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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

DeKalb historian, Stephen J. Bigolin, receives dedicated day

Rachel Cormier
Stephen J. Bigolin sits on a park bench on Sept. 20 at Memorial Park in front of the mural facing Lincoln Highway. Bigolin has supported and discovered DeKalb’s local history since he moved to DeKalb in 1967. (Rachel Cormier | Northern Star)

DeKALB – Sitting on a park bench in Memorial Park, Stephen J. Bigolin thinks about his birthday.

While he’s celebrated many in his time, his 74th will have a special ring for years, knowing that every birthday after will be celebrated by not only his friends but also by the entire city of DeKalb.

One of DeKalb’s most well-known historians, Stephen J. Bigolin will now celebrate Stephan J. Bigolin Day as well as his birthday Friday, after a proclamation from Mayor Cohen Barnes was issued.

Despite their apparent respect for Bigolin, the city did spell his name wrong in the proclamation. Bigolin’s first name is spelled “Stephen” whereas the city spelled it “Stephan” in the title. They spelled it correctly in the body of the proclamation. 

“I had been told last week, and I left a message to the mayor. They never got back to me,” Bigolin said. 

Most of the community already knows why he’s being celebrated, whether they’ve attended one of his local walking tours or read his columns in the Daily Chronicle in the 2000’s. But for those who haven’t met him, Bigolin has put himself at the front of DeKalb’s historical societies and landmarks, and for those who give him a listen, none can hold a candle to the boundless info he’s gathered about his hometown.

“It’s been my life’s work for over 50 years now,” Bigolin said.

History has been in his blood since the moment he touched down in DeKalb in the fall of 1967. A former resident of McHenry County, Bigolin went to NIU for a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in secondary education which he achieved by 1975.

He wasn’t looking for a job on campus, but a visit to the Ellwood House Museum was his first step into something much bigger.

“Took me five years to finally walk over from campus one Sunday. But honestly, from that first time I went over there, they haven’t been able to keep me away,” Bigolin said.

His frequent visits to the home of one of DeKalb’s original barbed wire entrepreneurs, Isaac Ellwood, prompted him to become one of the volunteer docents when he was 23 years old.

When he couldn’t glean any more info from his tours, he picked the brains of Ellwood’s descendants for stories and personal history.

“The daughter, Patty Ellwood Towle, died in January 2004 at 92. I knew her 31 years at the time of her passing and she was a fountainhead of information,” Bigolin said. “She was also the most generous member of the family toward helping out at Ellwood House.”

His involvement with the house led Bigolin to his 17-year position on the Ellwood House Museum Board of Directors, three of which he was president of the board.

Bigolin’s expertise is largely focused on DeKalb’s architectural background.

“One of my favorite places that I research is the Jacob Haish mansion. He was one of the three barbed wire barons and one of the founders of NIU,” Bigolin said. 

 Like many who aren’t familiar with the 1884 Haish mansion, which would have been the second oldest mansion in DeKalb, Bigolin was one of many who weren’t able to see the property before it was razed. Despite never seeing it, he still tells people of the mansion’s legacy.

“In the spring of 2019, I donated over 130 pieces of material for my personal collection about the Haish mansion to the Regional History Center in Founders (Memorial) Library, including fragments of the house that people have given me over the years as I’ve met and talked to them,” Bigolin said.

History tells that when Jacob Haish died a widower in 1926 with no direct relatives to leave his property, he left the house to Anna Anderson, his housekeeper of 20 years. When she died in the early 1950’s, the mansion was eventually passed to the First Lutheran Church.

The church used the property as an extension for Sunday school, until the mansion’s deterioration and lack of potential buyers motivated the church to demolish the building.

“I will never forgive them for robbing me of the joy of being able to see in that house. It was such a fantastic piece of architecture,” Bigolin said. “The last day of the demolition of the house was my 12th birthday, so I’ve always felt a kinship to that building.”

Bigolin notes that a majority of DeKalb’s most notable historic buildings, including his alma mater, aren’t recognized since officials have never gone through the steps to officiate their importance.

“One thing about Northern’s campus that is different from other state universities in Illinois; no building on the NIU campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” Bigolin said.

The National Register of Historic Places is the nation’s official list of the historic places that are worthy of preservation, which Bigolin says every university in Illinois has a registered building on its campus, except for NIU.

“Not even Altgeld Hall, our original founding building, beautifully restored only some years ago,” Bigolin said.

Bigolin’s knowledge carries weight from the time he served on the state level as vice chair of the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council, which decides on Illinois historical areas before recommending them to the National Register. Even locally, he served as the chairman of DeKalb’s Landmark Commission which promotes preservation issues for the city.

But for the properties he can’t preserve, he teaches the community about their local landmarks.

“We had to cancel downtown walking tours in Sycamore because of the pandemic. The following year we had 110 people on the full walking tours that summer, more than any other time. They were just anxious to get out,” Bigolin said.

Bigolin has led local walking tours around DeKalb and Sycamore and historical bus tours for the Kishwaukee College which earned him a Board of Trustees Award of Excellence in 1992.

One of his largest praises is being featured on the Annie Glidden mural which faces drivers entering DeKalb on Lincoln Highway. His 1971 NIU yearbook photo was captured as one of the stenciled faces on the brick. His name is also featured on the postcard that attributes everyone involved in the project where he’s referenced as the “project historian.”

For now, he’s content with living in the present and looking forward to many birthdays to come.

“I am expecting that probably sometime Friday. I’ll get a copy of the proclamation that was passed in the last city council meeting. I’ve been told by one or two other longtime friends that if all things go as planned they would like to take me out to lunch,” Bigolin said.

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