Browse Exhibits (13 total)

C-U at the Movies: Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

Credit: Sherrie Bowser and Tom Kuipers

In the Spring of 1967 a young Roger Ebert faced a difficult decision.  The freshman reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper was asked to become the new film critic.  Ebert had little experience reviewing film, but was excited for the opportunity to have his own column with his photo in the paper, along with a $25 a week raise.  In order to take the job, he needed to dropout of his PhD program in English at the University of Chicago.  Ebert's career goal was to become a front page columnist for a major publication, but a film critic for the Sun-Times was a major step toward that goal, so Ebert did not return to his studies that fall.  On April 7, 1967, Ebert published his first review and would complete seventy by the end of the year, starting a lifelong career and ultimately becoming one of the most well-known movie critics in American history.

This exhibit honors the life of the hometown legend, providing history, photographs, and more of Ebert throughout his life.  The different sections of this exhibit analyze Ebert's time in Urbana, his relationship with The Urbana Free Library, and his career as a film critic.  For more information about Ebert, or if you are interested in reading some of his thousands of film reviews, please visit his website at  If you are interested in reading some of his earliest newspaper articles, The Daily Illini newspaper is digitized and available through the University of Illinois for free.  To view some of his articles published in the News-Gazette or other materials related Rogert Ebert please visit the Champaign County Historical Archives at The Urbana Free Library.  

Champaign’s Gambling Hotspots in 1937
Credit: Sherrie Bowser, Tom Kuipers, and Allison Kilberg

In 1937, an unnamed Evening Courier reporter made a survey of the gambling conditions in Champaign. His 9-part series appeared nightly in the Evening Courier beginning April 29, 1937 and ending May 9, 1937. He found that even though gambling houses were hidden behind ambiguously marked doors, steep staircases, and peepholes, they were an open secret available to anyone.  The writer of the series claimed no malice and supposedly did not intend for the articles to be vindictive.  They merely wanted to make the police and community aware of the establishments and how they operate openly without rebuke.

The analysis of the Evening Courier series in this exhibit is supplemented by a brief history of gambling in Champaign County prior to 1937, as well as another example of vice and institutional corruption in the form of a dishonest mayor.  The stories found within this exhibit are reminiscent of the noir stories of Chandler and Bogart but are tinged with the excitement of true crime.  To learn more about gambling and other true crime in Champaign County, please visit the Champaign County Historical Archives at The Urbana Free Library.


Early Jewish Life in Champaign-Urbana

Credit: Sherrie Bowser, Cassie Ward and Tom Kuipers

If one were to stroll down the streets of downtown Champaign and Urbana in 1875 they would find an impressive array of local businesses offering an extraordinary selection of goods and services.  Found amongst these rich business districts was a bustling community of first generation American Jewish families whom operated a litany of different trades.  Names like Bernstein, Kuhn, Lowenstern, Lewis, and Kaufman, amongst many more, were synonymous with fine imported clothing, modern fashions, and high quality goods in general.  Many of these business became local staples in the Champaign-Urbana community for decades.  This entrepreneurial spirit of the early Jewish settlers in the area was supported by their rich religious dedication, which manifested in the creation of the Sinai Temple, and other congregations in the 19th century.

Early Jewish Life in Champaign-Urbana tells the story of these settlers, how they adapted to life in America, and how they became an essential part of the social fabric of Champaign County.  The examples offered within this exhibit are not an exhaustive list of all the 19th century Jewish settlers of Champaign-Urbana, but highlights some of the most prominent figures from the Jewish community of the mid 1800s and into the 20th century.

Fred and Betty Turner's Wood-block Print Christmas Cards, 1946-1974

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Credit: Tom Kuipers and Erica Stark

Every Christmas from 1946-1974, friends of Fred and Betty Turner received an original woodblock-printed card. Soon after Christmas, planning for the next year, the couple would choose a historical Illinois building or structure, take a photograph, then design, carve and print the image by hand. Their theme was “Illinois History through Woodblock Prints.”  Fred learned the woodblock method from his brother, an architect, who learned from a Japanese architect. Carving work was done under magnification using Tulip wood, a small chisel and specially designed wood-cutting tools. Most cards included inserts with detailed information about the historical significance of the depicted site.

This exhibit offers a closer examination of six of the Turners’ twenty-nine Christmas cards with a deeper history behind the subjects shown.  It begins with a brief biography of Fred H. Turner and how woodblock prints are created.  The other six sections focus on the cards themselves, starting with their first effort in 1946 of the chapel at Fort de Chartres and finishing with their penultimate offering in 1973 of the Cattle Bank in Champaign.  Three of the cards highlighted in this exhibit feature structures from Champaign County and the other three are from other historical locations in the state of Illinois.  This is just a sampling of the variety of subjects the Turner’s chose throughout the years but it offers a glimpse into why their cards became such cherished treasures to those who received them. 

From Homemaking to Municipal Housekeeping: 20th Century Women's Clubs in Champaign County

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Credit: Matthew Mayton, Olivia Palid

October 1876 saw the beginning of what would soon become a large variety of women's clubs in Champaign County with the Art Club's birth at a University of Illinois art gallery. This new association of women dedicated to literature and art came only a few years after the creation of the first women's social clubs in the United States. Other clubs for women by women continued to spring up in Champaign-Urbana and surrounding towns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Carley Friendship Club of Somer Township to the National Council of Negro Women, Champaign County Section. While some of these clubs have since disbanded, their legacies live on in their charity, artistic efforts, or the political endeavors they supported.

From Homemaking to Municipal Housekeeping: Twentieth-Century Women's Clubs in Champaign County highlights various women's clubs that have called Champaign County home, beginning in the 1800s and continuing until today. From clubs dedicated to music to clubs devoted to politics, the coalitions highlighted in this exhibit show the breadth and depth of women's interests in the 20th century. To learn more about women's clubs in Champaign County, including those not showcased in this exhibit, please visit the Champaign County Historical Archives.

Greetings from Chanute!

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Credit: Tom Kuipers, Leslie Straus, Rosemary Froeliger, Kevin Adams, and Ani Karagianis

On May 21, 1917, Rantoul banker and farmer, W.H. Wheat, sent a telegram from Rantoul to Washington, D.C. that read: “Landed aviation site for Rantoul. Contract signed today.” And so began the 76-year relationship between the United States military and Rantoul, Illinois. The newly minted aviation field was named in honor of the French-American engineer and aviation pioneer Octave Chanute (1832-1910). 

Chanute Field was one of the 32 Air Service training camps established after the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Its primary mission during the Great War was offering an eight week flying course to new aviation cadets. Chanute Field and its successor Chanute Air Force Base would become one of the premier technical training schools for the United States Air Force, offering instruction in airplane mechanics, automotive mechanics, aerial photography, communications, parachute rigging, firefighting, jet engines, meteorology, and missiles.  The maximum student capacity in 1917 was 300 students. At the peak of mobilization for World War II, Chanute’s student load topped 25,000 military personnel. In total, over 2 million men and women from all military branches and allied nations received training at Chanute Air Force Base during its 76 years of operation.

Greetings from Chanute! offers glimpses into numerous aspects of the Chanute Air Force Base throughout its illustrious history.  The Champaign County Historical Archives obtained the records of the former base in 2015 following the closure of the Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul.  This exhibit will be regularly updated with new stories from the base as our archivists continue to process this large and fascinating collection.

Hot Air Ballooning in Champaign County

Credit: Sherrie Bowser and Adam Beaty

Beginning in 1973, hot air balloons have been a frequent summertime sighting over Champaign County.  Why 1973? That’s when Tom Gabel moved to Urbana. Earlier that year, he was crowned the 1973 U.S. Hot Air Balloon Pilot Champion in Indianola, Iowa. Gabel was also a flight instructor, and several Champaign County individuals were introduced to the sport via him, including Ralph Senn and Joe Ream, aka “The Flying Tomato Brothers,” and Alice Fletcher and her son Rod. This group would go on to introduce the sport to many others.

Since then, Champaign County has supported many hot air balloon services and events, including repair and inspection businesses, regional balloon clubs like the Balloon Association of Greater Illinois, and hosted the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship in 1998 and 1999.  

LGBTQ Spaces in Champaign County

Credit: Adam Beaty

People outside the conventional norms of heterosexuality and gender have existed in Champaign County since its inception, yet these expressions have historically been criminalized in public spaces. Until 1971, it was illegal in Champaign and Urbana to wear clothing "properly belonging to the opposite sex" in any public place. Public discrimination such as this led LGBTQ people to foster their own spaces, often in private and discreet locations. With the national momentum of the gay liberation movement in 1969, the gay and broadening LGBTQ community in Champaign County fought against discriminatory laws and for legal protections. By 1977, the cities of Champaign and Urbana held two of the earliest Human Rights Ordinances in Illinois, and some of the earliest, strongest, and most comprehensive in the United States. Since 1974, numerous openly gay and LGBTQ businesses and organizations have opened, flourished, and fostered fun and community in Champaign County. 

LGBTQ Spaces in Champaign County features a select number of private and public spaces where LGBTQ people have met in Champaign County, as well as outlining the trajectory from criminalization to legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and choice of clothing in the cities of Champaign and Urbana. The exhibit showcases photographs and ephemera of The Balloon Saloon and theBar from the 1970s-1980s, thanks to the assistance provided by DJ Doug Barnes.

Mapping Champaign County: The Legacy of Alexander Bowman

01_1858 Alexander Bowman Map of Urbana and West Champaign - PLN.jpg
Credit: Ryan Chaglasian and Sherrie Bowser

After its founding in 1833, Champaign County’s population boomed in the 1850s with the arrival of the Illinois Central Railroad in West Urbana. The population grew from 2,600 in 1850 to 14,600 in 1860. Alexander Bowman was one of these new arrivals. In 1857, the architect and surveyor arrived in West Urbana from New York to change his fortunes. By 1858, he had created a map of Urbana and the newly developed West Urbana he was selling within the community. He followed up this venture with the 1863 Champaign County plat map. Bowman’s maps remain a significant cartographical landmark for the county over 160 years later because they capture this unique moment of massive growth and the future aspirations of the young towns.

Mary E. Busey's Gift: A Centennial Celebration of the Samuel T. Busey Memorial Library
Credit: Tom Kuipers, Sherrie Bowser, and Allison Kilberg

On March 7, 1872, Illinois Governor John M. Palmer signed the Public Library Act.  This act authorized Illinois cities, villages, and townships to establish and maintain free public libraries through tax authority.  Communities across the state immediately took advantage of the new law.  In Urbana, a Young Men's Library Association was founded and by December of 1872, they opened their first location at Tiernan's Block on Main Street and obtained enough funding to support the new institution.  The following year, the library moved to the Masonic Temple down the street and the library's patron count and collections started to expand. By the start of the 20th century, the steady growth of the institution necessitated the creation of an independent library building.  

Mary E. Busey's Gift explores the history of The Urbana Free Library from its earliest foundation through the opening of this new building, The Samuel T. Busey Memorial Library.  In this exhibit, you will discover the various homes of the library, some of its earliest supporters, and how the institution grew and changed through its first 45 years. This history includes numerous documents and photographs that bring this exhibit to life. Please visit the collections page of this exhibit to view more images. If you would like to see these items in person or view other materials related to the history of the library, please visit the Champaign County Historical Archives at The Urbana Free Library.