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Museum Exhibit Details McLean County Work History

From the railroad, to the farm. From insurance, to information technology. McLean County's workforce has changed many times over two centuries.

The McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington is chronicling those shifts in a new exhibit called "Challenges, Choices and Change: Working for a Living."

GLT toured the exhibit before its opening Sept. 8. 

The exhibit details the stories of more than 80 forefathers and mothers who worked for a living in McLean County—and how they helped build the community, literally and figuratively.

Mike Matejka, a Bloomington labor leader and exhibit curator, takes us back to the arrival of significant numbers of European settlers in the early 19th century.

“When we look at early settlement McLean County, 1820s, 1830s, it’s basically a rural farming area and Bloomington is not what you would even call a city,” Matejka said. “It’s a small town, a trading post almost. But there’s economic activity, there’s merchants, there’s craftspeople who are building things for their neighbors, since your pair of shoes is not going to come from a factory.”

The exhibit details stories of many who learned new skills in an ever-changing marketplace, including Albin Kron, who apprenticed for 10 years as a tailor in Bloomington. A call to serve in World War I ended Kron's dreams of opening his own store. After the war, he joined the postal service.

“You’ve got mail order catalogs, you’ve got mass produced goods coming in, people are not necessarily getting as many handmade clothes (at that time),” Matejka said. “(Kron) might not have made as much money as he might have made as a tailor, but he had steady work and he had a government job.”

Then there's the story of George Hoagland, the orphaned son of a Kentucky slave, who moved to Normal in the late 1800s to get an education. As a janitor, he experimented with various oils for cleaning linoleum floors. His creation came to be known as "Hoagland's Oil of Gladness." He hired African-American workers at his factory on West Washington Street.

Curator Susan Hartzold explains how Hoagland was ahead of his time and used the prejudices of the time to his advantage. 

“An African-American having his own business, that was incredibly unusual, but his business actually went international,” Hartzold explained. “He was able to succeed, I think, because he had a white man managing his factory. That was the transition that got him into that market.”

Long before people walked around with pocket phones, workers operated telephone switchboards to connect callers to those they wanted to reach—until the direct dial phone put their jobs in jeopardy.

“The telephone operators were so well organized and liked in Bloomington, they put a referendum on the ballot to block direct dial phones because they were going to lose their jobs if the switchboard went away,” Matejka said. “Bloomington eventually (went) for direct dial phones, but the women who were telephone operators were able to stave that off for a few years.”

That union was the first telephone operations local in Illinois, run entirely by women.

Technology has forced reinvention of homes and workplaces over and over again even in a single working life.

Marie Huffman went to work at State Farm after graduation from Bloomington High School in the 1930s.

"There were people who took jobs, chose professions, that was work for the leisure time of other workers."

Hartzold said Huffman adapted to multiple generations of technology in her career.

“One of her jobs was to handwrite information about (customer) policies into their ledger,” Hartzold said. “She was doing some typing too, but that’s the kind of technology she was using. Then, when electric typewriters came along, State Farm was always on the cusp of new technology. They got electric typewriters and she used an electric typewriter. Then when computers came along, she learned how to use the software. She adapted very well.”

But work can be a misleading term. Some McLean County residents labored hard to entertain.

“There were people who took jobs, chose professions, that was work for the leisure time of other workers,” Hartzold said.

The exhibit includes profiles of aerial artists, opera singers, baseball players and more.

It features audio samples from Joe Dowell, the only Bloomington-Normal native to land a No. 1 single on Billboard's pop charts, with "Wooden Heart." It was a song first recorded by Elvis Presley.

The exhibit also includes audio from Bonnie Lou, a Towanda native who launched her singing career in the early 1940s on WJBC Radio in Bloomington, when she was a teenager. She later became one of the first country to rock-and-roll crossover stars and is one of many from McLean County who were part of the leisure industry.

Hartzold also told the story of Clarence Rowe, elected road commissioner in Cheney's Grove in the 1920s.

“He convinced his constituency to spend about $10,000 on equipment to gravel their dirt roads,” Hartzold said. “When he was done, the roads were such a success that other townships and other counties were coming to him saying, 'Hey, will you do our roads too?'"

That business became Rowe Construction, which to this day is building new roads and repaving old ones throughout McLean County.

Matejka points out workplace change can also be difficult for those who had planned to give their life to a certain career.

“You work someplace, you dedicate yourself to it, you work hard and suddenly, ‘We don’t need you anymore.’ How do you transfer those skills you have? It’s going to be a transition in life and maybe what pensions and benefits you might have accumulated don’t necessarily travel with you from employer to employer.”

Matejka said McLean County will have to continue to transform itself after the closing of the Mitsubishi Motors plant and the planned opening of the Rivian Automotive plant to make electric vehicles.

The museum has scheduled a grand opening fourth exhibit, "Challenges, Choices and Change: Working for a Living," on Saturday, Sept. 8, at 1 p.m.  

The opening ceremonies will be followed by a Labor and Work Street Fair outside the museum from 1:30 to 4 p.m. The public will be able to participate in hands-on activities offered by local businesses, unions, tradespeople and artisans.

Full segment from GLT.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.