Journal Gazette, Kevin Kilhoffer, Associated Press
In this photo taken Dec. 1, 2011, St. John's Lutheran School fourth-graders look at information about Coles County in the Civil War at the Coles County Historical Society and Mattoon depot museum in Mattoon, Ill. Experts say that small museums should focus on the human element in their ongoing fundraising efforts.

CHARLESTON, Ill. — St. Elmo residents want to honor their community's wealth of history from under the ground and in the skies above.

The Spirit of Liberty Memorial Park and Museum would commemorate the community's oil boom days and its connection to a young, lanky U.S. mail pilot who used to land his biplane more than 80 years ago on a grass airfield near St. Elmo, a community along U.S. Route 40 between Vandalia and Effingham.

"Charles Lindbergh used to land his plane here when he was on the mail route between St. Louis and Chicago, and he got to know some people in town," said Bob Heckert, one of the Spirit of Liberty museum organizers. "The airfield then was grass and in bad weather Lindbergh's plane would get stuck in the mud. Some teenage boys from St. Elmo would push the plane out of the mud to a brick hangar. My uncle was one of them helping with the plane back then."

Bringing that legacy and many more to a museum has, in effect, been stuck in the mud recently, Heckert said.

"After we dedicated our veterans memorial in 2008 we wanted to get going on funding a new museum. Then the economy died and so died the grant money," Heckert said.

Many local museums, whether old, new or still forming, face similar fiscal obstacles. On March 28 in the Doudna Fine Arts Center at Eastern Illinois University, Sal Cilella, who has headed the Atlanta History Center, offered advice on how smaller museums and historical societies can make ends meet.

Cilella emphasized that the human element and efficiency matter most in all fundraising efforts for history-related organizations.

"People give because you're doing a good job," Cilella said during his lecture sponsored by the Illinois Historical Society, with the Eastern history administration program serving as host. "Always focus on the human being. Remember you're dealing with people whether you're asking for money from corporations or institutes. The old cliche is still true: People give to people."

Though donors are calling the shots, he said, many people want to know that what they are supporting is worthwhile, especially if it is enhancing education.

Cilella explained all members of an organization must be on the same page and have a clear plan for development — a feasibility plan is a must for startup organizations — to achieve a broad donor base.

"Never use multiplication tables for raising money. Setting a goal of $1 million and planning on collecting $1,000 each from 1,000 donors never works," he said.

Kim Bauer, the new executive director of the Coles County Historical Society and Mattoon depot museum curator, said his long experience with museums confirms what Cilella said about fundraising being an ongoing effort. The depot museum is preparing to open a new exhibit on baseball history in Mattoon.

"The most daunting part of fundraising is establishing a pool of donors in the surrounding area," Bauer said. "People want to donate so they can be part of a continuing role in that organization. One-time donations don't work in the long run. People want progress or proof of what you have achieved with their money.

"They might ask, 'I felt like I gave my donation so what have you done with it?'" said Bauer, who was one of several Cilella presentation attendees involved in area museums or local history organizations.

Some members of the audience hope to be operating museums in coming years. The money question is a concern for many history administration students at Eastern, who learn about preparing history exhibits and preserving history and then work to land a job in their field.

"I realize it's important to create financially stable museums. There are a variety of ways to raise funds," said Nick Klein, an Eastern HA graduate student with a background in business studies. "What I like about his lecture is he said human relationships really matter."

After the lecture, Heckert and others associated with the St. Elmo museum were encouraged by comments on how some grant programs are opening up again for small-town museums. Earlier this month the Illinois Department of Natural Resources released $15 million in Public Museum Capital Grants Program funds, the Associated Press reported.

In addition, an Illinois Association of Museums report states museums in Illinois have a $2 billion economic impact annually. That should help with some donors.

The association's economic impact statement also found museums in Illinois employ more than 6,240 people, spend more than $576 million on goods and services and have more than 21 million visitors a year, AP reported. That includes 3.4 million school children and 119,500 teachers.

Heckert thinks a museum in St. Elmo, adjacent to Interstate 70, could add to that economic impact in the future.

"There are 40,000 cars and trucks going by St. Elmo a day. Drawing in some of them with a museum could mean people stopping for something to eat or buying some gas. They might do more," Heckert said.

Information from: Mattoon Journal-Gazette, http://www.jg-tc.com