Exhibit explores Civil War-era Sycamore

Museum volunteer Wes Wilson helps set up the Civil War tent for the exhibit.
Museum volunteer Wes Wilson helps set up the Civil War tent for the exhibit.

SYCAMORE – Everell Dutton may not be a name many local people are familiar with. Yet, as one of the first settlers in this area, he played a prominent role in the development of Sycamore and DeKalb County.

Dutton’s life and times are the subject of the latest exhibit at the Sycamore History Museum, “General Dutton’s America,” which opened last week and will run until late March 2015.

Born in New Hampshire, Dutton’s family moved in 1846 to Sycamore, where his father opened a dry goods store and served as postmaster. After living in Kansas for a few years, where his father was one of the signers of the Kansas Constitution, Dutton moved back to Sycamore in time to enlist in the army during the Civil War. Rising from lieutenant to brevet general, Dutton served with both the 13th Illinois and the 105th, taking part in Gen. Sherman’s famed march to Atlanta, then to Savannah.

Returning home at the age of 27, Dutton served as county clerk, clerk of the Illinois Legislature, and clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court, and was president of a prominent Sycamore bank. He passed away in 1900 at age 62.

According to history museum Executive Director Michelle Donahoe, the exhibit is the story of one man and his experiences as they go beyond local history and connect to a larger national story.

“This type of history is called a microhistory – an interpretation of individual people and places while looking at the broader context of the time period,” she said. “Everell Dutton’s life exemplifies the pioneer spirit, dedication of a soldier, and richness of the Gilded Age.”

Donahoe said the exhibit came about when museum volunteer Rob Glover was processing letters and other materials Dutton’s family donated to the museum in 2011. As he pieced everything together, Glover realized what a find he had. Besides using it for a class project at Northern Illinois University, he suggested the museum base an exhibit on it.

“What started as processing a collection of family letters turned into a great opportunity to tell the early history of Sycamore, the Civil War, and what life was like afterwards,” Donahoe said. “We are all happy to see the exhibit evolve and become a first-class display that will engage people of all ages.”

Glover, the exhibit’s curator, said he’s pleased with the final result.

“There’s a little something for everyone in here,” he said. “There are really interesting stories all the way through.”

Using photographs, maps, artifacts and newspapers, the exhibit is divided into three parts: before the Civil War, Dutton’s experiences during the war, and his life afterward. There’s a hands-on tent where visitors can get a better sense of a soldier’s life, clothes from the period and an online exhibit. Programs throughout the year will expand upon ideas in the exhibit, which coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

“There is a thread in the exhibit that has to do with the development of Sycamore,” Glover said, noting that the town grows through the exhibit from a village of about a dozen houses to a city.

In researching the project, Glover said they were able to match letters that Dutton wrote to his wife, Rose Paine Dutton, from the museum’s collection, with letters she wrote to him that had been donated to the Joiner History Room in Sycamore.

“That was kind of strange, but it was a good thing,” DeKalb County historian Sue Breese, who oversees the Joiner Room, said. Although she wasn’t sure why neither museum had both sets of letters, she said such donations “are a great teaching tool for kids.”

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