New exhibit examines 100 years of civic showdowns

Elmhurst, IL

A new Elmhurst Historical Museum exhibit takes a look at the 100 years Elmhurst has been incorporated as a city, along with the civic showdowns it has faced along the way.

“The idea was to try and find some way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Elmhurst becoming a city and I really didn’t like the idea of a Hallmark-type kind of exhibit,” Curator of Exhibits Lance Tawzer said. “It’s something more of a civics lesson to really get into the meat of what it is to be a city, how we’re governed, how we’re represented.”

That lesson comes with an interactive ballot game for guests, Tawzer said. Visitors are handed a ballot and visit six exhibit areas, where they learn answers to the questions on the ballot. They then punch their answers on the ballots and stuff them into the ballot box.

The winner of a drawing will receive an “Honorary Mayor of Century City” plaque from Mayor Pete DiCianni at a future date, Tawzer said.

“There’s a little payoff,” he said.

Other sections of the exhibit include an overview of Elmhurst’s mayor and manager form of municipal government, a ward map that lights up with the appropriate aldermen and the neighborhoods they cover; three lockers complete with equipment for police, firefighters, and public works; “measures of excellence” on outside awards the city has received, and a section on how to get involved with city government.

There also is a section on two of Elmhurst’s most notable Public Works projects: the paving of York Street in 1921 and the railroad underpass in 1976.

“It’s kind of a case study on how we did referendums and voted on it,” Tawzer said. “We picked (those two events) because we saw them as two sort of case studies where public debate was involved.”
Virginia Stewart, a local historian who developed much of the content for the exhibit, said the incorporation as a city itself was a divisive debate.

“It was a struggle over ... whether what they had was good enough or whether they wanted to reach for something bigger, better, more modern,” she said. “At that time the sentiment seemed to be pretty much divided.”

Stewart said a special election in May 1909 on incorporation barely failed, with 156 of 313 ballots cast for incorporation. However, the village’s legal counsel then decided to not count two “unreadable” ballots, so the measure passed on a slim majority.

Stewart said a subsequent election in 1910 elected Henry C. Schumacher as Elmhurst’s first mayor after Schumacher, a banker, narrowly defeated a blacksmith. Six aldermen representing three wards, a city clerk, treasurer and attorney also were elected.

Stewart said incorporating Elmhurst as a city and maintaining ward representation, along with the adoption of a mayor and manager form of government in 1953 led to a balanced city.

“By keeping two aldermen from each ward we insured that the City Council would be a robust political entity and all those neighborhoods in the city would have strong voices,” she said. “It balances off the professional expertise and capabilities with city staff ... but also has an opportunity for the voice of the electorate to be heard strongly.”

Stewart said Century City will be “very interactive.”

“This will not seem like a high school Constitution test but rather a focus on the people; the people who made these choices, the people who make it work now,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a surprise to a lot of people, really understanding how the city operates will be a positive learning experience.”

Want to go?
Century City is open through Feb. 27, 2011. The Elmhurst Historical Museum, at 120 E. Park Ave., is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is free.