THE MITCHELL LEGACY
An extraordinary personal art collection was the reason John and Eleanor Mitchell planned a museum in rural southern Illinois. The museum was built to house the couple’s collection of late 19th and early 20th century American paintings and artifacts. The significant collection included works from their friend and fellow collector John Parish, of Centralia. The Mitchells acquired their artwork over three decades, the result of suave business practices, luck, and adventurous exploration. In 1965, they established the Mitchell Foundation to build the Mitchell Museum at Cedarhurst and create an institution that would continue to evolve into the premier art and cultural facility in southern Illinois. The Mitchell Museum opened in 1973 to enrich the lives of southern Illinois residents. Both John and Eleanor died before the museum was completed, but their legacy lives on, bringing the arts to life for all people who visit this unique oasis of art and nature that is Cedarhurst Center for the Arts.
A CLASSIC LOVE STORY
Eleanor Rebecca Fuhr was born in 1903, the daughter of a prominent engineering family in Macomb, IL. Eleanor studied at Western Illinois Teachers College and always had an adventurous spirit. At age 11, Eleanor considered her .22 rifle “her most prized possession.” Born in 1905 in Olney, IL, John Russell Mitchell came from a pioneering family. He studied at the University of Illinois, hoping to grow into the large shoes that his ancestors had left him to fill. John and Eleanor met in Mt. Vernon in 1929. She was hired to teach art and physical education at Mt. Vernon High School. He had relocated from his job at a St. Louis financial institution to help his parents run their family furniture store. John and Eleanor’s first date was a shooting challenge that set the tone for their entire relationship. The couple married after a two-year courtship and applied their adventurous spirit to both business ventures and travels. They became one of the wealthiest, well-known, and well-traveled families in the area.
The furniture store John started with his parents grew to include three stores in southern Illinois. The couple started the radio station WMIX, acquiring the first FM station in the area. It had the highest radio tower outside Chicago and had receivers placed throughout Mt. Vernon, including one at the Granada Theater for the motion picture audience. With other partners, John established the Security Bank and Trust Company, which later became Bank of America. But perhaps their biggest stroke of luck came when John received a tip about oil production in the area. He began buying oil wells and collecting royalties on underground mineral rights. In 1940, the couple had the fastest producing oil well in Illinois. Fearless Expeditions The Mitchells satisfied their sense of adventure with journeys all over the world. They rode elephants in India and hunted them on African safaris. They skied the Colorado Rockies and climbed the Swiss Alps. The Mitchells loved adventure and challenges.
The Mitchells began collecting fine art and artifacts on their travels abroad and engaged several dealers in New York to purchase art for them. Some say it was Eleanor who convinced John to start collecting as an investment. Others say it was friend John Parish, from Centralia, who also collected and later donated his acquired works to the Mitchell Foundation. Either way, the Mitchells knew what they liked: American painters with a cosmopolitan flare, painters who had either trained in Europe or spent large spans of their career there, but were Americans nonetheless. Together John and Eleanor built a collection that would become the basis for building the Mitchell Museum.
In the past 40 years, Cedarhurst has grown into a cultural mecca spread over 90 acres. The original two-room museum has expanded into a 33,000-square-foot cultural center with four galleries (one of which exhibits works from the Mitchell collection), an interactive family learning center, and acoustically sound performance hall. The campus is also home to the Shrode Art Center, which includes a gallery, classrooms, and studio space; the historic Mitchell Home and Schweinfurth House, used for special events and meetings; and the Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park, which boasts one of the finest outdoor contemporary sculpture collections in the U.S. The Mitchells’ legacy is one to be celebrated and enjoyed by all who visit southern Illinois.
THE MITCHELL HOME
John and Eleanor Mitchell built their home in 1936. The house was designed by Eleanor’s father for the couple’s 80-acre Mt. Vernon estate called Cedarhurst. John had named the property after the Mitchell ancestral home in Corinth, Illinois, which his great-grandfather had previously used as a safe haven for slaves traveling north on the Underground Railroad. The Mitchells had guard dogs roaming the Cedarhurst grounds much like John’s great grandfather, albeit for a different reason. In 1949 the Mitchells remodeled the home and added the east and west wings, including major expansion and renovations to the kitchen. They entertained often in the renovated space, which others described as sophisticated and stylish, yet also comfortable. Town and Country magazine featured the residence in a four-page article entitled “Contemporary with Antiques” in November 1954. The article showed two of their paintings, Mrs. T in Wine Silk by George Bellows and Captain Jack Kelly by Waldo Pierce. Today, the Mitchell House is maintained by the museum’s operations staff and is used for meetings, special events, and facility rentals. It is not open to the public on a daily basis.
A photo gallery of additional pictures from the Mitchell archives will be added in the near future.