Prophetstown Residents Sift Through Past, Look To Future

Aug 6, 2013

The fire destroyed the city's historical society. The second floor held vintage clothing, which could not be salvaged. Firefighters were able to rescue some items: papers, pictures and paintings. They arrived in various levels of disrepair at a nearby factory for "historical triage."  Two boys are charged with starting the July 15 blaze.

Charlene Hanson now spends her days organizing black-and-white photos from Prophetstown's past at the nearby Penberthy factory. Box fans are set on full blast to dry out the hundreds of pictures in neat piles around her.

For several years, Hanson has volunteered at the historical society. Now she is trying to make the best of a history lesson she didn't sign up for:

Credit Chelsey Fulbright

"I was born and raised around Prophetstown," Hanson said. "Looking at some of these, I saw some of my aunts and uncles that were in these pictures from years ago, so it does bring back a lot of good memories."

Home Of Eclipse Lawn Mowers

One of Prophetstown's greatest claims to fame was the Eclipse Lawnmower Factory. In fact, several rusted push lawnmowers line a wall of a room housing what's left of the artifacts.

Hanson says it's a fitting place to sift through the remains from the fire:

"I worked for that company here in this building," she said. "In 1961, when the last lawnmower came  off, I was down here working in this plant."

What's In A Name?

Across the room, several paintings have been quarantined. Janet Goodell doesn't like to go near them. It's hard to breathe because of the smoke damage on the paintings. But they are worth saving, she says, because one is of the town's namesake.

"Prophetstown got its name from Wabokieshiek: White Cloud, the Indian prophet," Goodell said. "His village was here. We had a lot of Native American villages up and down the Rock River. Wabokieshiek was known as a wise person, a prophet. He was an advisor to Black Hawk."

Appreciating The Past

In a back room of the factory, Beverly Peterson stands near a pile of black paper towels. She's gone through hundreds to clean off black-charred items. She moved to Prophetstown in the 1960s with her husband.

She's says the fire is a turning point for residents.

"I think people are starting to realize what they had there and what is gone," Peterson said. "Sometimes you don't appreciate what you've got until we don't have it anymore. We are just grateful we saved so much stuff; now we have a lot of decisions to make."

Moving Forward

Credit Chelsey Fulbright

Mayor Steve Swanson says Prophetstown's can-do attitude will serve it well in the coming months. He is trying to find out if state funding is available for rebuilding efforts. NIU's Center for Governmental Studies spoke recently with city leaders about marketing strategies to get the business district back on track.

"Government works so slow," Swanson said. "I am in such a hurry; that's the problem I am having.

"I want it done now while it's still fresh and everybody's willing to help and donate. We are going to try keep the facades of the building [resembling] the rest of the building. The 1900-type where the back may be a metal building but from the front you see a story-and-a-half brick building."

A Fighting Spirit

Back at the old lawnmower factory, Charlene Hanson looks to the future of the historical society.

"We have all of those memories of people coming in, and we hope that in time something will happen," Hanson said, "and we will be back together and have all of our stuff on display again.

"Then we will know that we overcame what happened to us. We are fighters, and we are going to do what we can."

They are doing that one lawnmower, one newspaper clipping, one picture at a time.