One of the most important items the St. Clair Historical Museum has is its director, Carol Radford.
Radford, 64, who lives east of St. Clair in the Lonedell area, has been involved with the local treasure for a second time since 2010 after serving on the museum’s board of directors since before it opened to 2002. Besides being the director, she also currently is the board president.
“I enjoy being here,” said Radford, who has a Master of Science degree in environmental science. “I’ve always had an unexplained inherent curiosity about history. I think history as taught in a lot of schools focuses on the great man, great events angle. While that’s important, I think everyday history is equally important. And it’s that every- day history that’s here.
“We focus on what ordinary people did for a living, how they shopped, what they were involved in and how they did everyday things,” she said of the museum. “That’s important. That’s what this museum is all about. That’s what we’re trying to preserve and show here. That’s what I want to keep doing.”
The museum is located at 280 Hibbard St., a couple of blocks west of Main Street. It has been in the same location, in the old Oddfellows building, since it opened in 1993. It is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays from April through November and by appointment.
Radford has spent more time working at the museum and with its artifacts since she retired from the work force in May 2011. Her resume is lengthy and includes being the science lab instructor and instructor at Maryville University from 1989 until her retirement. There, she taught several courses, including geology, geography, ecology, botany, biology, forensic science and the history and philosophy of science.
She also has taught at Jefferson College, East Central College and Southern Illinois University. And she spent several years working at the Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.
“I’ve had my fingers in a lot of pies,” she said.
Because of her intense workload, she couldn’t always make the meetings while serving her first stint on the St. Clair museum’s board of directors, so she was voted off.
“But in March 2010, I got a call saying the board was in disarray and they needed me to get reinvolved,” she said.
The next month, she was voted the chairman of the board, and remains in that position as well as the director.
“There were some people who were talking about getting a museum started here in the late 1980s,” Radford said. “At about the same time, there was talk that the Oddfellows were disbanding. When they did disband in 1990, they donated the building to us. It took us until 1993 to get things going and organized.”
Her involvement in the local history of the area started with an interest in the Virginia Mines.
“Over the years, I’ve taken a number of teacher workshops on local geology,” she said. “Growing up in the corn and bean fields (in Illinois), I didn’t get to look at rocks much, and you always want what you don’t have.”
Through some of those geology workshops, Radford met Art Hebrank, who worked for the state geological survey.
“He’s an expert on mining in the state,” she said. “We started discussing this area being a hotbed of mining activity in the 1800s.”
Those discussions led to a tour of the Virginia Mines site, where Radford and Hebrank poked around with Jack Roberts, who later helped get the St. Clair Historical Museum going.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Radford said. “That’s what got me started. Then, I was asked to be on the board and from there, the museum was created, it got going and it expanded.”
One of the museum’s featured exhibits is mining. Hebrank helped Radford put it together.
Radford said Roberts owned an antique store in the old St. Louis Shoe Factory building at the intersection of Main Street and Park Avenue.
“He had a lot of stuff,” she said. “He went to a lot of auctions and real estate sales to buy things, and also finagled a lot of donations.
“And after we opened, people walked in and said they had an attic full of stuff, and they brought it in.”
Through Radford’s efforts and supervision, the first floor of the museum basically has remained the same through the years. It focuses on commerce and businesses of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Besides the mining exhibit, there are displays centering on a general store, bank, pharmacy, post office, Route 66, native plants and the Oddfellows. Of special interest is a diorama of how St. Clair looked in 1917.
“That was before the bulk of the fires,” Radford said of the Main Street exhibit. “It was a thriving area.”
In later years, fires burned parts of the downtown area and damaged or destroyed multiple buildings.
On the second floor, which opened in either 1997 or 1998, the focus is lifestyles and “what people did and what they used to do it with,” Radford said.
A laundry room and parlor highlight the upstairs.
Radford had a hand in setting up every exhibit.
When asked which displays were her favorites, she said, “the mining exhibit, of course because of my lifelong interest in geology.
“I’m also fond of the general store,” she said. “When I was growing up, there were still a few of those around.”
Radford was born in Decatur, Ill. She graduated from Champaign High School and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural science from the University of Illinois in 1970.
During her senior year of college, Radford said she “committed to matrimony.”
She and her first husband moved to Tennessee in 1971, where he taught at Vanderbilt University.
Her one daughter was born in 1970.
She divorced in 1973, and two years later met another man who got a job in the St. Louis area, so they moved. The couple never married, and in 1980, Radford moved to Franklin County and the 10-acre farm she still lives on today.
After the couple split in 1993, she married her second husband in 1994, but he died from lung cancer in 1995.
On Jan. 8, 1997, she married her current husband, Verlan.
The couple live with two horses, six cows, three cats, three rabbits and a dog.
“We won’t talk about the seven skunks,” she said.
Radford has published several articles, all pertaining to environmental topics. Besides being the chairman of the museum board, she also is a trustee for the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Historical Society.
Through her love of history, Radford traced her roots and discovered some of her ancestors came to America before it was a country.
“They came here in the 1630s,” she said. “That leads me to ask the question of why did they leave Europe and come over at that time?”
She said her family history traced relatives to the Boston area, near the Hudson River in New York and on Long Island and in Virginia.
Today, Radford is working on photograph and newspaper archives. Her goal is to figure out and save all of them that are pertinent to St. Clair and Franklin County.
She also wants to bolster the museum’s community outreach and come up with some varying and time-sensitive exhibits that can be displayed in the museum from time to time.
For example, she said 2014 will mark the 150th anniversary of Gen. Sterling Price’s Confederate raid in St. Clair when the original Methodist church on Main Street burned.
“That was probably the most exciting thing that happened here during the Civil War,” she said. “I’d like to put together something about it, maybe even having a recreation of the raid.”
Whatever is put together, it will focus on local history.
“The way history typically is taught makes day-to-day life of ordinary people seem unimportant,” Radford said. “I think that’s why a lot of people aren’t interested in history.
“That’s one big goal of the museum — to let people know that, yes, their history is important.”
Radford also is interested in trying to get more local buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. She said St. Clair currently has two — the old International Shoe Factory and the old Panhorst Store building on St. Clair Street. She also said the iron furnace in Moselle is on the register.
St. Clair also houses an old African-American cemetery and a black school along Ridge Avenue.
“There are quite a few houses and buildings built here in the 1890s,” Radford said. “This building (museum) was built in 1899. I’d like to see what we can do with some of these places.”
Her interests include knitting and reading as well as a personal history project of trying to locate and document all of the historic churches in Franklin County.
“On nice days, I go churching,” she said.
Individuals interested in joining the St. Clair Historical Society may do so by contacting Radford.
“Y’all just come,” she said.