The LaSalle County Historical Society’s museum lies on the north side of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal, itself a historical landmark.
The museum building, erected in 1848 during the presidency of Zachary Taylor, is a beautifully restored sandstone building that was originally a granary and warehouse. The two-story building has walls of sandstone blocks between 18 and 32 inches thick, quarried in Utica, and secured with hydraulic cement of the same kind used in the construction of the I&M Canal.
James Clark, the man who commissioned the building, came to Utica in 1833, where he became a land squatter. In 1842 he became a contractor on the I&M Canal and in 1845 he bought the local cement mill. He made it a huge commercial success by selling the cement to the canal contractors and the general public. The cement was used in many parts of the canal.
He had the building constructed as a warehouse and general store to serve the needs of the canal traffic. Some accounts say the general store was really a company store for the cement company because in this store a man could pay his bill for board, doctor, food, and clothing. Clark sold everything a man could ever need, from whiskey at 25 cents a quart to coffins that ranged in price from $2.50 to $4. One could also pay at the store for a team and wagon to take the coffin to the cemetery.
When he was made Postmaster of Utica in 1849 the warehouse and store became Utica’s first post office.
Clark sold the building in the 1880s and a succession of owners used it as a livery and feed stable. One of the last owners ran a shuttle service, carrying passengers from the Rock Island Railroad station to the Starved Rock ferry. As automobiles became increasingly popular he switched from horses to an automobile service. And the building was known as “Manly’s Garage.”
One of the last businesses in the building was a car wash.
Some time later the building was abandoned, and sitting idly for years, became an eyesore for the village of Utica. By 1963 the state of Illinois owned the building and ordered it to be torn down.
The state had awarded the demolition contract to Judson B. Wetherby of Ottawa, but when he learned that Edmund B. Thornton wanted to turn the warehouse into the LaSalle County Historical Museum, he tore up the contract. Thornton got a 10-year lease from the state and repair work was started in 1964. The Historical Society occupied the building in 1966.
The Society celebrated the museum’s fortieth anniversary in 2006. It is one of only a few mid-nineteenth century warehouses still standing on the I&M Canal.
The Illinois State Historical Society presented the Society and Museum with the Award of Merit for local and regional history in 1969 for turning the warehouse into a museum. Two years later the Society received the National Award of Merit for preserving a landmark and turning into an interpretive history center. Only three other museums have received this honor. It still retains all its natural charm, including the foot square exposed support timbers.
Today it is the site of interesting and educational displays that include an extensive collection of Native American artifacts such as ceremonial and utilitarian tools used by both the friendly and hostile Indians of the Illinois River valley.
A pioneer home setting includes furnishings one would find in a typical prairie household in the 1850s. Clothing worn by the early LaSalle County settlers who lost their lives in the Indian Creek Massacre is on display, as are tools used by the pioneers.
Saved from the wrecker’s ball in 1963, the building has served as the headquarters of the historical society for more than 40 years.