"So What Was Once Here?" tour features Kewanee downtown historic buildings

Kewanee’s downtown district has always been a living, breathing entity -- buildings and blocks changing with each passing year.
Sometimes the changes take decades to notice. Other times, like in 1942 when a fire completely leveled two downtown blocks, it’s gone in a flash.
When Kewanee history enthusiast Kevin Skoglund traverses the city’s downtown streets, he sees many versions of Kewanee at once, some of them real and present, some of them ghosts.
To him, a walk downtown is multi-layered archaeological dig of the imagination, and it’s something he’s decided to share with everyone.
“I like presenting history to people,” he said from the corner of Second and Tremont, one of the many sites around town where he’s set up a public historical tour that recalls the most prominent buildings in Kewanee history.
“Preserving a building takes a lot of money, but you can preserve and present history in many ways,” he said.
Skoglund obtained photos of the historic buildings from the Kewanee Historical Society’s newly improved digital archives, framed them and placed them in storefronts of buildings that now stand on those same downtown lots.
He calls it the “So What Was Once There?” tour and so far he’s created 18 “stops” along the informal walkabout. He said he decided not create a corresponding map for the tour because he wants residents to search the locations out for themselves.
“I’m going back as far as I can go, I want to go back to the roots,” he said of the building photos, estimating that most are between soon after Kewanee’s founding in 1854 and the 1920s. “If I can find old, I’m going old. I’d like to see people dig a little deeper into what was here before.”
Each display  is a little different, some with explanation, others with just a street scene to take in and hearken back to a time when Kewanee was a booming railroad town. Some have one photo, some have several.
Display examples include the Kewanee House Hotel, the city’s first, which used to sit on property now occupied by Peoples National Bank, 207 N. Tremont St., and the site that now houses Center City, 117 W. 2nd St., once one of myriad movie theaters that have come and gone in Kewanee over over time.
“I’d like people to walk uptown and look for them,” he said. “Even if somebody’s out walking and not even looking for history – they’re going to get it whether they like it or not. It’s here 24/7.”
Just as he says this, a kid on a bike stops to see what’s going on and to look at the display Skoglund has affixed to the  Breedloves Shoes and Boots window.
It shows the 1900-era Lay and Lyman Department store that used to stand in the very same spot.
Skoglund said store owners have been very cooperative and are many times not even aware of the history behind their location.
“They’ll go, ‘no way, I didn’t know that was there,’ ” he said. “They become just as amazed as I am.”
The Kewanee Chamnber of Commerce is helping to promote the tour to outsiders who may come into town for special events, and Skoglund has plans to keep expanding the tour.
Phase two involves adding a cardboard cutout of Abraham Lincoln at the train station, where Illinois’ favorite son once stopped for an overnight stay on his way to Toulon to give a speech. He said he’d eventually like to see the tour grow to “real” tour guides that tell Kewanee history stories.
“I’m just going to keep building on it.”