By CARL GREEN
Mt. Olive, IL – Creating a new museum without a full-time staff or an abundant funding source is a slow process, and for now, that’s the story of the Mother Jones Museum here.
The museum is indeed open, and plenty of things are going to happen there, but organizers are still working to raise money to make it the museum they would like to see.
Irish immigrant Mary Harris Jones began campaigning on behalf of working people and unions in the 1870s, gradually taking on the persona of Mother Jones, called “the most dangerous woman in America” for her organizing ability.
“We want this museum to be lively, interactive, relevant and meaningful, and unfortunately, that means lots of money,” said Frank Prochaska, a staff representative for AFSCME Council 31, speaking at the Mother Jones Dinner in Springfield, IL, on Oct. 11. “We want you to help us make Mother Jones come alive again in this museum.”
The movement to create a museum in Mt. Olive, IL, about the life of the great labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones began amid another campaign, to renovate the historic monument on her grave in Union Miners Cemetery, also in Mt. Olive.
See previous story: Mother Jones dedication: her fight is our fight, too
The town of about 2,000 people is 47 miles northeast of St. Louis, just east of Interstate 55 along Illinois 138. The cemetery is on its northwest side, off of North Lake Street. The museum is further east on the north side of Main Street, part of the new City Hall. Together, they make for a nice day visit.
The building is the silver lining of a disaster a couple years ago when a tornado destroyed the old city building. The city secured grant money to rebuild and included the museum in its plans. The resulting complex was entirely union-built, and its attractive brick design matches that of the city library next door.
The museum for now is a 580-square foot room that is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday – the City Hall hours. Most of the time, nobody is there to greet people, but that doesn’t mean visitors are not welcome.
“It’s open; it’s just a basic exhibit about her. That’s all that’s there right now,” said Rosemary Feurer, the assistant professor in history from Northern Illinois University who has made Mother Jones her cause and who represents the Mother Jones Heritage Foundation. “Our plan is that by next May, we’ll have something more.”
What’s there isn’t nothing, though. Highlights include:
- A life-size portrait of Mother Jones that visitors can pose with for pictures while holding protest signs.
- Eight large panels with text and pictures that tell the story of Mother Jones’ life.
- Enlarged photographs, about three dozen, that show the miners and mining operations of the region over the years.
- An original front-page newspaper article that covers the burial of Mother Jones in the cemetery in 1936, which was a major event at the time.
There’s no telling when new items will be added.
“People are welcome to go in and see what’s going on,” said Nelson Grman, president of the Friends of Mother Jones Museum.
In his presentation at the Mother Jones Dinner, Prochaska listed several of the Mother Jones-related groups that have helped create the museum.
“It has been slow getting started. It’s taken a lot of work and effort from a lot of people, but it is up and running,” he said. “This museum is really a partnership of a whole bunch of folks, and of a lot of overlapping board members.
“The monument is – especially with all the work that’s been done to refurbish it – a fantastic place to mourn Mother Jones,” Prochaska added. “The idea of the museum is to have a place where Mother Jones still lives.”
The museum has a list of specific museum projects and how much they will cost, ranging from $600 for a push-button video player to $8,900 for nine interpretive panels. The entire list would cost $48,450; the fund-raising goal for this year is $50,000, and donations are tax-deductible.
The simplest way to contribute is to go to the website motherjonesmuseum.org. Contributions should be payable to Mother Jones Heritage Project. The museum address is 215 E. Main St., Mt. Olive, IL, 62069.
“It’s a small space, so what we need to do justice to this story is electronic exhibits,” Feurer said. “Eventually, we’d like multiple, but right now, just a couple – like a table for kids where they could sit and really explore some of the history. That would be nice.”
She added: “My main thing is to help people see that telling this story will tell labor’s story.”
Some of the museum’s fundraising successes have been surprises out of the blue, such as when the Friends of Mother Earth environmental group kicked in $1,000. “They saw us on the website, and they called and asked what we were about,” Feurer said.
At the dinner, Scott Saunders, president of the Springfield & Central Illinois Trades and Labor Council AFL-CIO, presented a $5,000 contribution. Dave Morris of AFSCME Local 805, which represents some 1,400 state employees, presented that group’s $1,000 gift. The Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council is also a contributor.
Feurer is working toward writing a book on Mother Jones, based in part on what she has learned in working with the museum and from examining Mother Jones’ larger vision of a worker-oriented society.
It could refute a notion in some quarters that the impact of Mother Jones has been exaggerated.
“She’s really much more important to the history of labor than she’s given credit for,” Feurer said.
The museum’s website features two DVDs on Mother Jones’ life. Visitors might also look at the third item in the catalog, a two-CD set called “Miner’s Angel: A Tribute to Mother Jones.” It has songs by performers including Utah Phillips, Billy Bragg, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Kieran Kane, Gene Autry and Tom Russell. Of the 35 cuts, 11 are exclusive to the album.
The CD set costs $19.95. Postage is $3 for two items or $4 for all three.