Intern Reflection: Jim Gass
The Museum may be a repository for McLean County’s history, but it’s hardly the only place where you can observe the past. The Museum is for studying and analyzing history; to see where it came from, one has to search it out. Walking through Downtown Bloomington on foot lets you see buildings that were erected outside of living memory. Following railroads and bike paths all the way to the city limits brings you back to a time when the limits of a city were marked by farm fields and not strip malls. It is then that one can get a real sense for how the city has grown over the last century.
At that point, the Museum can be of more use. A McLean County citizen who arrives at the Museum looking to learn might not know where to start. A citizen who already knows what they are searching for? For them, the Museum can be of much more use. The library is available, with all the information it holds, and for the more thorough researchers the archives offer even more. In my time as an intern, I have learned that citizens who are curious about the history of the community will conduct their research with great interest and enthusiasm when given access to the right materials. I saw a lot of that enthusiasm, which is an indication that the Museum is living up to its mission: to make history available to the public.
When I began interning at McLean County Museum of History, I understood that small American cities and towns had deep histories with parallels that, when taken together, reflect the American experience. That being said, I had no idea of the significance of McLean County. I was vaguely aware that President Lincoln would have had to campaign all over Illinois when running for the Senate, but I had no idea of the part that McLean County in particular played in his election. I had no idea, when I was growing up listening to their commercials, that State Farm started here in Bloomington. I also didn't know that Steak’ n ’Shake had originated in the same city I had picked to attend college. These may seem like trivial facts about McLean County but every household name, whether it belongs to a person or to a company, started somewhere. It just happens that more than a few American ones owe part of their success to McLean County, Illinois.
However, as I stated before, there have been parts of the County’s historical experience that it shares with other counties all over the country. McLean County, like others, dealt with Prohibition and the Great Depression. The people here experienced both the growth that comes with agriculture and the bumps in the road, like having to sell off farm equipment to make ends meet, or becoming injured and having to rely on the neighbors to help bring in the harvest. McLean County, along with the rest of the country, had to re-evaluate its identity and its ideas about equality during desegregation. It is all of these experiences, as well as the ones unique to this county, that make its history both typical and unique. It is for that reason that the study of its history, and that of all American towns, must remain accessible to the public.