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Story Publication logo July 15, 2020

Pandemic Slowed Efforts to Publicize Boone County’s ‘Best Kept Secret’

The Illinois Governor's Mansion in Springfield, Illinois. Image by Daniel Ronan. United States, 2019.

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POPLAR GROVE — Mike Frederickson, executive director and curator of the Vintage Wheels & Wings Museum near the Poplar Grove Airport, said his museum is “Boone County’s best kept secret.”

It’s something he’s been working hard to change.

“Some days we get 20 (visitors) and other days we don’t get any,” he said of the museum located in a hangar built during the Great Depression as part of a New Deal program.

“We’ve been trying to get more people out here. We’ve been doing more speaking engagements. We launched educational programs to get kids interested in aviation at younger ages.”

“Unfortunately, we had to stop all that with the pandemic.”

Typically, the Vintage Wheels & Wings Museum opens in April. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the museum was one of 85,000 worldwide closed for much of March and all of April and May. The museum finally opened on June 20 on weekends and by appointment.

According to a study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as much as 13% of museums were likely to never reopen from the pandemic. That was never in doubt in Poplar Grove. The Vintage Wings & Wheels Museum, 5151 Orth Road, has a very healthy endowment fund and minimal expenses. Including Frederickson, the museum has just four employees and all are part-time.

“Everyone had to cut back, but we got (Paycheck Protection Program) money so no one was entirely cut off,” Frederickson said.

Staffers spent their time working on educational videos to keep the social media pages active and working on safety guidelines so that visitors will feel safe as they work their way through the exhibits.

“We saw it as a chance to bring our museum to a new audience,” Frederickson said. “We did a lecture series about local aviation legends. We filmed some crafts. We did videos on our Jenny project.”

Frederickson and volunteers are rebuilding a World War I era Curtis JN4D — known among enthusiasts as a Jenny — from original plans.

To encourage people to drop in, Frederickson said admission will be free for the rest of the year and they’ll stay open into November and December, weather permitting since it’s not a climate-controlled building.

“Admission is not a big part of our revenue and it’s been a barrier,” Frederickson said. “We’ve had some free admission days in the past. This is a chance to see if that helps.”

Frederickson’s concern is whether they’ll be able to do any of the museum’s major fundraisers. The museum usually has a large pancake breakfast in August, several reenactments with vintage airplanes, a murder mystery dinner and a blue jean ball. They hoped to add a beer tasting to the schedule, but that is unlikely to happen.

“We still don’t know a lot about (coronavirus and COVID-19) so it’s hard to say how the rest of the year is going to work out,” Frederickson said. “We’ll have to do extra cleaning. We don’t get a lot of traffic so it’s manageable. Some of the cleaning stuff may become the new standards. We’ll open up to some degree and see how it goes.”

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