Our history is all around us. We often display it prominently and tell its stories to anyone who will listen. Historians, researchers, genealogists and the like enjoy nothing more than peeling back the layers of time’s onion to reveal the pungent folds underneath. However, sometimes history exposes itself to us on its own, and occasionally in the strangest ways.
In 1998, an electrical fire at Robert Sparks’ home on Fourth Street in Bethalto destroyed some of the interior walls. Behind the damage laid the past. Mr. Sparks discovered an intact log cabin dating back to the mid-1800s. The cabin was formidable with foot square logs fitted together with hand-hewn notches held in place with clay chinking. The lot where Sparks’ house stood was originally part of David Starkey’s land grant and was sold in 1858. Starkey was one of the village’s founders. As the property changed hands over the years, improvements were made to the structure built around the log cabin. Sparks’ house was not new by any means, and it traced a sort of architectural history. The two-by-four skeleton was completed with square nails. Handmade bricks lined the inside of the walls, which Sparks had been told were to prevent arrow attacks from penetrating the house. Sparks knew the logs existed prior to the fire, but not to what extent. He was quoted soon after the breakthrough as saying, “This is part of the history of Bethalto and of Illinois, and we don’t want to lose it.” Sparks worked with the village of Bethalto and the local Rotary Club over the next few years on a campaign to move and restore the log cabin.
The Rotary Club volunteered to raise money. Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared a day to be “Bethalto Log Cabin Day.” The village and its intention to save the cabin were not the issue. The concern was money — $10,000 was needed to complete the restoration project. The community was galvanized and a proposal to get area schoolchildren involved was proffered. The pitch was as rooted in historicity as the discovery of the cabin. Village and Rotarian committees connected the dots. Illinois. Log cabin. Abraham Lincoln. Pennies. Money. Local students were thus charged with the task of raising the needed funds with a penny drive. Public and private schools joined forces to raise the money in only three weeks, and they did.
Dr. Dennis Rucker, superintendent of Bethalto Schools commented, “We saw the educational value of saving and restoring this piece of history.” The money was raised and even more so. The log cabin was moved and restored, and now rests near the Bethalto History Museum.
When a community realizes that a part of itself is only vital because of its past, it will do whatever it takes to preserve that. We cannot escape our past, despite the fact that we may occasionally cover it up to move forward and meet our current needs. But our history is always there, lurking just below the exterior. And when it does surface, the part of us that concealed it longs to make amends for our misstep and ensure its legacy.