Lettidor: A Hairy Situation in Our Archives

Dan Lewis –

When history professor Dr. Jenny Barker-Devine first entered the uncharted waters of the archives—or, rather, lack of archives— in 2008, she didn’t know what to expect. At first, she assumed that an institution so old that prides itself in its rich history would have at least some form of archive.

Boy, was she wrong.

Dr. Barker-Devine, with the assistance of Reference Librarian Mike Westbrook instead found piles of old documents scattered across campus the basements and backrooms of the older buildings. The school did, however, have a small Plexiglas-enclosed room on the top floor of Schewe Library, which housed the dusty Rare Books Collection and yet another stack of unsorted, unkempt documents.

It was here where Dr. Barker-Devine stumbled upon an unopened envelope postmarked 1983. In it, a handmade picture depicting Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s famous and beautiful plantation and home in Virginia. One thing, however, made this creation stand out among all others that Dr. Barker-Devine had seen.

It was made of human hair.

Dr. Barker-Devine, as any scholar or professor interested in history and archives would do, quickly looked into this immensely interesting artifact. After some research, it was discovered that the artist was Frances “Fannie” Macklin Ellis Wilkinson, who created the piece as a teen in 1815. She made the piece when she lived in Virginia with her husband Otway Wilkinson, a minister whom she married at the age of 17. She died two years later upon giving birth to her son, Ira.

Ira Wilkinson would later move from Virginia to Kentucky and then to Jacksonville in 1830, where he became the law partner with future Illinois Governor Richard Yates, who governed during the Civil War. This amazing fact is made even more amazing for me, as I recently wrote a paper about Governor Yates for Dr. Barker-Devine last semester without even realizing this connection.

The picture had sustained water damage in its many years so Dr. Barker-Devine and Mr. Westbrook sent it to a conservator. Five years later, in September of this year, the restored picture was finally sent back to IC, just in time for the dedication and opening of the new archives.

Along with Dr. Barker-Devine and several other students, I worked in the old, incomplete, and then new archives over the summer as it was being constructed. I researched other archives to compare our to, moved documents and artifacts out of the old rooms and into the new one, and began the process of digitizing our many interesting photos.

On Monday, October 13, the archives were renamed the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives of Illinois College and there was an official ribbon-cutting ceremony with many trustees, administrators, and significant people in attendance. I had the honor of showing Dr. Al Habtoor and President Farley around the new archives with Dr. Barker-Devine. The next day, President Jimmy Carter met the trustees and administration in the archives and received a similar tour. I had the honor of meeting and shaking hands with both prestigious men. On Friday, November 21, the Archives held an open house and was open for viewing and tours to the public.

Throughout this whole period, the Mount Vernon picture has been on display on the main floor of Schewe Library.

 

Dan Lewis, from Mahomet, Illinois, is a junior majoring in history and political science at Illinois College. Dan is Editor-in-Chief of The Rambler and Student Body Vice-President and serves on multiple student-faculty committees.

Dan Lewis

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