton County Historical Society but hadn't visited it and had no clue who Sidney Breese was.  In November of 2014, I read in our local newspaper that the museum was in danger of closing.  The president was even looking at what to do with its artifacts.  I thought, "What? Closing it down?"  I had never even had the pleasure of getting in there.  So that November, I went to a meeting.  I have to give a lot of credit to the people led by Harold Gantz and Joe Bruemmer who began the society in 1976 and raised the money to purchase Sidney Breese's home for its museum in 1985.  But the night I went to a meeting, there were very few people there.  It was a struggling society.  Most of its original officers had passed away or were too elderly to attend meetings. 

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Mary Essen, President of the Clinton County Historical Society, standing next to a portrait of Judge Sidney Breese.

I was intrigued when I learned about the life of Sidney Breese.  I thought this was an unsung historical figure:  a very respected judge and good friend of Abraham Lincoln, wrote the first books published in Illinois, lobbied Congress to extend the Illinois Central Railroad from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean, and made an Illinois Supreme Court decision to free the first slave represented by Lincoln.  But it seemed like his memory was being tossed away.  I approached Kaskaskia College and asked if I could teach some non-credit community education history classes at the museum.  My thinking was this might attract other history buffs into Breese's house to save the society. 

Fast forward to today: We have this wonderful and talented group of people.  We all bring our individual talents.  One does all of our accounting and is our Facebook administrator.  Others meet on Thursdays to maintain the museum.  We have a repairs committee.  I do the fundraising and the PR part.  We now have several ongoing events such as our movie nights. vintage markets, free library, Christmas program, potluck supper, and historical talks.  Guest speakers, from around the state, feel the warm welcome of our Society and always say they can't wait to come back.  

And it is worth it.  We share a passion for keeping the history alive - and there is SUCH a history attached to Judge Sidney Breese

We know you have a free library in the garage, a room full of military uniforms, welcome field trips, and more. But one of your most popular programs is the Classic Movie Nights. What is it like to attend one? 

Once a month, we screen a classic film. We open the doors at 6:00. We have a silent auction before the movie and during a 15-minute intermission. These movie nights took off slowly, but now we usually have 22 to 25 people in attendance. We have the regular group of people, but there are always some new faces even from neighboring counties. No one is a stranger at movie night. I have been at events in other places where people politely say hi, how are you, and then walk away. Not at our historical society. We welcome all newcomers and have wonderful conversations with everyone. 

Clinton County does not have any movie theaters. That is why movie nights are truly special. I look forward to them for the community, the camaraderie, seeing dear friends, meeting new friends, and of course watching a good film. A bonus is our silent auction. Every month we have great items to bid on. Quite a few shops and restaurants donate items to the silent auction, so it is also a way to promote local businesses. 

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    This is the living room of the house.  The fireplace is original to the home when it was occupied by the Breese family.

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    Upstairs is a "children's room" with a vintage map of Clinton County as well as desks from a one-room school house.

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    Housed in the museum's garage is the bench used in the original Clinton County Courthouse from 1849.

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    These are ledgers from Charles Slade's General Store circa 1832 to 1834.  In 1818, Slade founded Carlyle, Illinois, which became the county seat of Clinton County in 1825. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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    An upstairs bedroom filled with military uniforms and other vintage clothing.

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    The Miss Clinton County Pageant toured the Clinton County Historical Society Museum. They are pictured here in front of a portrait of Judge Sidney Breese.

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    The "children's room" upstairs displays vintage toys.

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    This is the museum's kitchen which displays a butter churn, a butter worker, vintage bottles from Clinton County, and a buffet from the Breese family.

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    This is an upstairs bedroom with a mannequin wearing a dress from the "Roaring 20s", a vintage bedroom set and crib, an antique quilt, and bedding from the 1800s.

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    An upstairs bedroom with vintage clothing from the 1800s to the 1950s.

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    In the living room, there is a vintage desk and typewriter.

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    An upstairs bedroom displaying vintage hats and dresses.

What kind of a moment is this for the Society? 

During the pandemic, we were closed for two years, so I emailed out monthly newsletters. We have 80 members, and this is how we kept in touch. Over that time, I had the chance to do lots of research on Sidney Breese and his wife Eliza. I was also in correspondence with Breese's great-great granddaughter, Marcia Yard, who lives in Connecticut. She has given me a lot of history on the family and its relationship with Abraham Lincoln. 

Now, everyone is so happy to be out, to see one another again. We have monthly meetings open to the public. After the business side of the meetings, we have a show and tell. People can bring a treasured item, or a keepsake, and share something about why it has meaning for them. I've learned so much about Clinton County history from the show and tells. These stories preserve the County's history.

Clearly, the Historical Society is a thriving place. To what do you attribute your success?

I think the key to our success is our volunteers and our building because we have a facility to house various events and programs. 

Honestly, I feel honored to be in Judge Sidney Breese's home from 1866. He is looking down on us, beaming, and saying thank you for saving this house. Breese was such a loved jurist. When he died in 1878, one newspaper account said that thousands came by trains from St. Louis and Chicago to honor the man. He wrote Illinois' first published books. You will actually see them on any TV judge show. The lawyer books are usually along the walls of the judge's chambers. Breese wrote down all of his court cases when he was a Supreme Court Judge. Lawyers still refer to his court cases.

Anything else?

We want to offer more opportunities to get young people interested in history. When we're too old to run the Society and the museum, hopefully, a new generation will take over. 

The Clinton County Historical Society has become a vital part of our area. People can call any time. We will give a tour or open up our free library in our garage. We always have something fun going on related to history which brings our community together. 

In May of 2019, pre-Covid, we had a group of 75 5th graders at the museum for a field trip. They walked here from the school, and we let groups of 25 in at a time. Later, a grandmother told me that her 5th grade grandson was simply in love with Abraham Lincoln. "We can't get enough Abraham Lincoln books", she said. You know why? Because that day at the museum we taught him about the friendship between Sidney Breese and President Lincoln. It sparked in this young man an interest in history. I would like to continue to do that with the younger people of Clinton County. 

Mary Essen's Suggested Readings:

Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln by Carl Adams

This book is a reflection on the history and significance of Judge Sidney Breese. Based on sworn court records, it is the true story of the first slave represented by Lincoln for her freedom. Nance appealed to the Supreme Court twice to be liberated from being labeled an indentured servant. In 1841 on her third attempt to the court, she hired a young 33-year-old lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, to represent her. 

Breese was a newly elected Supreme Court judge. He presided over the case. Breese's reasoning was found in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance and the Illinois Constitution that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist" in Illinois. Breese issued the ruling of Nance's freedom on July 23, 1841. It was an important legal precedent that reinforced Illinois' standing as a free state. I have read in articles that this was a prerequisite to Lincoln's 13th amendment that ended the Civil War. 

This case also started the 25-year friendship between Breese and Lincoln. They served together on 73 court cases. 

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Judge Sidney Breese

About the Clinton County Historical Society

Clinton County Historical Society is a volunteer-led organization formed in 1976 by local historian Harold Gentz. Gentz served as the Society's first president. He built the Society's membership and worked to inspire a love of history. In 1986 the Society purchased the home of Judge Sydney Breese (1800–1878), a member of the Illinois Supreme Court and friend of Abraham Lincoln. The Historical Society has long had a stable membership of over 80 members who volunteer to preserve the history of Clinton County. 

The Clinton County Historical Society's projects include the production of bound historical quarterlies, the awarding of plaques to local historical structures, providing tours, and maintaining the museum. The Society has a significant collection of artifacts and resource materials that are available to the public. 

The current Society's current president has been instrumental in organizing monthly cultural programs, Classic Movie Nights, and Youth Classes. In addition, the Society has several members who present historical programs at the Museum and throughout Southern Illinois.

Follow the Clinton County Historical Society on Facebook.
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The home of Judge Sidney Breese and the location of the Clinton County Historical Society Museum.

About the Grantee Partner Spotlight Series

Illinois Humanities highlights the work of our Grants partners through our monthly Grantee Partner Spotlight. It shines a light on our grantee partners' work and allows readers to get to know them better through a Q&A with members of the organization. Read more by browsing the "Grantee Partner Spotlight" series here.