The plain white back door to the Western Illinois Museum's back room becomes a time portal twice a month, transporting visitors to a Prohibition-era speakeasy. And just like the illegal drinking establishments of the Roaring '20s, you can't get in if you don’t know the password.
But unlike those bygone years, you don’t need to be in the know to learn the password. All you have to do is go to the museum’s Facebook page on the day of the event.
“There’s a trend in museums to get people close to artifacts. To get things from behind the cases,” said Western Illinois Museum Director Sue Scott.
“In this particular case there is food and music and drink and artifacts on the tables so that people can actually get a better sense of life in the 1920s.”
The speakeasy is called The Blind Swine. Scott said that’s a reference to rural speakeasies, which she said were often called The Blind Pig.
You can hang out at The Blind Swine the first and third Friday of each month through September (the remaining dates are July 20, August 3, August 17, September 7, and September 21). The doors open at 4:30 p.m. and the music begins at 5:00 p.m. Organizers hope you’ll grease their palms with a small donation ($5 is recommended).
“If you’re able to throw in a contribution at the door, that helps us put on these programs by paying for the paper and the chairs and the snacks, stuff we provide as part of the program,” Scott said.
Brochures with examples of 1920s slang were available during one recent night at The Blind Swine. Some of the more colorful terms include:
- Dropping the pilot: Getting a divorce
- Umbrella: A young man any girl can borrow for the evening
- Cat’s pajamas: Anything that’s good
- Cellar smeller: A young man who always turns up where liquor is to be had without cost.
- Sod buster: An undertaker
The back room’s windows are boarded up as the museum works to replace them with ones that are more energy efficient (and the new windows are being manufactured at the Pella plant in Macomb). Scott said this adds to the ambience.
“It’s more authentic! I was kind of worried about that but then I was reading that it was very common that they would take warehouses and board up the windows to deaden the sound and (prevent) people from looking in (to see) what’s happening. So it’s actually perfect. It plays into what we’re doing back here,” she said.
Jake Henson of Macomb added to the Prohibition-era ambience on July 6 by driving up in his 1924 Ford Model T Depot Hack.
“It is a wood bodied car that was originally owned by a hotel. Passengers would come in on the train and the hotel would pick them up at the train and take them and their luggage back to the hotel,” Henson said.
He said its wood body is about 30 years old and built off patterns from an original body. Everything below it is all original Ford, including the original 1924 engine.
Henson said he likes to take the car for a spin every chance he gets and came out on this particular evening for a car show in nearby Chandler Park as well as the speakeasy event.
Marla Vizdal, Vice President of the Museum’s Board of Directors, called the speakeasy evenings an experiment.
“It’s an opportunity for people to come together and have a snack, have a drink, listen to some music, and spend a couple hours out,” said Vizdal. She said it also gives the museum a chance to show off artifacts that are stored in the back room, which Vizdal said people are always asking about.
“They’re just fascinated with it. And I kind of equate it to that last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where you go in and there are all those shelves of things, different kinds of things. And that’s what we have back here.”