Flanked by a wall of historic Pike County, Ill., photos, Dixie Ward exhibits an antique game, featuring toy chickens. PHOTO/MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
For the Courier-Post
A block to the east of Elm – Hull, Illinois’ only paved street – a former bank and post office building serves as host to a treasure-trove of simply framed historic photos and memorabilia relating the town’s citizens with the past.
Hull, located within the limits of Kinderhook Township – the only “dry” township in the region – serves as a hometown to generations of cousins and friends whose relationships go back to the town’s founding.
“Hull History Lives,” established in 1981, is a compilation of community spirit, interwoven memories, farmland passed down through the generations and homecomings. And while the gathering together of items for the museum is the work of many hands, one set of hands stands out from the rest: those of Dixie Ward.
The street on which the museum fronts, was renamed in her honor a few years ago: Dixie Street. She downplays her own significance by noting the street “is only about 10 feet long,” but its presence, and the town’s sentiments toward her tenacity to transform a dream into a tangible town treasure, is noteworthy.
Dixie Ward spent 42 years working in education, including many years as a school teacher.
Each year, her junior-high school students were to write a research paper. “I required them to base it on local history, which might be interesting to them, and their parents could help. It ballooned,” she said, with students bringing in more history data than her classroom could hold.
Another year, she challenged students to interview World War II veterans. Once again, the amount of historical information brought forth overfilled her class.
Recognizing the importance of preserving this information, she gathered with a group of interested citizens, and Hull History Lives was born.
The bank building and adjoining post office were abandoned by the 1980s. A laundry mat was later housed in the space, but it – just like the bank – vacated the premises.
“This building had no ceiling and no floor,” Dixie said, “and we purchased it for a little bit of nothing. We had a lot of sidewalk supervisors; nobody thought it would work. We held fundraisers,” and donations began to come in.
Every day, she would find donations for the museum which had been left on her front porch. Often, she didn’t even know who dropped off the military uniforms, photos, albums or war medals. The community spirit had risen to such a level that almost everyone now believed the museum was here to stay.
Then came the Flood of 1993, and the breach of the Sny Levee. As the Mississippi River crept across the Illinois valley, Dixie and a cadre of volunteers began packing up the museum. They were able to save everything except a Veterans Memorial, which had been stored in the back of the building.
While the flood waters devastated the small town and displaced its residents, it did not destroy the community spirit. Once the water receded, cleanup and recovery began. “When we came back, the building had to be completely gutted, so we started over,” Dixie said.
Dixie has photos hanging on each interior wall, and cases are in place to exhibit memorabilia.
Those who enter the front door are treated to a section honoring Pike County veterans. There are uniforms, medals, photos, and ledgers to peruse. “During World War II people of Hull organized a service club, whose purpose was to send letters to each serviceman,” she said. A complete list of those letters – containing hometown news – is compiled in a ledger available for museum guests to read.
On the opposite wall are photos from the Flood of 1993, which challenged, but didn’t destroy Hull.
The museum has space dedicated to family groups, and there’s another area which focuses on local businesses, including the old tomato canning factory and Althoff’s Pharmacy. Dixie has on display some of the wood trim from the old pharmacy, and two old ice cream glasses.
“Trains played an important role in the establishment of Hull, so we pay homage to that.”
Nearly a whole room is dedicated to memorabilia from to the West Pike School district, of which the town of Hull is now affiliated.
Also featured are photos of the fire, which destroyed Hull High School in 1945.
In all, 700 photos line the museum’s walls, and more photos are in storage. “We’re running out of room,” Dixie said.
People have donated items such as old children’s shoes. “They didn’t have left and right shoes for kids. They wore them until there was nothing but cardboard on the bottom, and they’d pass then down through the family.”
Those who are interested in lifestyles from the past will enjoy old chicken feed sacks, the fabric of which was used to make children’s clothing. “When it was your turn for a new dress, you got to pick out the fabric from the bags,” Dixie said. “Why throw a seed bag away? They made due.”
They have a cake of lye soap on exhibit, a primitive butter churn, a stove from the Kinderhook blacksmith shop, and the original plat of the town of Hull, which a resident found in his attic.
There is a copy of the Hull Breeze newspaper, the first newspaper to serve the town; an adding machine that came out of the original bank; and several historic wedding dresses.
A family business that receives special recognition is the D.B. Gray Co. “They offered a workplace for people. They had an implement store, a car dealership and grain bins. They had the foresight to see what the town needed and to give people work.”
The veterans’ memorial that was destroyed in the 1993 flood was made of wood. “The land on the other side of the library was empty, so we found a big rock,” from which to create a new memorial. “You work with no money and faith when you do volunteer work,” she said. They poured concrete, laid brick, and began selling pavers with inscriptions including the name, rank and year of service.
“A wonderful donation” allowed the committee to buy flags. They added a granite bench and built a kiosk. They use the money collected from the sale of pavers to keep the new memorial lighted 24 hours a day. Thus far they have sold 200 pavers.
“I’m proud of where and how I grew up and I try to preserve some of what has gone before us. It is something I enjoy very much,” Dixie said.
These yard sticks, featuring businesses from the Hull, Ill., area, are displayed in the Hull History Museum. PHOTO/MARY LOU MONTGOMERY