The Kankakee County Historical Society, founded in 1906, is one of the oldest historical societies in Illinois. It was formed by a coalition of local groups as varied as the Nature Club and the Spanish War Veterans.
The Historical Society displayed artifacts and documents, beginning in 1912, in a room provided by the Kankakee High School (then located on the northeast corner of Indiana Avenue and Station Street). In 1935, extensive renovations at the High School forced the Society to move its collection to the Kankakee County Court House. The collection was moved back to the Kankakee High School in 1944, where it remained for four years.
In 1948, the Kankakee County Historical Society found a permanent home, when the Historic and Arts Building was constructed on Governor Small Memorial Park. The Park also contained one of the oldest homes in Kankakee, built by Dr. Abram Small in 1855. Dr. Small’s son Lennington, who was born and raised in that house, became the 26th Governor of Illinois. The 21-acre plot of land that became the park was donated by the Small family; funding for the Historical and Arts building was provided by state legislature to serve as a memorial for the deceased Governor. It’s dedication and open house on October 17, 1948, was attended by Illinois Governor Dwight Green, other political and business leaders, and hundreds of Kankakee County citizens.
Initially, the Historical and Arts Building was jointly occupied by the Historical Society and the Kankakee Art League. The first exhibits in the Museum consisted of historic documents, antique farm items and other tools, household goods and clothing from pioneer settlers, Native American artifacts, and several statues created by famous sculptor George Grey Barnard, who had lived in Kankakee as a boy. The opening also featured a number of works by members of the Kankakee Art League. Arthur Wunderlich, an Art League member, told a newspaper reporter that it was not a formal exhibit. “We put a few of our pictures on the wall to lend some additional color to the room,” he said, “and also to show some of the work that we do.” That tradition continues today with the Museum’s annual Art League Art Show, held in our Barnard Gallery. Other art shows are also held periodically at the Museum.
Over the decades, the former Historical and Arts Building has been expanded to more than four times its original size, and has become the Kankakee County Museum. The portion of Small Memorial Park that forms the Museum Campus also has grown with the addition of the Taylor One-Room Schoolhouse, the Column Garden, and the Let Freedom Ring Garden.