In 1969, a group of people interested in preserving antique farm machinery and steam engines met in Jacksonville, Illinois, to discuss the possibility of presenting to the public a show of long forgotten machinery. An antique farm machinery museum was established at the Morgan County Fairgrounds. Most of the equipment belonged to Pat Kenny and Milford Rees.
In 1970 the first Prairie Land Steam Show was held at the fairgrounds during the Morgan County Fair. This practice continued until 1975.
In 1973 Prairie Land Heritage Museum Institute was chartered by the State of Illinois. The first officers were Pat Kenny, president; William Rees, first vice president; Arthur Kent, second vice president; Clifford Upchurch, third vice president; Elva McMahan, secretary; and Russell Winter, treasurer.
By 1974, the lack of space for the machinery displays and demonstrations became very apparent. The ninety-six members began talks with state officials to obtain Illinois owned property for possible expansion.
In 1975 Prairie Land Heritage Museum secured a lease on 180 acres of land from the State Department of Mental Health. Approximately 17 acres of this land is located at the corner of Lincoln and West Michigan Avenues, where Prairie Land still makes its home.
Also in 1975 a real steam locomotive driven train was purchased from New Salem State Park near Petersburg. It consisted of an engine, passenger cars, depot, water tower and approximately one mile of track.
The Steam Show was held at the former State hospital property at Main and Michigan in 1976. The 1978 show had an added attractions, the miniature steam engine driven train actually ran for the first time. The addition of the train rides became one of the main attractions for the young and the young at heart.
From 1978 to 1980 many major projects were completed on the Prairie Land Heritage Museum grounds. Three buildings totaling 13,600 square feet of space were constructed and new water lines were installed.
The first weekend of June 1984 was the first “Gas Up Engine Show. This weekend was a show for anyone owning a gas engine of any type. Anyone interested in gas engines could see them in action on this weekend and the admission was free.
The Show has continued to grow and change over the years. In 1987 and 1988, the west end of the barn was cleaned and remodeled into a hamburger stand. Like the bean kitchen, this is a project of the Ladies Auxiliary.
In 1987 another 120 by 40 foot building was built to house the stationary engines. In 1989 all of the wooded buildings were stripped, repaired and repainted. Electricity was buried through the center of the flea market area to accommodate the ever-expanding village of sales people.
The newest addition to the grounds is a building. Plans for a permanent museum placed in the facility have been realized and is now operating fully. Many items have been donated to the museum and have been carefully cataloged.
Overall through the years the Show has experienced many changes. Yet in many ways it stays the same. The steam cooked ham and beans are still the best around and the sorghum made from can grown right on the grounds is still the sweetest around. In 1984 George Waters stated, “When you can stick your finger in it without getting burned, it’s done.” He was referring to the sorghum.
The largest flea market in downstate Illinois keeps growing every year. Items available range from tractor parts to handcrafted furnishings, from antiques and collectibles to pure junk.
A tour of the grounds will show you threshing, plowing, baling, log sawing, sorghum making, blacksmithing, quilting, rug weaving and many other varieties of crafts and demonstrations.
Regular meetings are held the last Friday of each month. Anyone interested in old time machinery or crafts is invited to attend. Many volunteer hours are lovingly given to provide this Show.
Contributed by Linda Berry