Mother Jones Historical Marker & Indoor Exhibit, Illinois Humanities grant

We are proud to announce our new I-55 Southbound Coalfield Marker and indoor exhibit. The new marker is intended to draw attention to the vital history that exists in what might seem like an ordinary stretch of the interstate highway. The marker and indoor exhibit at the Coalfield Rest Area pay tribute to the role of Illinois coal miners and highlight how miners and their families fought for the eight-hour day, against child labor, for a living wage and against wage theft. Both the marker and exhibit highlight the important role of Illinois coal miners’  heroine, Mother Jones, a Cork-born Irish immigrant.

The marker, unveiled. Joe Rathke photo.

The indoor interpretive. Mike Sheridan Photo.

Dedicated during a Dec. 11 ceremony, the marker is located on I-55 southbound at the busy Coalfield Rest Area (mile marker 65), about 15 miles south of Springfield on a stretch of the interstate that is also alongside historic Route 66. Over one million people stop here every year. It is equipped with picnic grounds and a walking path.

It is a great pleasure to acknowledge the collaborations and contributions of others, to give credit to those who steps we follow as well as those who did the hard work for this project and celebration.

How it Happened

The coalfield marker was suggested years ago by Dave Rathke (my spouse),  Mother Jones Heritage Project board member . Dave’s creativity and commitment to public history and specifically to this marker idea kept this project going. Dave is constantly thinking about the relationship of history to movement building. Salute, and credit, goes to him. Of course, millions of people went to that rest area, but only Dave felt it was possible and he also aimed to make it happen.

I doubt I would have pursued it if I had not attended to the 2012 inaugural Spirit of Mother Jones Cork Festival. Along with Elliott Gorn, Marat Moore,  and Kaiulani Lee we helped to dedicate the marker in Cork. Just before the festival, Margaret Fulkerson of the Working Women’s History Group and Illinois Labor History Society went to Cork, and she brought back the cast of their marker. Margaret, Marat, and Elliott are on the Mother Jones Heritage Project board, a testament to the formative role of Cork in our own development, which continues a trans-Atlantic cultural cooperation for the promotion of knowledge about Mother Jones and the history of social and economic justice that shaped both countries. Our board member Saul Schniderman, (also Labor Heritage Foundation board member) continues to school me and our board on the critical cultural importance of markers. He located and placed the Maryland marker to Mother Jones. Making culture, he tells us, is an activist project.

After the 2012 inaugural Spirit of Mother Jones Festival, I came back and with the vital encouragement of Margaret Fulkerson, Marat Moore, Saul Schniderman, decided to pursue this as a public history project, and so Cork became a catalyst for what became the Mother Jones Heritage Project.

A grant from Northern Illinois University’s Great Journeys Program  got the project off the ground. This grant funded a graduate student to help me explore how best to pursue this as a public history project. Museum, trails, markers, better website? We researched the best means and came up with an extensive plan. Most evidence suggested Chicago as the best place to do this project, but I was committed to working with people in the area in which Mother Jones was buried.  I was so lucky to have the bright and talented Robert Glover as a paid graduate assistant because of NIU’s Great Journeys funding. As part of that work, Robert produced the initial application for a marker and indoor exhibit for both the Southbound and the Northbound Coalfield Rest areas. He did so much more work on the infrastructure and research of this project in a year’s time. So I thank NIU for helping to  make this happen.

We thank the Illinois Department of Transportation for granting the permanent license for both the indoor exhibit and outdoor marker at both North and South I-55, and especially Michael Staab who has worked with us through this process.

The advent of a Mt. Olive-based Mother Jones Museum caused us to put off the coalfield rest area as we engaged in fundraising and development of the museum. We also deferred attempting funding through what then existed, Illinois tourism grants, because one was needed for the cemetery restoration. But this year we decided this marker’s time had come.

Marker Funders, Sponsors, and Touchstones

Dennis Surgalski, who is a retired schoolteacher on a modest income, demonstrated a commitment to this history; his generosity is a major reason we were able to produce the marker.  He is the son of an immigrant coal miner, Benjamin Surgalski, who met Mother Jones when he was a boy and whose memory he carried forth.

Illinois Labor History Society was also a financial sponsor of the marker. Mike Matejka of the ILHS spoke at the dedication ceremony of the need for more markers that profile workers story. Mike Matejka also helped save us the terrific installation cost by arranging with LIUNA Local 1084 (discussed below)

Mother Jones Foundation has for 33 years worked to promote this history and the folks there have provided a base of supporters for the our project and a resource for us. The recent work of Terry Reed, Jim Dixon, Jack Dyer, Jody Hogge, David Lasley, Al Pieper, Deb Russell,  Don Green, James Hade have been a touchstone for our project. Mike Prehoda helped us with JULIE for the installation. The Mother Jones Foundation  raised some funds for the marker project last year, but in an effort to help the museum, agreed to donate those funds to the museum. Nonetheless their support for this project deserves hearty thanks and recognition.

We are also grateful that the Illinois State Historical Society sponsored the marker as one of their marker series. 

Terry Reed has been a friend and  project resource, helping me to make sense of things many times. I want to give him a shout out for being there during a very tough year.

Design, Development, Installation

Kate Klimut worked as coordinator and designer for the project, and brought a fabulous spirit of humor and collaboration. Kate worked with artist Lindsay Hand to develop two of the images shown in the gallery below. There is a lot that goes into design, both technical and artistic, but also coordination, with attention to detail and multiple project skills, and we are grateful to her for the amount of time she put into this coordination. She colorized the photo of the miners on the indoor exhibit, vectored the images, and so much more.  She worked on the initial indoor exhibit. She is a very talented person.

Lindsay Hand is in love with this project, and her enthusiasm bolsters all of our spirits. She did sketch work for a tiny stipend. We are truly grateful. The Mother Jones with children and iconic Mother Jones was here is taken from a woodcut print.  We are hoping to use her Mother Jones Was Here in other applications in the future. Lindsay is excited to be a part of sharing labor history.