Amazing downtown attic find yields Lincoln’s earliest history

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[April 25, 2018] 


Life can be full of pleasant surprises. During the monthly meeting of the Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society, historian Bill Donath told the society about one that occurred to him recently.

Mark Shew from the recently closed MKS Jewelry store on the square in Lincoln stopped by last September to tell Bill that while cleaning out the space for a new owner, a small room had been discovered that was boarded up. When it was opened, there was a pile of what looked like old newspapers. Shew wanted to know if the LCGHS wanted this seeming pile of dirty trash.

After checking out the contents of the secret room, Bill’s response was an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“It looked like some waste paper that someone had forgotten to throw away,” said Bill Donath. What it turned out to be was a treasure trove of newspapers and advertisements from the original Lincoln newspaper, The Lincoln Herald.

The Herald was founded in 1856 and was a weekly distributed on Thursday mornings. The offices and printing operation were located in the space eventually occupied by MKS. The paper ran until it merged with another, The Evening Courier, in the early 20th century.

Donath, author of several books on Logan County history, was just the person to go through this material and find out what it was worth historically.

The aged papers turned out to be an invaluable find in the history of the city of Lincoln.

Much of the material consists of actual newspapers from the late 19th century that are in flat condition. The original paper was printed on acid free paper made of rags and was eight columns wide. The papers are flat and seem to be in good condition.

“The Lincoln Herald changed to a smaller format in the 1890’s and used a different paper stock made of wood pulp that has not held up as well,” said Donath. These editions are not in good condition, some a bit ragged and fragile.

So far Donath has found 698 issues of the paper. In total there are over sixteen hundred pieces of paper in what has now been christened the Shew Collection of The Lincoln Herald. But the actual newspaper may not be the most interesting part of the collection.

In order to make money, The Herald also had a printing business. They printed advertisements for Lincoln businesses and community events. There are ads for The Horse Collar Factory, the Lincoln Business College, and the original Methodist Church. There is also an ad for a local restaurant complete with menu and prices. The Herald printed political posters and ballots for elections.

These historical gems are all part of the Shew Collection, a window into 19th century Lincoln, Illinois.

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As with most archaeology, there is a wrinkle in this story of the historical treasure found in the MKS building. Many of the items are not in a flat condition as if they had just come hot off the press. Much of the collection is in tight rolls of paper that resemble nothing so much as a fireplace log. These rolls of paper are covered in black filth requiring special care.

Donath uses hand protection when touching them and tries not to breath in whatever the muck is on the outside. Under the tutelage of Lincoln Heritage Museum director Anne Mosely, an expert in handling old paper documents, Donath is slowly unrolling these papers and treating them with a special humidifying and cleaning process so that they can be flattened out.

More treasure has been found in these rolls, some with printing on the outside indicating what is held within. There are complete records of court cases, information about events at Lincoln University, and a few copies of The Charitable Observer, the monthly newspaper of the Lincoln School for the Feeble Minded, forerunner of The Lincoln State School and Colony. The Lincoln Herald printed this paper. There are also names of residents of Lincoln and what their position was in the city and county, and what they were up to.

The Shew Collection of The Lincoln Herald discovered in an old building and forgotten room in downtown Lincoln could not have found a better home than The Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society, nor could it have found a better curator than Bill Donath.

Donath has taken to the job of interpreting and preserving this rare find of Lincoln history with delight. He is photographing each piece of paper as he recovers it, thus keeping a digital record in case the original papers degrade. He has developed a classification system of each advertisement, 310 ads so far, in order to have an easy-to-use filing system for what he has found. And of course, he has taught himself the painstaking process of unrolling and preserving the logs of papers.

Donath is planning the long-term safe storage of the papers in approved boxes that will help preserve the collection.

This collection of The Lincoln Herald provides a glimpse into 19th century Lincoln and Logan County, a part of town and county history that had disappeared. There have been many surprises so far and no doubt more to come as Bill Donath slowly unearths this precious history, much as an archeologist would unearth a historic site. When Donath is at the LCGHS offices, you might stop by and look at this relic of days gone by.

The Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society holds a regular monthly meeting on the third Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at their collection facility at 114 N. Chicago Street, Lincoln. The meetings are open to the public and always have an interesting program.

The LCGHS also has a research service for those doing genealogy on family history in Logan County.

[Curtis Fox]

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