The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Irvin Peithmann and Ruth Robinson Gilster, preservationists who were dedicated to keeping the history of Randolph County alive, will be inducted into the 2020 class of honorees.
Irvin Peithmann was born in Washington County, Illinois, in 1904. From an early age, he was fascinated with the Native American stories told by his father, who had worked with the Dawes Commission. Irvin left high school before graduating, marrying Leona Hendricks and working as a farmer as they raised two young sons. During the Great Depression, he found himself out of work. He was hired to work on the farm at Southern Illinois University, a job that gave him a chance to use his farming knowledge and the opportunity to hone his amateur archaeology skills. He became one of the most recognizable archaeological figures in Southern Illinois, working with museum curator John W. Allen on a variety of excavations.
After being named curator of SIU’s archaeological collections in 1949, Irvin made one of his most important discoveries: the Modoc Rock Shelter. The rural Randolph County site contained evidence of prehistoric human habitation during the archaic period, around 9,000 years ago. The rock shelter was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1961. Irvin wrote extensively about indigenous peoples, both prehistoric and contemporary. He produced several works of Native American history, including an account of life with the Seminole tribe. While researching the book, he lived among the Seminole people in Florida. Irvin’s innovative and accessible approach to history made him popular as a lecturer, especially with local history groups.
One of the most prominent local historians who worked with Irvin was Ruth Robinson Gilster. Born in 1915 in Franklin County, Illinois, she came to Chester in the 1930s after her father was named deputy warden at Menard Penitentiary. She married John Sprigg Gilster, the son of several prominent local families, and raised four children in Chester. She immersed herself into Illinois’s historical preservation community, serving on numerous boards and committees, including terms as president of the Randolph County Historical Society and vice-president of the Illinois State Historical Society. Her work was recognized nationally in 1976 with an appointment to the Presidential Bicentennial Commission. In the 1970s she also became the first woman to be elected to the Randolph County Board of Commissioners, twice serving as the board’s chairperson.
Ruth and Irvin shared a common interest in reclaiming historical sites that had been lost to time. Ruth’s obituary notes that “she walked almost every field in Randolph County … often working with Native American expert Irv Peithmann. A collection of the Native American artifacts they found was donated to state museums.” In a 1971 interview, Irvin told the Southern Illinoisan that he credited “the support, assistance and knowledge of Mrs. Ruth Gilster of Chester for much of his success.” Their interests especially converged in Prairie du Rocher, where both were fascinated by the history of Fort de Chartres. Irvin discovered several important archaeological sites near the fort, and Ruth worked with the historical society to preserve local landmarks like the restored fort and the Creole House. Both strongly believed that Randolph County’s colonial sites were special treasures. “No one understands the importance of this area down here,” Irvin said in 1978. “If we don’t make this area the Williamsburg of the West, we ought to have our heads examined.”
After his retirement from SIU in the 1970s, Irvin and Leona bought the former Alice Cole home in Chester, while Ruth lived out the rest of her life nearby in the Gilster home on Buena Vista Street. After suffering from a lengthy illness, Irvin died in Chester in May 1981, while Ruth lived almost three decades longer, passing away in Chester in December 2008. Today, both Irvin and Ruth are remembered fondly for the work they did to keep the historical memories of Randolph County alive. Ruth paved the way for numerous women who have won elected offices in Randolph County, and her work with the local historical society still forms a cornerstone for efforts continuing today. Irvin’s legacy continues to influence local archaeologists and historians as well. His personal artifact collection and his papers are both now held at SIU, giving scholars today a unique opportunity to analyze and build upon the research he started more than half a century ago. Ruth and Irvin, both larger-than-life figures who left deep footprints in the soil of Randolph County, have handed present-day citizens of the area both a gift and a challenge, encouraging us to continue to shine a light on the past as a way to better understand the present.