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NewsTribune photo/Shannon Crawley-Serpette Jami Bachman of Pekin holds Kameryn Chasco of Pekin while they look over a wall of photographs at Dickson Mounds museum in Lewistown. Bachman, who had never been to the museum before, said it was “cool.”
LEWISTOWN — The knowledge that humans have resided in the Illinois River Valley for 12,000 years is one of the most interesting tidbits learned during a trip to Dickson Mounds in Lewistown.
“The extent of human history is something that surprises people,” Michael Wiant, Dickson Mounds museum director, said.
Dickson Mounds museum gives onlookers the chance to explore the world of the inhabitants of this region and what life was like living in the Illinois River Valley at any point in time during the area’s lengthy human history.
Looking over the Illinois River Valley from a large deck attached to Dickson Mounds museum, it’s not hard to see why people long ago would choose to settle here. With its close proximity to the river, lush greenery and wildlife, the site would give ample opportunity to those looking for food and fertile soil.
Many generations had lived and died in the Illinois River Valley before Don Dickson started to dig the ancient burial mounds located on his family farm in 1927. Removing the dirt only, he left the bones and artifacts in the ground where he found them. He placed a tent over the excavation and later had a building constructed around it. Dickson opened it as a private museum before selling it to the State of Illinois. The state began operating the museum in 1945 and transferred it to Illinois State Museum in 1965. The current building was opened to the public in 1972.
For years, Dickson Mounds’ main attraction was the open burial site located in the museum, featuring numerous remains of those who were buried there. But out of respect for the human remains and for the parties who wanted that part of the museum closed, the burial section of the museum was closed in 1992, Wiant said.
The museum, in turn, temporarily was closed for renovations and new exhibits before reopening in 1994, he said.
Closing the burial site has not affected Dickson Mounds’ attendance numbers. Annually, the museum, which does not charge admission, draws between 45,000 to 50,000 visitors and is a popular places for field trips.
“I’m looking out my office window right now and there are three buses,” Wiant said. “My favorite part is watching kids react to what they see,” he said.
Their wide eyes and surprise upon seeing an enormous tooth from a mastodon is fun for Wiant. “When they look at it, they just can’t imagine,” he said.
The Discovery Room, a play room for younger children stocked with educational, pertinent toys is a big hit with the youth, according to Wiant.
Another impressive exhibit is a dugout canoe, which was found in the 1990s. “A local farmer found that after a flood in his corn field,” Wiant said. It is one of only two dugout canoes ever found in Illinois.
Tyler Chasco of Pekin recently traveled to Dickson Mounds after he found a groove ax in a creek. At the museum, he hoped to learn more about his artifact.
Although Tyler had been to Dickson Mounds when he was a child during a field trip, Jami Bachman of Pekin, who went to the museum with him, hadn’t been there before. “It was cool,” she said.
Part of the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway, Dickson Mounds is largely considered one of the major on-site archaeological museums in the country. “It really is a jewel,” Wiant said.