McHenry County history museum gets a new director, looks to expand to house ever-growing collection

Historical society looking at research collection, display space

Wayne Duerkes, executive director of the McHenry County Museum and Historical Society, displays the Marengo 1893 census count book, recently restored, rebound and donated to the society.

A memorable road trip with his father at age 10 cemented Wayne Duerkes’ love of history.

His father, a stickler for school attendance, packed his boy in the car for a road trip, Duerkes said. They ended up traveling from Somonauk, the town straddling DeKalb and La Salle counties that he grew up in, to Tennessee for a Civil War Battle of Shiloh anniversary event.

Our collection has grown massively. We are out of room, and we are out of storage room here.”

—  Wayne Duerkes, executive director of the McHenry County Museum and Historical Society

“I already knew there was something special about what we were doing” because it was a school day, said Deurkes, the new director of the McHenry County Historical Society and Museum.

There were reenactors and historians giving talks at the battlefield, and he heard stories about the common people and their connection to the fighting.

“The bug hit me hard on that trip,” Duerkes said of his love for history.

That bug for history led Duerkes, a U.S. Marines veteran, to earn his doctorate in history, specializing in the history of northern Illinois.

“Coming here ... between my historic and museum interests, the stars were aligning just right,” Duerkes said.

He started at the Union-based museum and research center in October.

McHenry County has a rich history, Duerkes said. That history also has led the museum to a vast collection of research materials, from census documents to one-room school registries to township plat map books.

Textiles and clothing are part of the McHenry County Museum and Historical Society collection at its Union location.

It is the size of that collection that has the museum – housed in a former school at 6422 Main St. – bursting at the seams. Duerkes and the society’s board are working with architects and planners to determine what an addition, or an additional building, might look like.

Toward that end, the society closed on the purchase of a house adjacent to the museum in December. Eventual removal of that house and another on the block also owned by the society would allow the space for a future expansion, Duerkes said.

Board member Arlyn Booth can talk about the need for additional space. As a volunteer, she’s been a part of digitizing obituaries, rearranging files and moving documents from so-called “cold storage” on the building’s second floor to a space behind the school’s stage.

The society changed out the four-drawer filing cabinets filled with newspaper clippings – sorted by both subject matter and family names – to five-drawer cabinets to take advantage of the vertical space, Booth said.

There have been offers to donate other county-level documents to the museum’s research library, but the museum first needs a place to store them, Booth said.

“One of the really awesome things about this museum is the community support,” Duerkes said. “Lots of people throughout the years have done a wonderful job of finding things and donating them to us.

“Our collection has grown massively. We are out of room, and we are out of storage room here.”

The research center – where members can set up an appointment to scour documents or pay to have a volunteer do so – isn’t the only area that is short of space. The museum is full, too.

“We have so many fantastic things not being displayed,” Duerkes said.

He’d like to see an expansion not only for McHenry County’s long-ago history, but also to ensure the collection includes more recent decades, too.

“From 1836 to the 1950s, our collection is solid. From 1950 forward ... in time, that will start trickling in to us,” Duerkes said.

As a historian, Duerkes wants to ensure the museum and society are telling the stories of everyone who helped make McHenry County what it is today, including the stories of those who are creating its history now.

In Illinois, it’s easy to focus historical studies on Abraham Lincoln or the city of Chicago, but Duerkes prefers the history learned through the average person’s story, he said.

“It is the everyday people where history is made,” Duerkes said. “It is pulling away from the ‘powerful white guy’ history, the captains of industry, to what is happening at city hall ... the contributions of women, children, minorities of every brand” who were a part of the area’s settlement and growth.

He said he thinks back to that road trip to Shiloh and the stories he heard not only about the generals but also the people, the families and the “social history” surrounding the Civil War.

“The social history exceeds what has been put out about the battles,” Duerkes said. “All of the social issues that for years were put on the back burner, all of these different factors played into what happened. That makes history more exciting.”