On the Record

Sharing Genoa's history

On the Record with Orrin Merritt

Orrin Merritt poses for a picture inside the Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Society Museum, 622 Park Ave. in Genoa.
Orrin Merritt poses for a picture inside the Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Society Museum, 622 Park Ave. in Genoa.

GENOA – Orrin Merritt knows all about Genoa history.

Not only is he a past president and current board member of the Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Society, but he also is a fifth-generation Merritt in Genoa. His great-great-great-grandfather arrived in Genoa in the 1850s. Originally from a ship-building background, Merritt’s ancestor became a contractor who built houses and barns in the area, some that remain standing today.

KVHS is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and will host its 32nd annual Pioneer Day from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 27, at the Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Society Museum, 622 Park Ave. in Genoa.

Pioneer Day will include demonstrations of skills from the late 1800s such as carving, wool spinning and candle and soap making, live music, a Lions Club pork chop sandwich dinner and free horse-drawn stagecoach rides for children provided by Alan Browne Chevrolet.

Merritt met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss Genoa’s history, the Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Society and Pioneer Day.

Milton: What is the history of KVHS?

Merritt: The Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Society was founded 40 years ago by Robert Hoover, who was in the bank industry in Genoa. He was interested in preserving local history, so he collected historical items, mostly purchasing from farm auctions. He wanted to put a museum in town, but there was a business in the Pacific Hotel. The train depot was going to be destroyed. He approached the city about Water Works Park and its 2 acres of land. The city rented the Water Works Building to him for $1 for 99 years, as long as there is a museum on the property. A foundation and basement were added and the train depot was moved, and that is how the museum was started.

Milton: What is your role in the group?

Merritt: I am a board member and am on the display committee and accessions committee. The accessions committee is a group that makes decisions when we receive a new artifact. We determine if the item is given as a gift or a loan. If the item is a duplicate or doesn’t fit the museum or area’s history, we can sell it or give it away, mostly because we are limited in space.

Milton: What was the museum building’s original use?

Merritt: The museum was a Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul train depot on what was known as the Milwaukee Railroad. In 1977, it was moved here from Sycamore Street. It had its last passenger service in October of 1967.

Milton: Tell me more about the railroad in Genoa.

Merritt: On Jan. 2, 1875, the train came through Genoa. Genoa was founded in 1835 or 1836, depending on what book you read. One of the first buildings in town was the Pacific Hotel. In 1838, a prominent mail route started coming through town. Soon after that, a stagecoach that traveled from Chicago to Galena, the Frank and Walker Stagecoach, made a stop in Genoa. There were lots of stops along the way to change out horses. The stagecoach trip cost $12.25.

Milton: Tell me more about Genoa’s history.

Merritt: Genoa is one of the earliest towns in Illinois after Galena. Genoa outdates DeKalb and Sycamore, and I’m pretty sure Rockford and Belvidere, too. An interesting fact about Genoa’s history is that in its early days, it had 50 miles of cement sidewalks. There were sidewalks in areas before there were houses. There were also no paved roads. Everyone walked everywhere instead of hitching up a horse and saddle. The roads were dirt or gravel at first, and then roads made from wooden planks. That’s where Plank Road gets its name.

Milton: How did the train connect businesses and people?

Merritt: In the mid-1800s, Genoa had three hotels, four blacksmiths, two lumberyards, a show factory and the stagecoach running through. It was very hustle-and-bustle at the turn of the century. There were also two theaters, not films or movies, but live acting here in town: the Ark and the Opera House. There were a few cow farms and a dairy, also known as a creamery, in Genoa. When the train came through, the milk was put on the train and delivered. The train cars weren’t refrigerated then, so the milk wouldn’t have made it to Chicago. There were different creameries and dairies along the tracks, so fresh milk could easily be delivered locally. People were smart and innovative. They had to be, or they wouldn’t have been able to survive.

Milton: What is Pioneer Day?

Merritt: Pioneer Day is all outside. We invite people with different skills to show what life was like in the late 1880s. We will have somebody that spins wool, whittles, carves furniture and a blacksmith. Kids make rag curls and bubbles, learn how to wash clothes with a washboard and can go bobbing for apples. We will show them how to make soap, candles, corn bread, butter and ice cream. We will host a silent auction and we will sell homemade pies. There will be also be live music, cowboys, a Lions Club pork chop sandwich dinner with a drink and sweet corn. Alan Browne Chevrolet has made is so that kids can ride a stagecoach with horses for free. Local organizations can come and talk about what they do and recruit volunteers. I think that events like this make the community strong.

Milton: Are there any other upcoming KVHS events?

Merritt: We host a Brown Bag Luncheon on the second Wednesday of the month, discussing local history and interesting topics. We also have a dessert sale at the Steam Show in August. The museum is open Wednesdays 1 to 5 p.m. and the second Sunday of the month from 2 to 4 p.m. To join the society, membership is $10 per person or $15 for a family.

Milton: What are KVHS’ goals for the future?

Merritt: We hope to develop more activities for children. In May, 130 sixth graders came to the museum, and we had three interactive stations: the printing press, the caboose and the general store. Inside our museum, we have a general store, kitchen, bedroom and parlor, all decorated as it would have looked in the late 1890’s. Our goal is to give children, the youth, a better sense of history and of ownership of how we got to where we are today. We want to make history come alive and offer educational experiences for not only children, but also adults.

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