The whole of downtown Atlanta itself is like walking into a time capsule. The museum is next door to the Palms Grill, which has been restored to its 1940’s charm and is still serving up classic diner fare. Across the street is a 19-foot tall man holding a hot dog – not an everyday sight on Main Street USA. Paul Bunyan is his name, and while this folk hero seems out of place, his original home was along “the Mother Road” up in Cicero. He is on loan to the town of Atlanta.
Back on the other side of the street, the museum welcomes visitors to explore its main exhibit space chronicling Abraham Lincoln’s impact on the town and its history of welcoming weary travelers along U.S. Route 66, dubbed the Main Street of America as it connected Chicago to California long before the Interstate system was devised.
On the second floor of the museum, the Smithsonian exhibit is tucked alongside a larger community meeting space called Union Hall.
The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program has provided programming and educational resources to more than 1,400 communities across the country, and this particular exhibit has been on the road since the early 1990s.
Atlanta it is one of six host sites across Illinois that were selected in partnership with the Illinois Humanities Council to host the exhibit. After it leaves Atlanta on March 16, Crossroads will travel to Winchester, Chester, Shelbyville, Marshall and DeKalb as the state of Illinois is promoting the exhibit as part of this year’s bicentennial celebration.
The informative and interactive displays showcase who lived in small towns in the past and who is revitalizing rural America today. Agriculture is, of course, a dominant theme. “We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it for a little while,” is the Willa Cather quote that stands out at the center of the display.
Cather, who poignantly captured the pioneering spirit of the plains in her book O Pioneers!, introduces one of the central sections of the exhibit on the change affecting rural America in the last four decades.
The agricultural crisis hit many communities hard as family farms struggled to survive in the 1970s and 80s – in many cases ultimately becoming hobby farms or tourist attractions. A large photo of the Farm Aid concert, which was first held at Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois, shows the public response to the economic plight of small family farms.
The exhibit provokes questions of what makes a community and what belongs in a small community and more profoundly who makes up these communities today and why. A room at the far end of Crossroads exhibit offers a unique chance for museum goers to reflect. Notecards pose different questions that can then be displayed with anonymous responses as part of the exhibit.
One can’t help but look at the larger Union Hall in which the exhibit is housed and notice how community organizations regularly host a number of science and music-oriented events for kids on the weekends. It seemingly answers some of the questions that exhibit poses about the future of small-town Main Street, where community is formed around family-friendly learning activities.
In leaving the museum and stepping out onto Second Street, where local shops had closed for the weekend, another car pulls up and the family gets out to stretch – presumably drawn by the signs along Interstate 55 about historic sites. They snap some photos of Paul Bunyan and take in the living, breathing snapshot of the postcard version of America circa 1940 that is downtown Atlanta, nestled between Bloomington and Springfield and surrounding farm country.
Photos by Sergio Barreto