Smithsonian, DeKalb County History Center collaborate with new exhibit

‘Food: Gathering Around the Table’ showcases food history in DeKalb County

Michelle Donahoe, executive director of the DeKalb County History Center, talks Thursday, June 6, 2024, about the new exhibit “Food: Gathering Around the Table,” now open at the center in Sycamore. The exhibit was created by the DeKalb County History Center in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution's Museum on Main Street program.

SYCAMORE – A collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and DeKalb County History Center has cooked up an exhibit that opened this month, which features 15 separate partners and locations in DeKalb County.

“Food: Gathering Around the Table,” a showcase of food history in DeKalb County, was unveiled to history center supporters, volunteers and community members June 1 and has since opened to the public.

It exists because the DeKalb County History Center was one of five organizations in the U.S. selected to take part in the project by the Smithsonian – the largest museum complex, with 21 museums and nine research centers around the world, according to its website.

“It is such a big deal. It’s an honor we got to work directly with the Smithsonian team,” Executive Director Michelle Donahoe said. “How this works is, they provide an exhibit script with national ideas, and then we include local stories that connect to those national themes. And that’s really what the challenge is. They want us to have these local stories and to help people really understand that all local history is national history.”

The Smithsonian collaboration originates out of the institution’s Main Street Program, which aims to provide access to small-town America through, among other things, museum exhibitions.

In an email to Shaw Local News Network, the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street Project Director Selwyn Ramp wrote that all five local museums supported by the project have created exhibitions that showcase food culture throughout the country.

“The goal of the exhibition Starter Kit program, which the exhibition at DeKalb County is a production of – is to create local humanities-based exhibitions using Smithsonian exhibition content about food as a device for giving national context to local exhibitions. Host museums use exhibition support materials and a guided script to create an integrated, seamless presentation of both national and local content,” Ramp wrote.

From hunting and gathering, planting and harvesting, farming, agritourism and more, “Food: Gathering Around the Table” gives visitors a sense of the history of food in DeKalb County and northern Illinois, but also how those traditions have changed over the years.

Memorabilia and artifacts are placed throughout the exhibit, including a 1930 picture of Alvan and Alva Oderkirk having cake with their family members to celebrate their wedding day at their home at 217 Annie Glidden Road in DeKalb. Helena Dolder’s table is part of the exhibit. She was the first woman to serve as sheriff in DeKalb County. Dolder took the position in 1928 after her husband, Fred, died and was elected to the position later that year.

After 90 years, the Kauffman family of Waterman-based Ho-Ka Turkey Farms, which offered a Thanksgiving staple to local residents for decades, put out one last call for turkeys before closing the family business in 2023. Their legacy lives on in the exhibit.

Everyone has a story, everyone has a food culture, and there is an amazing difference of foodways throughout the country.”

—  Selwyn Ramp

Donahoe said she was happy the center was able to incorporate an old Ho-Ka Turkey Farms box and other items in the display.

“We’ve got the stories of Ho-Ka turkeys, which everyone’s so sad that they closed,” Donahoe said. “We’ve had lots of people comment about the box and how it’s just such a good box ... and how people are sad they are no longer here.”

Ramp said, “Local culture and history is often forgotten, not shared enough and sometimes deemed less important.”

And, to that end, the story of Ho-Ka turkeys – really, a Kauffman family story – is a natural fit in the new exhibit.

“Everyone has a story, everyone has a food culture, and there is an amazing difference of foodways throughout the country,” Ramp said.

Ramp said DeKalb County’s exhibit is an example of how the Smithsonian’s museums provide access to a variety of historical topics for people across the country, especially those unable to visit Washington, D.C.

Although the Suter Co. and Del Monte are prominently featured for their respective roles in the history of food production in DeKalb County, there’s more to learn than what can be found in the history center.

Donahoe said there are more than a dozen auxiliary sites with DeKalb County food history educational opportunities, including the DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association, 2280 Bethany Road in DeKalb; the Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Society, 622 Park Ave. in Genoa; the Shabbona-Lee-Rollo Historical Museum, 119 W. Comanche St. in Shabbona; the North Grove School Association, 26745 Brickville Road in Sycamore; and others. A complete list can be found at

Although DeKalb County is steeped in food history, Donahoe said the exhibit also touches on food security concerns that modern-day residents struggle with.

“In DeKalb County, we have some of the richest soil in the world, but we also have a federally recognized food desert in DeKalb and over 15 food pantries, Donahoe said. “So it’s that real dichotomy of such rich soil and then people who still don’t have access to healthy food.”

Camden Lazenby

Camden Lazenby

Camden Lazenby covers DeKalb County news for the Daily Chronicle.