MINOOKA — Local historian Michele Houchens admits she gets wrapped up in history and genealogy. So much so, in fact, she feels like a detective.
“I get just as excited finding information about other people’s families as I do my own,” Houchens said. “I sometimes get carried away doing other people’s stories, especially if I get on a good trail.”
Houchens, the local history librarian and technical services assistant for Three Rivers Public Library’s Minooka branch, is the sleuth in charge of working to preserve the history of the Minooka-Channahon area.
Specifially, Houchens oversees the local history collection, an eclectic display of “this and that” that offers glimpses into the beginnings of the area as it now exists. The display, which is typically on display in the basement of the Three Rivers Library Minooka branch, is in the midst of renovations and is hoped to reopen in early June.
In her time as the local historian, Houchens has developed a unique insight into the area’s past and a kinship with those who gave the towns their beginnings.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: I’ve always been interested in history. Growing up here in Minooka, I felt I knew the people. I knew the older people. I like talking to them, hearing their stories and looking at the old pictures. My degree is in biology. After college, I worked for the Department of Conservation back then, but it’s the Department of Natural Resources. There were big layoffs in 1982, when I got laid off. I got married and started a family. When I was ready to go back to work, my boys were in school, and this job opened up at the library. It was perfect. It’s part-time, I got to set my own hours, my kids could come to work with me, it’s a block from where I live. This is where I’ve been ever since.
Q: How did you earn the role of local historian?
A: We had a local history group back before we opened the branch here. It eventually just died out. People lost interest, moved away and got older. I was the last girl standing. The board members knew I was real interested in local history so they offered me the position.
Q: When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a job like this?
A: I’ve been into genealogy since 1982. That’s when I started and took my first class. It’s been a passion of mine since. This kind of all fell into place. I never thought about having this as my job. I knew I would get a job some day.
When I was in about fifth grade, I wanted to be a librarian. I love to read. My sister worked at a college library and I would help her. That’s when I wanted to do that. When I got my degree, I wanted to be a biologist.
Q: Do you still keep up with biology?
A: My husband teaches biology, so I kind of do. We like to bird watch, camp and go out into nature.
Q: As the local history librarian at Three Rivers Public Library District, what does your job entail?
A: I collect items, memorabilia, photos and stories. I catologue them, display them, archive them. I do programs. I talk to school groups and scouts. I just try to preserve as much of the local history as I can and learn more about it.
Q: Where is the local history collection found and what does it include?
A: It is in the basement of the Three Rivers Library Minooka branch. Once we reopen, we have open hours on Monday evenings. I’m also available if someone wants to call and make an appointment. I will bend over backwards to open this for people.
I have photos, maps, plat books, yearbooks, genealogy, family history and just about anything I can get my hands on eBay. I have memorabilia items from the different businesses over the years.
Q: Where have the items in the history collection come from?
A: Mostly it’s been donated from residents, people who had parents who lived here or somebody bought a house, moved in and they found stuff in their attic.
I always tell people ‘Don’t throw anything away. Give it to me first.’ I’m kind of a hoarder. (Laughing)
Q: What is happening right now with the history collection?
A: We’re getting new flooring and painting the walls. After 21 years, it needed it. Hopefully, we’ll be open by June 1. I don’t know how long it’s going to take them to do the floors because they’re doing the whole basement.
Q: How often do you receive items from the public?
A: It depends. It goes in spurts, it seems like. Every month or so I get something new. A lot of people keep newspaper clippings, obituaries and that type of thing.
They don’t know what to do with them. Or their parents passed away and they’re wondering ‘What do I do with this? It doesn’t mean anything to me.’ They bring it to me.
Q: How do you see the collection growing in the future, and what artifacts would you most like to see the collection obtain?
A: In the future, I would like to be available more online. I’d like to get things indexed and more available to the public.
I’d love to see more photos of people and activities. I wish I had photos of the activities from this building because I really don’t. This has always been the social center in town. I know there’s people out there with photos of parades, school functions and everything.
Q: Explain what you mean about this building being the “social center.”
A: This was built in 1924 as the Masonic Lodge Hall. The Masons met up on the second floor. The first floor was a large meeting room and dance hall. It had a stage at one end. This was where all the graduations, parties, programs and dances were held. In the basement was a kitchen and a big dining room, so there were a lot of meals here for the people of Minooka. It’s always been a social center.
Q: Tell us about the Native American tribe lived in this area.
A: The last group of Native Americans in the area were the Pottawatomie. They were here when the settlers first came to the area in 1820-1830s. That’s when Channahon and the town of Dresden were settled. Minooka wasn’t established until 1852 when the Rock Island railroad came through.
The man who founded Minooka was Ransom Gardner. He bought 500 acres here. The purpose was to establish a grain elevator. He was the first developer. His agent, who actually lived in town, was Leander Smith. His wife Dolly spoke Pottawatomie. They were from Michigan. She is credited for naming Minooka, which means “place of contentment” or “good earth.” She is also credited for naming many of the streets in the old part of town.
Dolly lived right across the street from the library building, and she had a bay window. One of the stories about her is that Chief Shabbona used to come on the train from Seneca. They would sit in her bay window and speak Pottawatomie about the “good old days.”
Q: Describe the famed toboggan slide that was erected every year in Minooka during the 1880s and 1890s.
A: It was just a big old wooden toboggan slide. It was put up on Osceola Street every winter by A.K. Knapp, who owned the lumber yard. It ran by his house. He and his wife didn’t have any children. They put this up so they could watch the children having fun. They loved kids. It was so popular that people from different towns could only come on certain nights. I was told, though, that Minooka kids could go anytime they wanted. I don’t know the dimensions of it, but from the pictures it was pretty impressive. I guess they poured water on it so it would freeze and they would really shoot out.
Q: What is one of the most interesting pieces of history about the Minooka-Channahon area that you’ve come across?
A: I’m fascinated with the old settlements that are no longer here, and the ways the roads were laid out. I have a map I found from before Minooka even existed and the roads were totally different from what we know now. There was a main road, which when I lay it out was McLindon Road and it connected to Hare Road up in Kendall County, and it was called the Jugtown-Oswego Road. They were two of the main towns in the area. I love that kind of stuff. I love looking at maps and seeing where people lived and where houses used to be.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: I like doing the genealogy of the people of Minooka and Channahon. I get just as excited finding information about other people’s families as I do my own. I sometimes get carried away doing other people’s stories, especially if I get on a good trail. It’s like I’m a detective. One of the projects I’m doing in my spare time is I’m trying to fit together all of the old families from the Minooka and Channahon area — the McClennons and the McEvillys. It just fasinates me. You can do so much online.
Q: If you had a time machine, what time period would you most like to visit and why?
A: I would like to go back to the very early days of Minooka — the 1850s and 1860s. I would like to meet the people that I read about and talk about, because I feel like I know them. I would like to see what the town really looked like. I would do that in a heartbeat.
Q: What historical figure would you most like to meet and why?
A: Dolly Smith, just because I’ve read so much about her. She seems like an interesting person. After Ranson Gardner passed away, the family moved out west and started a store and lived out there. I wish I knew more.
She spoke Pottawatomie so I’d be interested to know why — if she was part Native American or did she learn it because she lived in Michigan.
Q: What is your favorite hobby?
A: Geneaolgy. My sister took a genealogy class, but before that I always liked talking to my grandparents about what it was like when they were kids. My grandma had a family bible that was her mother’s. I loved when she would let me take that out and see where the names were and see where the names where. Now I have that bible. It was left to me.
Q: What is your favorite music?
A: I like all kinds of music. It just depends on my mood.
Q: What is your favorite book?
A: My favorite book that I recommend to people is “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon. It’s a time-travel romance. I’ve seen her speak many times about her books. She makes me want to be a writer.
Q: Where would you most like to travel?
A: Everywhere. My husband and I went to Alaska last summer on a cruise. We were on land for six days. We would go back in a heartbeat and spend more time there.
We don’t get to travel very much. I go to Minnesota every summer and then Michigan. Just locally.
Q: What is your favorite food?
A: Anything somebody else makes.
Q: What is your favorite place to eat in Minooka?
A: It would have to be Cookie’s. Probably the fried chicken and Angie’s peanut butter pie.
NAME: Michele Houchens
EDUCATION: Degree in Environmental Biology from Eastern Illinois University
JOB TITLE: Local history librarian/Technical services assistant
FAMILY: Married to husband Terry. Two grown sons, Michael and Christopher.