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The Lawrence County Historical Society was honored to be chosen to host the newest Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit:  Water/Ways on Sept. 3 - Oct. 16, 2016. Only six Illinois communities were selected to host this prestigious exhibit.   


Water is a critical resource and is essential to all life on earth. The Smithsonian exhibit focused on the relationships between people and water. The local companion exhibits focused on the same thing but from a uniquely Lawrence County perspective. 


One third of the county floods on a regular basis and has since George Rogers Clark crossed the flooded prairie in 1776. Abe Lincoln crossed in the flood of 1830. George Field Army Air Base personnel fought the Battle of the Embarras in 1943 to save this army installation. As recently as 2014 the prairie was once again inundated with flood waters.  What could be more appropriate then, than an oversized ‘flood wall’ consisting of a bar graph showing the regularity and severity of our flood events to greet visitors as they arrived. 


Water has not only shaped our landscape but also the way we made our fortunes.  In the early 1900’s fresh water pearls were discovered in the mussels at the bottom of the Wabash and Embarras rivers, starting a ‘pearl rush’ similar to the gold rush in California. A button making factory utilizing the shells themselves existed in St. Francisville.  These stories were also told in one of the exhibits.


Other exhibits told how water has shaped the way Lawrence County residents play from  an 1880’s health spa, known as Stivers Spring, to Lake Lawrence, a public swimming beach, and finally to Red Hills State Park Lake.  As the genealogists in the Society pointed out, water also shaped where people settled.  The early families came originally across the ocean, and then used the rivers to arrive at their new homes.  One exhibit told the story of a family’s migration from Scotland to Lawrence County, and what items they brought with them for their new homes.  Next to this exhibit was one about the early mills in Lawrence County, often the social center of the wilderness.


In the 1800’s the rivers were the highways for passengers and freight.  The local story of keelboats, flatboats, and steamboats made up another exhibit. Water also played an important role in religion and that was portrayed also, as well as what happens when there is no water, and a town catches on fire.  Farmers like to say they either have too much water or not enough, so that was used to create an exhibit about drainage and irrigation in agriculture. Many other surprises awaited the 2250 visitors to the new History Center of Lawrence County.


The multimedia project consisting of programs, exhibits, bus tours, a video and a book received the 2016 Superior Award from the illinois State Historical Society. 


Don't forget to purchase your copies of our souvenir exhibit books!

Available at the History Center or order online.

Water/Ways is part of Museum on Main Street, a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and the Illinois Humanities Council, and was adapted from an exhibition organized by the AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, NEW YORK.

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