QUINCY — The Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County has curated thousands of documents and other physical items since its creation 125 years ago.
Asking Rob Mellon what are the Historical Society’s most prized items is like asking a father which is his favorite child. He has a story and a love for each of them.
However, the society’s executive director doesn’t flinch when it comes to his favorite.
“Our greatest artifact is the (Gov. John Wood) mansion,” he said. “It’s one of the oldest structures of its kind anywhere in the state. It is on one list of the 150 most important architectural sites in Illinois (selected in 2007). Then when we had the state bicentennial (in 2018), it was included on the list of Illinois’ 200 Great Places by the American Institute of Architects Illinois. The John Wood mansion is one of only three private residences on that list (the others are Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield and Ulysses S. Grant’s home in Galena).”
Calftown Cookout picnic set for noon
The Historical Society will celebrate its milestone 125th anniversary year with a Calftown Cookout picnic on the grounds of the mansion, 425 S. 12th, from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The event is open to the public and will feature live music, food and beverages, a book signing, free tours of the historic home and self-guided walking tours of Calftown. Jukebox Reloaded will perform from 2-4 p.m.
The Historical Society long has been affiliated with the mansion. The city approved a request in 1906 to construct an alley near 12th and State, which would have required the historic home to be demolished. Louise Maertz, a prominent member of the Historical Society, and Daniel Wood, John Wood’s son, raised enough funds to buy the mansion in 1907 and protect it. The Historical Society took control of the property in 1907 and has maintained the home ever since.
Mellon says the historical societies in Quincy and Bloomington are the oldest in the state.
He says the mansion, as well as the History Museum at 332 Maine, sees thousands of visitors from around the country each year, but Quincyans often forget about the treasures available for viewing. Groups of third graders annually tour the log cabin next to the mansion, and fifth graders get to tour the mansion itself. Most adults from Quincy, however, typically only see the mansion during candlelight tours for the holidays.
“I had someone come by and asked to see the first fire pumper for the city. I said, ‘Yeah, it’s in the livery over here.’ And he said, ‘I want to see it,’” Mellon said. “Most of the time, Quincy people are not the ones who are touring the mansion. Our guided tour through the house takes an hour, and it’s really the history of the town. It’s a good tour. If you’re just coming through and seeing the house decorated for Christmas, you’re not getting the full tour. Very few Quincyans have done that.”
Mellon: ‘We’re not in the business of buying or selling’
Mellon says the Historical Society owns several pieces of history that would be popular among collectors if offered for sale. Among them are the original compass used by John Wood to explore the bounty lands, the first seal of the city and sword owned by John Wood’s father when he was part of Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army that famously crossed the Delaware River on Dec. 25, 1776.
Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that sale to happen.
“We’re not in the business of buying or selling,” he said. “We have to put some valuation on things for insurance purposes. When we get something, it should stay in our collection for perpetuity. We have all kinds of things, and it happens every day. That’s the coolest thing about the job, to say we have John Wood’s cane he got from the Gold Rush. We have the (prison) hood for Lewis Powell (a Confederate soldier who attempted to assassinate William Henry Seward as part of the Lincoln assassination plot) and the jail cell key for Mary Surratt (a boarding house owner in Washington, D.C., convicted of taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln).
“We were offered a quarter of a million dollars for the weather vane from the train station at Second and Oak. The cigar store Indian (on the first floor of the research library across the alley from the mansion) is probably worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those are one-of-a-kind things. How do you even put something like that up for auction?”
Costigan book available for sale Sunday
David Costigan, the Historical Society’s historian in residence and a long-time member, will sign copies of his recently published book, “A City in Wartime: Quincy, Illinois and the Civil War” at Sunday’s event. The book also will be available for purchase.
Some seats and an event tent will be provided, but guests also are welcome to bring lawn chairs.
The organization was formed June 12, 1896, as the Historical Society of Quincy, Illinois. An unexpectedly large crowd attended the first meeting at the Young Men’s Business Association. The first officers of the Historical Society were Lorenzo Bull (president), James Woodruff (first vice president), Gen. E.B. Hamilton (second vice president), Thaddeus Rogers (recording secretary), S.M. Emery Jr. (corresponding secretary), Edward Wells (treasurer), Chauncey Castle (auditor) and William Collins (historiographer).
The mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.