Windows of Giving: The Historic Ellisville Restoration Organization

Our first Windows of Giving feature shines an online contribution spotlight on Ellisville, Illinois.

September 29, 2015 |

"From eyesore to arts center, a band of committed people turned their small town dream into reality."

Welcome to our very first Windows of Giving feature, where we shine an online contribution spotlight on a small town project that brings together students, teachers and community advocates for the common good. We don’t expect to raise enough money to build the Taj Mahal, but every dollar will help, and, more importantly, your willingness to give $2, $5, $10, or $25 is a tangible vote of confidence for the caring people who are making a difference in their rural community.

The Historic Ellisville Restoration Organization is doing wonderful work, and we think you will enjoy learning about their commitment to Main Street, the arts, and historic preservation. Their spirit and commitment exemplifies our Windows of Giving series.

Ellisville, Illinois (pop. 87), nestled on the banks of the Spoon River, is an unlikely center for the arts in the rural landscape that is western Illinois. But thanks to the diligence and hard work of the Historic Ellisville Restoration Organization (HERO), the town has become a kind of theatrical Mecca for rural school students from the surrounding region. HERO is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to keeping a small town alive and thriving. It is the epitome of “grassroots," and their HERO Fund is managed by western Illinois’ Galesburg Community Foundation.

The genesis of HERO is a story in its own right. The Odd Fellows built the hamlet’s Opera House in 1891 after their original lodge was destroyed in a fire that burned down the entire south side of Main Street. The rebuilt Opera House’s downstairs included a grocery store, Post Office, and dry goods store. The Odd Fellows used the second floor theater for their meetings and booked traveling shows to entertain locals on the weekends. The facility also hosted graduations, dances, parties, political meetings and other gatherings. However, over time, like so many other rural theatrical showcases, the building fell into disrepair and became an eyesore.

In 1995 a group of community-minded folks established HERO and purchased the dilapidated building. The roof was leaking and the floors were falling in, but, according to HERO proponent, Bonnie Powell, a dream was born to bring the Opera House back to its glory.

HERO began raising money in earnest by selling Hickory and Sassafras smoked hams for Christmas. They still sell hams but have sagely diversified their fund raising “portfolio” to include a ham and bean-corn muffin lunch, square dances, a Sadie Hawkins Day, toy shows, Sassafras Festival, and Apple Dumpling sale during the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive in the fall.

These fund raising efforts provided needed capital, and after securing the necessary funds to fix the facility's roof, HERO applied for National Register of Historic Places designation, which was garnered in 1996. Meanwhile, additional restoration work was done as funding became available, and, gradually, a community-icon was put back to use.

But the Opera House has not been HERO’s only successful restoration project. Several years ago three buildings went up for sale across Main Street from the Opera House. These included what is now the Post Office Museum, Harness and Leather Shop, and Blacksmith Shop. HERO’s board voted to purchase these buildings, as the properties’ rejuvenation aligned with HERO’s stated mission statement to “save and restore the historic buildings of Ellisville, for the future generations.” Two of these building were built in the late 1800’s and one in 1920, so the threesome had real historical significance. Some progress has been made on renovating these acquisitions, with more to follow as funding allows.

The physical aspects of the downtown renovations are impressive, but they do not tell the entire story. The real significance of HERO’s efforts can be seen in the the Spoon River Rascals, a youth theater troupe that serves several small rural communities in the Spoon River region. The Rascals perform musicals twice a year in the Opera House, bringing youthful energy and the arts to what was once a deteriorating Main Street.

Rascals' Thespians ham it up on stage at the Ellisville Opera House. Photos by Kent Kriegshauser, Galesburg, Il.
Rascals' Thespians ham it up on stage at the Ellisville Opera House. Photos by Kent Kriegshauser, Galesburg, Il.

HERO's work continues, and they recently updated the Opera House with a new well, septic tank, and HVAC system. The group is currently adding ADA compliant restrooms to the facility, showing their commitment to serving folks with disabilities.

Since HERO started on their journey they have worked tirelessly to preserve the history of this village on the banks of Spoon River. Said Powell, “HERO has many more dreams; the next one is to make the Opera House theater, which is upstairs, handicapped accessible so everyone can enjoy the plays, music and entertainment, which have happened here since 1891.”

Your small charitable investment to the organization’s HERO Fund will mean so much to Bonnie Powell and her community's effort to make their building handicapped accessible. Every gift, small or large, is an infusion of inspiration. We hope you will take a minute or two to help out. Click here to make a donation to HERO. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Update from Sheila Blout, treasurer of H.E.R.O., as of February 2022:

Since this article, the 'Lift Fund' at Galesburg Community Foundation has been established. The article references the 'HERO Fund', which is our general fund. After launching another Lift fundraising phase on November 23, 2021, H.E.R.O.'s Lift Fund has received a little over $9,000! This takes us to 64.70% of our goal to buy and install an external lift, to take mobility-challenged folks upstairs to the theater, and pour a sidewalk to the lift.

Also, since this article, H.E.R.O. has installed the ADA-compliant restrooms, renovated the three buildings though they now need a fresh coat of paint, and in 2020 several volunteers gave the theater and staircase a fresh, but not new, look. This year, the Sassafras Festival, May 7th and 8th, is expanding to include Folk Art vendors.

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