Bethel Church collection

The Bethel Church collection, which includes entries dating back to the 1800s, is one of many research tools available at the Piatt County Historical and Genealogical Society library in Monticello. 

No matter how strange a year 2020 has been, history marches on.

No one knows that better than the Piatt County Historical and Genealogical Society, which was established 40 years ago. A formal celebration of that anniversary has been delayed until sometime in 2021, and will include some research being conducted on Ann (Tenbrook) Honselman, whose late 1800’s and early 1900’s record-keeping have helped local researchers for decades.

“She kept track in journals of not only her (sewing) work, but mentioned who passed away,” said Society President Dee Lund. “If people weren’t mentioned in the newspaper who passed away, sometimes you can find the information in her journal.”

There is also at least a minor mystery of how her husband, Godfrey died during a trip out east. Research is ongoing, and will be revealed at next year’s celebration. Those with leads on the Honselman or Tenbrook families can email Lund at piatthistory@gmail.com.

It’s those types of one-of-a-kind resources one can find from PCHGS volunteers and that their library, located in the Piatt County Office Building in Monticello. From dozens of newspapers – many now defunct – to collections on families and businesses in the county, it’s a history junkie’s dream.

Another example of the importance of genealogical note-taking is the Bethel Church collection. A country church located in Blue Ridge Township in the northern part of the county, parishioners kept meticulous records from at least 1877, and donated those to the society when the church closed in 2015.

“The documents have come to the rescue a number of times wth information that wasn’t easily discovered anywhere else,” said Lund.

“Recently we used that collection and discovered that a man, whom the researcher thought had died by 1880, was in fact still alive in 1881,” she added. “People will be surprised at the amount of useful information in that one election.”

Piatt County has had a historical society as far back as 1918, which had fits and starts through the 1970s. It was late in that decade that members decided to add a genealogical component.

“We started hearing people wanting to know more about genealogy, because it was becoming quite the thing to do. So then we organized as the historical and genealogical society in 1980 and have been going ever since,” said Kay Gilbreath, a charter member who is still active in the group.

The society officially formed at a meeting on March 1 of 1980, elected officers on March 11, incorporated with the State of Illinois on May 29 and filed its official papers with the county on June 6.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The group now has around 115 members, which includes 12 libraries that receive its quarterly publication. Volunteers put that together, they man the library on Monday afternoons (1 to 4 p.m.), and perform research for people wanting historical information or leads on their family trees.

It’s definitely a labor of love – and points to their addiction to the past, which for many started in their youth.

For Gilbreath, who won history awards in high school, her family research began in trying to find more about her father’s lineage, since he had been adopted. In addition, she had a grandmother who passed away in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, a reminder that this year’s COVID-19 crisis is not unprecedented.

It leads to the making of new acquaintances as well. Forty years ago research was done by (snail) mail, which could be pretty hit and miss. Gilbreath corresponded with a woman from New York who was looking into some of the same ancestors.

“I was at a high school band practice (for her daughter in Monticello) and there was another family who introduced me to someone, and it was the lady I had been corresponding with. I was sort of amazed at that. But things like that happen. We say, ‘hmm, I wonder about that.’ Like you’re supposed to meet them,” she said.

One of her favorite research topics was the Orphan Train, which passed through Monticello and saw children adopted by Piatt County families.

It began in the 1880’s and orphan trains – children who had no parents are ones that were impoverished – were put on trains and sent west in the hopes of getting adopted.

“There were several here who went to Bement and Monticello and White Heath. Many were adopted because their new parents thought they would make good farm workers,” said Gilbreath.

“What really bothered me is they would get these kids out and line them up, and if nobody wanted you they’d have to get back on the train and go to the next stop,” she added, noting the orphan trains ran until around 1920. “I just find it so sad.”

She also likes the story of Monticello residents who brought food out to hundreds of Potowatomi native Americans who camped in the fledgling town in 1838 during a forced relocation. Monticello had not even been laid out and named a year earlier.

“The townspeople brought food out to them (there might have been as many as 800 native Americans camped in town), and there weren’t very many townspeople here in 1838,” said Gilbreath.

Lucia Wilkin’s ties to the society go back to its predecessor in the mid-1960’s, and her passion for local history – especially that of her native town of Cisco – has not waned.

“It’s real. We are because they were,” she said.

Her fondest memories were in planning cemetery walks, which meant a lot of research and convincing actors to portray some of the prominent members of local history, like James Piatt and Jacob Tenbrook.

“They (the actors) brought those people alive!” said Wilkin, “I would like to do a dozen more.”

Research victories also keep them going. For Lund, she likes helping people through what she calls “research brick walls,” which include people trying to find ancestors of relatives who were adopted or orphans.

“Sometimes it is only one line that was in one newspaper, and there’s no way you could have done an internet search to find it,” said Lund.

“I’m a very persistent person,” she added.

Not that online resources are a bad thing. People now have access to Piatt County newspapers of the past online, thanks partially to the resources from the library that could be scanned, and the society has been entering information from some 100,000 index cards into a database, a project that started in 2002.

But sometimes a real book or other publication is needed, and that’s where the library comes in. Volunteers still clip newspaper articles and organize them by subject each week, making it easier for researchers to locate those little facts that might have eluded them.

It makes it worth a visit to the library, which is open from 1 to 8 p.m. the first two Mondays of each month, and from 1 to 4 p.m. other Mondays. It is located at 1115 N. State St., Suite 119.

“It’s worth it for people to come to the library if they’re still scratching their head about what to get,” added Lund.

The current volunteers generate a lot of research, but they could use more. Those interested can send an email to the society at piatthistory@gmail.com, or call the library at 217-762-9997.

Society timeline

– On Sept. 11, 1979, the Piatt County Historical Society met and first discussed starting a joint historical-geneaological society. The motion was made by Walter White and seconded by Myrlin Buckingham.

– The society was officially incorporated in Illinois on May 29, 1980.

– The first logo, which included a shadowed shape of Piatt County, was created by Farmer City-Mansfield High School freshman Terry Adair, who won $25 for his effort.

– The society opened an office in the Piatt County Courthouse Annex building at 301 S. Charter St. in 1983, and occupied that space for 29 years.

– In 1984, 100 years of newspapers came into the possession of the society

– A collection of documents rescued by Linda Redmond from the tx assessors office came into the PCHGS’ possession in June of 1992.

– In 1997 the society received its first computers, which were used to create an index for newspaper holdings.

– The PCHGS received a Community Service Award from the Illinois State Genealogical Society in 2000.

– In 2006, Kathleen Foster, Carl Miglin and Lucia Wilkin began recording oral histories, building on what had already been done at the Allerton Public Library.

– The first Cemetery Walk, “Voices From the Past,” was held in September of 2006 at the Old Monticello City Cemetery.

– The society joins Facebook.

– A second cemetery walk was held in 2012, a virtual one at the Monticello Township Cemetery.

– In April of 2015 the group collaborated with others to hold an event that commemorated the death and funeral of Abraham Lincoln.

– In 2013-14, the society collabaorated with the Allerton Public Library – usig a grant from the Milligan Trust – to scan local newspapers, which are now available online at http://digitalarchives.monticellolibrary.org/.

– Current officers of the society are: Dee Lund, president; Kathleen Foster, vice-president; Maynard Suhre, treasurer; and Kay Gilbreath, secretary.

More info

For more information on the Piatt County Historical and Genealogical Society, or to volunteer, email Dee Lund at piatthistory@gmail.com or call 217-762-9997.