By Jared L. Olar
Local History Program Coordinator
Almost 45 years after Tazewell County’s collection of Civil War artifacts were carried away in the back of a mysterious blue pick-up truck, the collection will soon return to Tazewell County.
Just a few weeks ago, on Tuesday, April 11, Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman, Tazewell County Auditor Brett Grimm and Tazewell County Sheriff Jeff Lower issued a press release making the joint announcement that the county’s Civil War artifacts, which were taken from the courthouse in July 1978, had been located and will be coming home to Pekin.
It turns out that since 1979 the missing artifacts had been in the keeping of the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum in Springfield, which closed permanently on Friday, March 31. The National WomeFred n’s Relief Corps, which had operated the museum for 82 years, decided in early March to close the museum and have its collections moved to the John A. Logan Museum in Murphrysboro, Illinois.
Meanwhile, the Tazewell County Clark’s Office completed the digitization of the official minutes of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors. The digitization of the county board minutes made it possible for Susan Rynerson of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society to compile all of the references to the old Courthouse Historical Hall museum and the former Tazewell County Historical Society, which she published in the March 2023 issue of the TCGHS “Monthly”. Rynerson’s compilation was then posted and shared here at “From the History Room” on March 2.
That provided the impetus to renew the search of the county’s missing artifacts. The last time the artifacts are mentioned in county board minutes was on 15 Aug. 1968, when the board directed the Tazewell County Clerk to have the collection “sorted, packed, and stored in a bonded warehouse, at County expense, until such time as arrangements can be made to have this collection placed where it can be properly displayed and protected.”
Ten years after that, the Civil War artifacts that formed a significant portion of the county’s collection were removed from the courthouse. In the April 11 press release, Ackerman reported, “In 1983 then Sheriff James Donahue opened an investigation looking for the missing artifacts at the request of then Tazewell County Board Member Paul Grethey, but no new information was discovered at that time. Testimony was taken into the record from several county employees that the artifacts had been taken by a mysterious person from the Courthouse in July of 1978, reportedly to an unknown state museum.”
In disappearance of the artifacts was the subject of some Pekin Daily Times articles published on 21 April 1990, by Times staff writer Joe Lerner. The articles’ headlines were, “Who stole the War? – Search for missing Civil War memorabilia goes hither and yon with few answers,” “Whose blue pickup?,” “Where’s Santa Ana’s wooden leg?,” and “A list of the relics on display.”
Lerner’s articles came in the wake of the early 1990 rediscovery of a small collection of the Tazewell County Courthouse’s Civil War artifacts, which were found on display in the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum in Springfield. The GAR museum then returned those artifacts to the county.
But what of the main Civil War collection? The GAR museum in Springfield could not approve transfer of any other artifacts unless Tazewell County could produce a complete, valid inventory – and by 1990 the old records of Pekin’s Grand Army of the Republic chapter, Joe Hanna Post #117 (which disbanded in 1989), as well as the records of Pekin’s Women’s Relief Corps Post # 236 (auxiliary to Joe Hanna #117), were gone. Lost too was an inventory of what remained of the courthouse’s Historical Hall collection that had been prepared in 1983 by late local historian Fred Soady.
According Lerner’s main article, in the late 1970s the Women’s Relief Corps of Pekin “raised concern that the irreplaceable treasures would mildew in the dampness of the courthouse basement,” where the collection was stored.
WRC Post #236 then contacted the Springfield corps chapter to “take a few of the items to its museum for ‘safe-keeping,’ according to Lois Didier of Chicago. Didier, a past national corps president and co-manager of the GAR Museum in Springfield, said a portion of [the] Tazewell County collection was transferred to the museum in the late 1970s by station wagon.”
The GAR museum’s inventory of its Pekin artifacts said the museum obtained the “Pekin Collection” in 1979. Sheriff Donahue’s investigation, however, obtained statements from a number of witnesses who reported that a blue pick-up truck arrived at the courthouse in July 1978.
Lerner reported in his article “Whose blue pickup?” –
“The driver reportedly presented the late Irv King, the county’s former maintenance supervisor, with what sources said King told them was an ‘official-looking order’ authorizing the driver to remove a host of items from the basement storage area. . . . the driver of the truck knew where to go and exactly what items he wanted. His destination supposedly was Springfield.”
The GAR museum’s accession inventory of the “Pekin Collection” includes the following description:
“This collection appears to have been the property of Joe Hann GAR Post No. 117, Pekin, IL. It was placed in the Tazewell County Courthouse, in two storage rooms in the basement, in 1957. It was later taken by the Joe Hanna WRC No. 236, Pekin, IL and sent to the GAR Memorial Museum in 1979 for safekeeping. Some of the collection may have come in at other times but have been accreted to 1979.002 for ease of access. Several items have labels that indicated they were loaned to the Joe Hanna GAR Post by W. H. Bates. Several others have labels that say they were donated by Clifford Oswald but it is uncertain if they were donated to the GAR Post or directly to the Museum.”
Based on what we know, or think we know after all these years, the best that can be determined is that presumably the pickup driver had come to transfer the Civil War artifacts to Springfield as a part of the abovementioned arrangement between Pekin’s and Springfield’s WRC chapters. It seems Pekin’s WRC did not notify the Tazewell County Board of the arrangement, however.
And with the county unable to produce a complete inventory for the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum to examine, there the matter rested from 1990 until this spring, when County Clerk Ackerman began to pick up the loose threads of this tale. Discovering that the GAR museum likely had perhaps all or a good portion of the county’s former GAR artifacts, and finding that the museum was closing and was moving its collections to a new home, Ackerman set out to have the GAR transfer its Pekin artifacts back to Tazewell County.
Ackerman notes that the GAR Museum Accession Inventory List of their “Pekin Collection” matches and corroborates the museum’s older “Items Received From Pekin, Illinois 1979” listing. Both inventory lists establish Tazewell County’s ownership of the materials, he says.
“With these detailed inventory listings now in our possession, the most important of which was the GAR Museum Accession Inventory, and now with knowledge of the location of the artifacts, we reached out and the GAR Museum has been extremely receptive of our request for the return of the artifacts to Tazewell County,” Ackerman said in the April 11 press release.
He added, “If this discovery of these inventory list had been delayed by just another week, these artifacts would have been impossible to recover because of the formal closure of the GAR Museum and future movement of the displays to other museums. The timing of this entire effort has been amazingly lucky,” he added.
“We have been reassured the Tazewell County Civil War artifacts will be returned at a date yet to be determined, but before August of this year,” he said.
The Civil War artifacts total more than 70 cataloged items, including:
1849 Springfield musket
1855 Colt 6 shot revolving carbine
1864 Burnside rifle
1847 Springfield musket
1852 Sharps carbine, “captured at Bull Run by Confederates, reissued at Richmond Arsenal, picked up on the Antietam Battlefield.”
Cavalry Saber “used by a member of Wharton’s Texas Rangers. Plowed up by a Mr. Thomas 20 years after Battle of Shiloh.”
Schenkel rifled cannon shell
Grapeshot from Fort Donelson
Belt with cap box and bayonet scabbard
Union Canteen found at Battle of Shiloh
Watch found at Battle of Corinth
1840 Musician’s sword
Since these artifacts are invaluable, and because the collection includes firearms and other weapons, Tazewell County Sheriff Jeff Lower will have a unit to drive to Springfield to collect the artifacts and drive them back home to Tazewell County. After their return, the Sheriff’s Office will securely store the collection while the County Clerk and Auditor, assisted by Susan Rynerson, create an inventory of the materials returned. Arrangements for public display and viewing will then be made.