Grantee Partner Spotlight: DeKalb County History Center

De Kalb cty hist ctr ed Food v2 HERO

By Mark Hallett, Director of Grants Programs

Read Time 9 minutes
June 17, 2024

Originally founded in 1999 as the Sycamore History Museum, it's now the DeKalb County History Center (DCHC) and encompasses a county-wide perspective. Since 2018, the DCHC's mission has been to "inspire curiosity in DeKalb County's history."

The DeKalb County History Center received an Illinois Humanities Action Grant to create a podcast series as a way to provide an in-depth look into how food shapes our lives and communities. The podcast series will include five segments based on themes that arose from the exhibit FOOD: Gathering Around the Table, presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. FOOD is on display at the DCHC on Tuesdays-Fridays (10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.) and Saturdays (12:00 - 3:00 p.m.).

In the following Q&A, read more about how the DeKalb County History Museum came to be, its values, and the podcast series that starts in late July.

A Q&A with Michelle Donahoe

Executive Director of the DeKalb County History Center and DeKalb County Historian

You all were founded in 1999 and now have a mission to inspire curiosity in the county’s history. Tell us a little about your history as an organization and any key highlights or turning points.

We started out as the Sycamore History Museum, back in 1999. I had just gotten married and moved to town. I started as a volunteer, became a board member, and then the organization had money to hire someone. When I expressed interest, they said we can pay you for half the year, and you can fundraise for the rest. That was in 2005, and I’m still here.

It’s been an amazing journey. The organization didn’t have a home when it started, and now it's in a beautiful building that opened in 2019. In 2008, we had the opportunity to move to a former farmstead. Updating the buildings from a farm to a public space was a true community project – with firefighters putting up drywall, Kiwanis painting, and people pouring concrete. In addition to having beautiful grounds that allowed for outdoor programs, we used two buildings – one was the tenant farmer’s house, used for exhibits and the collection.

In 2017 we started having conversations with people throughout the county - community leaders, history organizations, and other stakeholders to discuss what a county museum could look like and how that type of collaboration could bring together the local museum community. There was positive feedback, which led to the creation of the DeKalb County History Center and then the grand opening of our current building in 2019. We are on the same property, but we built a new 7,000-square-foot facility. Additionally, with our opening we hosted a Museum on Main Street exhibit, Crossroads; the exhibit was a great way to showcase the new building, the partnerships, and local history.

What is the ecosystem of history centers and museums like in DeKalb County, and what role do you all play?

We are small – two full-time people, though we understand that that is a “big” organization when compared to the amazing history museums run by all volunteers throughout the state. 

The History Center is truly dedicated to collaboration, no one can do it all. “Many hands, light work,” as they say. We want to be supportive of our history partners, and for them to see us as a resource. 

We regularly explore how we can work together. At first, there was not a lot of trust. People were not really sure about how we would collaborate. But over time, our county history groups have really come together on a variety of projects. For example, we created exhibit booklets that list each history organization in the county, how they connect to the current exhibit, along with their hours and website. Another way we work together is on different projects, like “Arts in Action,” which is our attempt to do a better job of incorporating Black and Latino stories into our local history. Many places didn’t feel comfortable taking on “hard history” alone, but when we worked together, there was a support network, and it became easier to address our complicated past.

For instance, research showed Sycamore had a KKK [Ku Klux Klan] rally of 12,000 to 15,000 people in the 1920s. There was also a photo of a Klan parade near Kirkland, men in their Klan robes but their faces were not covered so everyone knew who they were. There was also a Klan charter in Genoa. They even had what they called a ‘Klantaqua’ in Sandwich. Most likely, our area museums wouldn’t have shared these stories if it wasn’t a collective effort. Today this information is shared on the website, where people can discover these stories and see how our local history fits into the national historical narrative.

We work with non-traditional partners too, such as the DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board. They were one of our major sponsors of our “Arts in Action” conversations and programming, which has been amazing. The opportunities they provided opened connections to new audiences, to those not necessarily interested in history but who want to make our communities a place of belonging.

Finally, our new exhibit lists 48 partners who helped with its creation. This is beyond just history people, it includes schools, libraries, local businesses, Meals on Wheels, and others. 

Who we are as an organization is how we work with others.

This project for which you all just received funding, the “FOOD: Gathering Around the Table” podcast, is sort of a big leap of faith – exciting, but also jumping into a new area. Describe the plan, and what you hope will come out of it.

We were chosen as one of five organizations in the U.S. to host the FOOD exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution. The program is part of a new “Starter Kit,” a bit different from other Museum on Main Street exhibits. The Smithsonian provided a graphic design kit and exhibit script and hosted Zoom calls with various people from their talented staff. Also, the exhibit will be displayed for two years, not the usual six weeks. In the exhibit script, there were four main themes identified by the Smithsonian, which we complimented with local stories. This research is the foundation of our podcast themes. With the podcast, we can take a deeper dive into five of the topics. We are also hoping to engage a younger audience with a podcast.

De Kalb cty hist ctr FOOD exhibit opening 612024

Opening of FOOD: Gathering Around the Table

FOOD Exhibit Poster

The first section is called the “Land of Plenty.” In DeKalb County, we have some of the richest soil in the world, but also a food desert and 15+ food pantries. The exhibit panels only allow for 85-100 words, not a lot of space to talk about this complicated issue. In the podcast, we will have a more in-depth discussion with some of the key people in our community involved in this work. It all goes back to our mission of “inspiring curiosity in DeKalb County history.” 

Hopefully, people see the exhibit, attend a program, or listen to the podcast and want to learn more!

Another podcast will focus on food trucks. This includes several Mexican businesses, but also those in the more rural part of the county. I am excited to learn more about what inspired someone to have a food truck in our county. 

Sycamore and DeKalb are large communities, but nine of the communities in our county are under 1,000 people. Therefore, our team wanted to dedicate a podcast to learning about rural restaurants – how running a restaurant is a labor of love. Owners are not going to make a lot of money running a restaurant in a small town. 

We’ll talk to several restaurant owners, including a place in Somonauk famous for their pies. 

De Kalbe cty hist ctr Tinez Tacos Malta IL

We have also built connections with the Potawatomi Nation, and plan to explore their foodway traditions. Their headquarters are based in Kansas now, but many of their traditions carry over from when they were in Illinois. There is a new mandate from the Illinois State Board of Education to teach Native history in schools. We hope this podcast will be a resource for teachers too. 

Then the last of the five themes is Latino food. Our goal is to have the podcast in Spanish to show our commitment to working with the Latino community. We’re excited and nervous, too; pushing ourselves into new territory.

In terms of production, we’re working with a local elementary school teacher who leads their podcasting program. The teacher helped with recommendations on equipment and will provide training. In the fall, the teacher will be part of our Museum Day workshop where he can train our history partners on how to use the equipment and lead a podcast. The goal is to open up the opportunity of podcasting to the other history groups in the county. 

Your website has become a rich resource. Anything in particular you’d like to share with people?

I like the online exhibit site. There is so much that goes into an exhibit, and it’s so sad when it comes down. Not all of the objects are there, but you can read the text, see the images, and experience the different stories we tell. So that’s a favorite. 

The other is the educational resources for teachers. We just received a Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources grant to develop more lesson plans. This project builds upon our Arts in Action work, and the grant includes a stipend for teachers, we are very excited about this amazing opportunity.

Anything else to add?

Two things: June 1st was the opening of the FOOD exhibit. Come and join us! 

The other thing is that I was so impressed with the new Illinois Humanities Strategic Plan. The plan is insightful and in alignment with what I was thinking but couldn’t put into words. As I read it, I kept thinking yes, yes, that is what we want to be doing. It’s great to see that kind of leadership in a humanities organization. The vision provides a solid framework for organizations across our state and I look forward to its implementation!

About DeKalb County History Center

The DeKalb County History Center's (DCHC) mission is to "inspire curiosity in DeKalb County's history." In 2018, the Sycamore History Museum shifted to become DCHC whose mission and vision reflect a county-wide perspective. 

DCHC is committed to exploring the rich stories that are part of our county’s history; gathering people together through exhibits, programs, and research; engaging with people of diverse backgrounds to ensure they see themselves in our local history; and inspiring people to apply this knowledge to enlighten the decisions of tomorrow. 

DCHC also places a high priority on building the capacity of local organizations by providing resources and opportunities for collaboration.

Follow @DEKALBHISTORY: WEBSITE | Facebook | Instagram | Arts in Action
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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.