New DeKalb County History Center plans $1 million move

By Kelli Duncan for Chronicle Media

Michelle Donahoe and Sue Breese sit next to a mock-up of the DeKalb County History Center’s new facility which is set to open in May of 2019.

The recently-formed DeKalb County History Center has big plans as it preserves and shares the area’s past.

The Center—created by a partnership between the Sycamore History Center and Sycamore-based Joiner History Room — will open a new facility at a farm site on the edge of Sycamore in May 2019 to give both more research and exhibit space.

The Sycamore History Museum announced its partnership with the Joiner History Room on March 1. The groups recently launched a combined website under the new name of the DeKalb County History Center.

Michelle Donahoe, executive director of the new history center, said the new center was created to streamline the resources of the two organizations, as well as 28 other local historical non-profits involved, so that they may better serve the community.

She said the move should not be confused with a merger as the organizations involved will all remain independently operated.

“A lot of these groups are all-volunteer,” Donahoe said. “So we’ve been trying to come together and collaborate for about 3 1/2 years now but it’s been difficult because we all work very hard to keep things running.”

The vision for the new history center is to finally bring these organizations together so that they can support one another in helping the DeKalb County community understand and connect with their history. This vision is embodied in the new center’s mission statement to “explore, gather and inspire.”

Donahoe said the next step is to launch the second phase of their website in August to add more content as well as links to all of the websites of their partner organizations.

“So what we’re really trying to do is fill the gap of coordinating and supporting all of the different, smaller museums in the area and this website is one way that we’re going to be able to do that,” Donahoe said.

The site will serve as a database of historical information for the county with data from all 28 organizations centralized in one, easily searchable place. Donahoe said that although some organizations don’t have all of their information available online, the site will show what information is available and where it can be found.

“We’re very excited to launch the website,” Donahoe said. “But the bigger project is our new building which will be constructed next to the current Sycamore History Museum building once we get the barn taken down.”

According to a summary provided by Donahoe, construction and operational expenses for the new facility add up to $1 million. She said they have received a few generous grants so far, but are still in the process of meeting with potential donors to reach their goal.

The history center has already received a $75,000 grant from the DeKalb County Community Foundation as well as a $300,000 individual gift from Doug and Lynn Roberts, a local family.

According to Donahoe, the new building was designed to maintain the rustic look of the other old barns on the museum’s campus.

She said the new building will be separated into four main sections. The first will house the Joiner History Room with a special research room for genealogy and other DeKalb county-related research.

The Joiner History Room will continue to be managed and run by the current director, Sue Breese, who is also the DeKalb County Historian.

“At the Joiner Room, we do genealogy, we do research on homes, we do research on buildings and help with history projects for local schools so we do pretty much anything and everything DeKalb County,” Breese said.

Breese said she helps people from all over the area and all over the world as they try to trace back their roots in the county. She said she does this with the help of an extensive library of obituaries, county records and research done on different local families dating back generations.

Breese said they are in the process of making much of this information available online. The Joiner History Room is currently located in the Sycamore Public Library.

“Being able to move into the new space would be a great improvement for us,” Breese said. “We could really use the research space.”

The building will also have a lobby with a few displays, a program room and plenty of storage and archive space, Donahoe said.

Donahoe said the main portion of the new facility will be a 1,200 square foot exhibit space. She said the first exhibit to be featured in the new space will be a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit called, “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.”

“It’ll be here for six weeks. We’re the last stop in Illinois and the only stop in Northern Illinois so this is an amazing opportunity to really showcase DeKalb County history,” Donahoe said. “The Smithsonian provides a national story and then we have to provide a companion piece looking at how DeKalb county fits into the history of rural America.”

Donahoe said the county has many stories to tell when it comes to the history of farming in America.

“Our farm bureau is one of the oldest farm bureaus in the country,” Donahoe said. “And even bringing it up to present day, we’re going to show how farms have adapted with the times.”

Donahoe said the exhibit will also feature companion pieces at a number of other, smaller museums in the area. All of these smaller exhibits will be promoted through the DeKalb County History Center as another way of supporting their local partners.

“I think it’s exciting because people tend to think of history as something from a hundred years ago but we’re making history every day,” Donahoe said. “So the fact that this exhibit takes this up to the present, I think we’ll really be able to bring in a lot of people and help them to think of our history in a different way.”

2018 Barn tours

Breese said one event to look forward to is DeKalb County’s 5th annual Barn Tour on Aug. 11 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. This year, the barn tours will take place in the Southwest corner of the county near Paw Paw township and will feature a wide variety of unique barns, with eight barns total.

Tours are self-guided and cost $25 per car. Additional information on the Barn Tour can be found by contacting Glidden Homestead at 815-756-7904 or or DAAHA at 815-756-8737 or