PROPHETSTOWN – Work is underway to save as much of this town's history as possible – one page, one photo, one lawn mower at a time.
In a room at the Penberthy warehouse, 320 Locust St., books, photos and paintings from the Prophetstown Area Historical Society have been placed on tables and on the floor, with fans running, as volunteers put paper towels between pages or photos into Mylar sleeves.
And in a corner of the warehouse, spread out like items at a garage sale, are more artifacts from the town's history. There's an American flag from the Civil War, antique wheelchairs, and the punch card clock from the Eclipse Lawn Mower Co., in addition to old push mowers.
The historical society's downtown storefront was among the eight buildings lost during the July 15 fire. That afternoon, Prophetstown Fire Chief Keith Crady said that after all the people had been saved, the historical society became his focus.
The firefighters started going into the historical society about 6 p.m., long after the fire had been put out and after being on the scene since around 2:30 that morning.
Historical Society Vice President Beverly Peterson said she was amazed the firefighters were able to find anything at all. That night, they ended up with enough artifacts to fill seven pickup trucks, she said.
"We thought we lost everything," Peterson said. "When they came out with the first boxes of stuff, they were bringing stuff out, I thought, 'Oh my gosh.' I can't give our firemen enough credit."
The next day, Peterson was taken in to grab a few more items she thought should be saved. And Friday, the firefighters made another trip into the rubble to search for historical items that can't be replaced.
Prophetstown Mayor Steve Swanson said they ended up with about 10 pickup truck loads worth of salvaged artifacts.
"I was thrilled," he said. "Amazing. Never dreamt that."
The focus now, Peterson said, is cleaning and preserving those books, flags, banners and photos that can't be found anywhere else, the actual one-of-a-kind items that belonged to the society.
That was the first question asked by Mike Jackson, chief of the Preservation Services Division at the Illinois Historic Preservation Association, when he visited the town's main street Tuesday: How much did they save?
"That material is priceless. It doesn't mean it's valuable in the economic sense," he said, adding that it's the record of Prophetstown.
Janet Goodell, president of the historical society, said most of the recovered items are at the warehouse, while some are being kept in members' basements until a new location for the museum is determined.
The historical society also owns the Asa Crook House, just outside Prophetstown, which could become the new museum, Goodell said, if the society can't afford to rebuild downtown.
Among items the historical society lost was a World War I uniform, old City Council records, and minutes from organizations that no longer are in existence.
But the historical society has been able to save a photo of the original Whiteside County settlers, photos of main street, a ledger book from the town's first bank, and a painting of Indian Prophet Wa-bo-kie-shiek, after whom the town is named, among many other items.
So far, the group is busy cataloging, and is not asking for any items to be donated.
The second floor of the historical society's building, along with all the artifacts there, was a total loss and was demolished July 15 for safety reasons, a decision Jackson questioned.
“I was disappointed that the second story of that building had been demolished after the fire ... because it had the sidewall there," Jackson said. "I think it was safer than the others. ... I don't think that was done necessarily for safety reasons. I think that was a mistake.”
Swanson defended the decision.
“We always thought it was a safety hazard," he said. "It was just bricks sitting there, two stories in the air.”
The town will have a meeting at 8 p.m. Aug. 1 at City Hall, 339 Washington St., to open bids it received for the removal of debris and to discuss possible next steps.
“We’re hoping one or two might want to rebuild if it's feasible for them, with the insurance and everything," Swanson said. "I know everyone is concerned, and I am too, about getting something built back there. But it's all too premature.”
Swanson said some possibilities include the city's taking over all the lots to help control the rebuild, or having the new buildings consist of a brick facade that would look similar to what was there, while having a metal or wood structure behind it.
You can help
A variety of efforts have begun to help victims of the fire:
– Prophetstown has set up a fund, "Main Street Fire Victims," to help people start to rebuild their lives. Donations can be made at any of the three Farmers National Bank branches, in Prophetstown, Geneseo and Morrison.
– Prophetstown United Methodist Church, 200 W. Second St., is collecting packaged food and clothing. Call 815-537-2496 for more information or to donate.
– Tampico residents Kate Fisk and Jamie Mosher are selling "Support Prophetstown" T-shirts for $15 or $17, depending on size. According to a Facebook account, money raised will go to support victims of the fire. Orders can be dropped off at the following locations: Prophetstown Park District, 410 W. Riverside Drive; Kickback Saloon, 102 N. Main St. in Tampico; and Adami Insurance, 712 First Ave. in Rock Falls.
– Prophetstown resident Sena Warkins, owner of Imprintable Memories in Rock Falls and niece of the owner of D's Variety, which burned in the fire, is selling "We will rebuild" T-shirts for $20. The shirts feature a collage of color photos of the fire and the downtown buildings. Money raised will go to help rebuild the community. Orders can be made by calling Warkins at 815-535-0931 or 815-499-0201.
– All proceeds from food and beverage sales today and Friday at the Clover Hills tent sale, 2400 N. Locust St., in Sterling, will benefit the victims of the fire.