If you dig into the history of O’Fallon, you won’t have to drill down very far to find how coal mining helped fuel the town’s founding.
“You can’t tell the early history of O’Fallon without talking about coal mining,” said Brian Keller, acting president of the O’Fallon Historical Society.
Now, thanks to an O’Fallon Boy Scout’s Eagle Scout project, that story is one people can do more than read about — they can reach out and touch it.
In order to achieve Boy Scouting’s highest honor, an Eagle Scout candidate, among other requirements, must also take on extensive service project that the Scout plans, organizes, leads and manages.
For his project, Tommy Fulford said he didn’t want to just give back to his community, he also wanted to honor his own heritage. So, the 16-year-old member of O’Fallon Boy Scout Troop 46 transformed a space in the basement of the O’Fallon History Museum, located 101 W. State St. in downtown O’Fallon, into a coal mine exhibit.
“This project means a lot to me, because I’m a descendent of coal miners, and my family has grown up in O’Fallon, and it’s just near and dear to my heart,” said Tommy, the son of Larry and Liz Fulford.
The exhibit room was once home to the building’s old, coal-burning furnace.
“I’ve been coming here ever since I was very young with my grandpa, and it’s just been really special to me,” Tommy said of the museum that he helped reshape.
The coal exhibit features a variety of mining artifacts from local mines, including O’Fallon’s last — the St. Ellen Mine, which closed in 1960. There’s also real, Southern Illinois coal, which Peabody Energy Gateway North Mine in Coulterville, Illinois, donated.
“It’s more than just an exhibit — it’s an experience, and that’s the whole idea. When you go down into that room, you are experiencing what it might be like to be in a mine,” said Keller, who also acts as a curator of sorts for the museum and also happens to be Tommy’s uncle.
The exhibit has already had visitors from Belleville to O’Fallon Boys Scout members and others who have heard the buzz, Keller said. Younger kids have really enjoyed it, he said.
“When you go down there and you are surrounded by this room with a cart full of real coal, it sort of hits home,” Keller said. “So particularly for kids going down there, it’s sort of this visual thing they take back with them. Maybe they don’t remember all the details, but they remember the experience. And we’re hoping that the importance of coal mining to O’Fallon will stick, because of that experience they take home with them, and they get a piece of coal to take, too.”
Creating the space
Tommy said the 934 hours he spent working on the project taught him both leadership skills and patience.
“There were a lot of bumps in the road, but this project was very much a team effort from my fellow Scouts, family, community, local businesses and even Peabody Energy.We really came full circle,” Tommy said.
Research, soliciting donations, touring a current mine, and designing his exhibit in a computer program were just some of the many things Tommy had to do in order to make his project a reality.
According to Tommy, the cost of the project was just over $1,000. However, it would’ve much more without donations. Local businesses donated funds totaled $1,200, and the remainder was donated to the OHS. Donors included Shock Electric (John Hoock); Bank of O’Fallon; Thoman Insurance Agency (Jim Thoman); Fulford Construction (John Snapat); Lite Brite (Derek Brandmeyer); Rob Cole; Norma Keller; Construction Supply; Bill Peach; and Peabody Energy Gateway North Mine. The electrical work was also donated by John Hoock, of Shock Electric.
“It was very much like a marathon of sprints … but it was one of the best experiences of my life, because it taught me a lot,” Tommy said.
The basement had to be excavated and cleaned numerous times.
But then it flooded with ground water, which stalled the project. Tommy carried buckets upon buckets of mud from the dirt foundation up and outside to be sifted through for artifacts.
Keller noted that, during the excavation process, Tommy discovered two 1904 Indian head pennies, a 1940 Lincoln penny, and a glass bottle of dried red ink from the bank vault that is also in the basement of the OHS.
“It was a pretty cool discovery,” Tommy said.
Once the space dried out, Tommy began building shelves, treating the walls and ceiling, and making plans to get the electrical work completed.
“It was hard, but we made it fun,” Tommy said.
Tommy preserved writing found on the wall inside the room of the exhibit that includes the date the building was constructed, Sept. 30, 1904, which is a highlighted feature in the exhibit.
The basement ground also was very uneven. So, to compensate for the depressions, Tommy took about 65 cobblestone bricks from the downtown O’Fallon B&O Railroad Depot, circa 1903, to allow for even footing. Arranged in a circular decorative pattern, they also add style to the room.
“It worked out perfectly,” Keller said. “He was able to use what we had laying around, and stay within the same time period as the building.”
Liz Fulford, who is who is also an assistant Scout master, said she’s worked on Eagle projects before, but never start to finish. She said she had “no idea” just how involved and challenging the project would be.
“There was so much research he had to do before the proposal was even approved, and it was a challenge keeping the big picture in focus, and having to stand back as a parent and let him figure things out while still being supportive. But in the end, the experience was an enjoyable one,” Liz Fulford said.
On Jan. 28, Tommy received his Eagle Scout Badge during a Court of Honor ceremony at O’Fallon United Methodist Church.
For those who are unable to trek down the staircase to the basement level exhibit, Tommy has videos on YouTube so people can take a virtual tour.
Exhibit Open House
Latest addition to the O’Fallon History Museum is the Coal Mine Exhibit, which Tommy Fulford, 16, created for his Boy Scouts of America Eagle Scout project. All visitors will be given a piece of coal as a souvenir.
When: 2 to 5 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 18
Where: O’Fallon History Museum, 101 W. State St. in O’Fallon
Cost: Free admission, though donations to the museum are welcome
For more information: visit www.ofallonhistory.net or call 618-624-8409.