MENDOTA – A new executive director, Tom Henson, was recently hired by the Mendota Museum & Historical Society. Henson took over the position in April following the retirement of longtime director Dar Wujek.
An Illinois Valley native who now lives in LaSalle, Henson has spent the past few months immersed in Mendota history and hopes to share the museums’ abundance of local artifacts with as many people as possible.
“I want to draw people in on the wealth of material here at the museums,” he said. “I knew something of this nature was in Mendota but had never been here to see it. It’s a remarkable thing. There are three museums within a few block area that have everything from Mendota history – trains, grains and artifacts.”
Although he is not from Mendota, Henson does not consider that a disadvantage. “What better way to promote the history of Mendota than to have somebody from the ‘outside’ come in and want to explore and share the amazing things this community has done over the years,” he explained.
In addition to his new job, Henson is currently a morning news anchor at WLPO radio. He first began working in radio while still attending high school at L-P and continued in the field during and after college. He then went on to work in various aspects of public relations/communications. This included gigs as press secretary for political candidates, working for public relations firms in Chicago, and then moving to southern California where he worked for Northrop Grumman in media relations.
When he returned to the area, Henson initially worked afternoons at WLPO and eventually had the opportunity to do the morning news – a time slot he loves. But he was also at a point where he was eager to try something a little different. After learning that the museum director’s job was available, Henson thought the position would be a good fit for him because it would tie together everything he had done in his career.
“I’m so proud to have been given this opportunity,” he said. “I love doing the news and I love working here. I’m lucky because I have two dream jobs. I feel blessed.”
Although Henson did not have a museum management background, he credited Wujek for taking the time to help him learn that aspect of the job while he transitions into his new role. “And we also have very dedicated museum volunteers who really help to keep the museums going,” he noted.
Now that the three museums are open on their regular weekend schedules, Henson hopes people – both locals and those from outside of the area – will come and take some time to explore the area’s history.
“We would love to share the story of Mendota with people. We’re back to a regular schedule and we can also make arrangements for tours on other days,” he said. “Mendota is a lovely place. Now that we’re getting past the pandemic, it’s a great time to stroll around and take a fresh look around town again. All three museums can be experienced within a short walk and we encourage people to please stop and see what’s here.”
In conjunction with Hume-Carnegie Museum’s current photo exhibit, Henson is encouraging people to take part in their photo contest, which runs through July 6. (Details are available on the Mendota Museum & Historical Society Facebook page.) Photo entries will be on display through the Mendota Sweet Corn Festival in August.
The Mendota museums have preserved many fascinating stories and artifacts from the past and Henson is excited to share them.
“I know it’s easy when you live in a place to just take it for granted after awhile. But there’s so much to see at the museums. I want to share that history and the bottom line is, I love telling a good story,” Henson said.
The Mendota Museum & Historical Society was formed as a nonprofit corporation by Horace Hume in May 1993. Hume saw the need for a larger library, so he donated funds to build the Graves-Hume Public Library, which meant the 1904 Carnegie library building could be used for a museum dedicated to the history of the Mendota area. Hume also contributed additional funds to restore the Carnegie building, which opened as a museum in August 1997.
Financial contributions from Hume, the City of Mendota, many individuals and organizations have come together along with artifacts, memories and volunteers to create the museum complex.
The Hume-Carnegie Museum is open 1-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; phone (815) 539-3373.
Displays include Wild Bill Hickok, the Music Room, large photographic and document collections that trace the history and growth of Mendota and the surrounding area, and many other items of local interest.
Union Depot Railroad Museum
Union Depot Railroad Museum is open noon-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; phone (815) 539-3800 or (815) 539-3373. The building is what remains of the original 1888 Mendota Railroad Station, although it was virtually an empty shell when the MMHS acquired the site. The museum has a waiting room, a large HO model railroad layout depicting Mendota, display rooms with railroad artifacts, and an extensive railroad library.
Outdoor displays include a 1923 CB&Q steam locomotive; 1911 CB&Q wooden caboose; 1937 Illinois Central Mail Storage Car; 1949 Golden Trencher dining car; 1938 Milwaukee Combine car; and Fairmont Motor Car. Rides on the “Speeder” motor track inspection car are available, weather permitting.
Breaking the Prairie Collection & Country Chapel
The Mathesius Brothers Barn was completed in 2002 and represents a typical barn in Illinois farm country. Displays include tools and implements used by farmers along with a buggy and old-time tractor. Outside are larger implements that were used for breaking up the soil, planting and harvesting as well as a mid-1800s windmill.
The Country Chapel was completed in 2004. Besides offering religious services, small-town churches were social gathering places for families in the area. Inside the chapel is a foot pump organ along with other items of local interest. The Country Chapel can also be rented for weddings, anniversaries and small gatherings for special occasions. Tours or rentals may be arranged by contacting the main office. Both buildings are accessible.
Business office hours for the Mendota Museum & Historical Society are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. They may be contacted by phone at (815) 539-3373.