Since 2006, members of the Savanna community have been planning and working to create a museum to highlight Savanna’s history.

While members of the Savanna Historical Society say the project is at least one or two years away from completion, they say the progress made so far is wonderful.

The idea for the Savanna Historical Museum began in 2006 when Gene Wright showed his Civil War collection in Mount Carroll, Ill. Wright began teaching history at the Chestnut Park School in Savanna, Ill., in 1963. As a way to make history interesting for his students, Wright, a long-time Civil War re-enactor, would dress in clothing appropriate to the characters in his history lectures. Wright then began dressing mannequins in authentic Civil War-replica clothing, complete with props. In 1980, he began to create the collection now known as the Gallery of Civil War Soldiers.

When Wright showed his collection in Mount Carroll, four Savanna residents, including Lydia Root, were surprised by the work he had done. Root, whose children had had Wright as a teacher, knew that he made history live for his students. However, she was awed at his collection, which consisted of nearly 80 mannequins. Root said Wright’s collection is the most unique Civil War collection in the world.

These Savanna residents began thinking Wright’s collection should have a home in Savanna. Root said they felt the collection deserved a museum and Wright deserved recognition for the work he had done. They came together to form an 11-member board for a historical society. After discussing ideas for a museum, they decided to expand their goal for other exhibits as well.

In 2007, the society purchased the old Allied Furniture building at 406 Main St., Savanna. The group had looked around the various properties available at the time. They finally decided that the spacious, three-story building would fit their needs perfectly, offering 16,000 square feet of space. Root said many fundraisers were held to pay for the purchase of the property.

The third floor has been designated for Wright’s Civil War collection. This floor will hold the nearly 100 mannequins carved by Wright, along with four horses that were bought or donated for the exhibit. Wright has dressed most of these mannequins in used clothing from Civil War re-enactors and which he bought at a reduced price.

“Some of it’s dirty and scuffed and ripped and torn and patched, but that’s just the way I like it. Looks more realistic that way,” said Wright.

Historical Society member Jean Ferris said Wright’s collection sets them apart from other museums.

“I think we are very unique in the fact that as a start-up museum, we already have the collection. Where as many museums start out and have to find and make a collection. We already have it,” said Ferris.

The second floor will be home to the other two main exhibits planned for the museum. In a back room, the Wayne King collection will be shown. This room measures 21 feet by 25 feet. When completed, a mini-stage below a wall-sized screen will create the illusion of the famous Savanna-born orchestra leader on stage at various times during his career.

Gary “Scott” Law, a Savanna native, began collecting area musician history in 1996. Over the past 13 years, many people have provided memorabilia of King and his orchestra. In 2008, the director of Lady Esther Kosmetik in Bensheim, Germany, contacted Law concerning memorabilia from Wayne King and the Lady Esther Cosmetic Company’s radio program, “The Lady Esther Serenade.”

The other exhibit on the second floor is seeing construction as workers build the framework for the old railroad display. Eventually, people will enter this display from stairways or an elevator from the ground floor. Once they step onto the second floor, visitors will enter a 1950s-style train station. The main room of the exhibit will feature 1,000 feet of track.

Keith Brown, vice president of the society and one of the men constructing the framework for the display, said a group of 10 people from Grand Mound to Lanark, Ill., will build the models, which include the railroad swing bridge, the Savanna/Sabula bridge, Savanna’s Main Street and waterfront and Palisades State Park Indian Head rock formation as they looked in the 1950s.

“And they’re talented people. They’ve done projects before. And it’s going to be grand, when they’re done. It’s going to be a grand setup,” said Brown.

Brown said despite all the work that has already been done on the museum and the individual exhibits, he anticipates it will take at least 18 months, depending on the economy, before the museum takes true form. He said the museum has several major obstacles to overcome, including a $250,000 geothermal heating system to buy and a $150,00 to $160,000 elevator to purchase.

The Savanna Historical Museum functions almost solely through donations. Ferris and Brown both said the society is always looking for grants, but donations are what really keep the project alive.

“Let’s face it, we’re a small community in a depressed area and we have fundraiser after fundraiser and our public is supporting us,” said Ferris. She said people in the community are wonderful in offering their support, from monetary help to donating cookies or chili for a fund-raising event.

Root and Ferris also pointed out the help they received from Brown, Mike Ritchie and Donald Nolte for the construction and renovation needed in the museum. Root said this group of retired Savanna residents has jackhammered and hauled cement out of the building’s basement by hand and pulled up and cleaned the floors on the first floor. They also are currently building the displays for the railroad exhibit. Root said this work is a full-time job, which the men do for no pay. Ferris estimated, based modestly on what these men could have made an hour doing this work, that they have donated approximately $90,000 worth of labor to the museum.

Root and Ferris said they hope the museum continues to receive the generosity of the community. The society will be holding a fund-raising dinner on Saturday, March 21, at St. John’s Antl Hall, 316 Chicago Ave., Savanna. The dinner will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Chef Bill Lease will be preparing prime rib and chicken cordon bleu. Delivery and carryout will be available. Cost for the event will be $15. Root said anyone interested may send donations to Box 124, Savanna, IL 61074.

Ferris said she feels this museum is needed in Savanna. She believes it could bring in more tourism and provide a place to preserve the community’s history.

She wanted to emphasize the fact that this museum will try to remain fresh and fun.

“We want to, I think, stress that this is going to be a museum that has interactive displays and will be constantly changing. It’s not going to be some stuffy old museum that’s dusty,” said Ferris.