Tom Vance Biography

      It was August 27, 1998, sixty two years to the day from when then Governor Henry Horner dedicated the park in 1936, and State dignitaries were gathering at Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site for another dedication ceremony. Twenty years in the making, a new three million dollar visitor center stood as a centerpiece in what was once a sleepy, marginal state park. Governor Jim Edgar had returned to the park he had visited often while growing up in nearby Charleston, Illinois to cut the ribbon opening the new facility.

      Although I didn’t know it at the time,

 completion of this building also signaled the near completion of my tenure as Historic Site Manager of Lincoln Log Cabin. I would continue for a little more than four years and over-see the development of the permanent exhibits, auditorium and orientation film, but in 2002, after 28 years at the site, and when the State offered an early retirement package, the time was right to move on to a new phase of my life. 

      People ask me what I’m doing now that I’m "retired". Well, as a person who needs to have a vision to work towards, initially I developed my interest in writing, song writing, recording and performing.  Erin, my daughter, and I have recorded a children’s CD and two Christmas CDs. I have completed a CD of Favorite Covers and am working on a CD of my own songs. Ideally I’d like to do programs that combine my songs with short talks and discussions about personal and spiritual development.

     Since 2007, I have returned to my historic interests, and am doing historic and museum consulting. I started with projects for the Christian County Historical Society in Taylorville, Illinois and for the Strevelle House in Pontiac. I have done exhibits for the Coles County Historical Society on Railroads in Coles County, Coles County in the Civil War and Baseball in Coles County. Beginning in 2007, I worked with Rockome Gardens near Arcola, Illinois to develop a long range development plan, and in 2010, was hired to design the exhibits for the Illinois Amish Museum being relocated there. Other work includes the restoration of the 1910 farm house and exhibit on the early years of Rockome as well as the moving and restoration of two historic Amish houses at the site.

      I now live in Charleston with my wife Susan who works at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center. My other pursuits include working with the Five Mile House Foundation of which I am the current president, and the Charleston Rotary Club for which I served as president in the 2006-2007 year.  I am still active with Rotary and served as Club Service Director for four years after being president.

      Erin  finished her degree from the University of Illinois in Leisure Studies/Event Planning and is now working in the St. Louis area. She married Dallas Marriott on Labor Day weekend of 2012 and they now live in St. Charles, Missouri. 


My Early Life and Interests

     I was born in Danville, Illinois in 1946. My grandfather had been Superintendent of Schools, and my father ran a television business among other things. My early interests centered around nature, the outdoors and Scouting. Having played the clarinet and accordion in earlier years and singing in the high school chorus, I was introduced to the guitar while working at the local Boy Scout summer camp in 1963. An immediate fascination lead to my acquiring a guitar and taking lessons. Within a year or so, some Scouting friends and I had formed a local band, and I wrote my first song, “John Pierre” in 1965. I also continued in Scouting and a number of us older Scouts broke away from Troop 8 and formed an Explorer Post specializing in American Indian Culture.

     After two years at the local area college, I transferred to the University of Illinois in the fall of 1966, majoring in Forestry and Wildlife. At the U of I my old band picked up Don, a lead singer. Don played guitar, so he encouraged me to learn chord organ which I did and purchased a pretty cool Vox Continental organ. The band hung on for a while, but then in the fall of 1967, I helped form a new band called The Tea Garden Smoke.

The Tea Garden Smoke

The Tea Garden Smoke just seemed to work from moment one. Craig, a friend from Danville Scout and band days, played bass, lead guitarist Mike, was from Rockford and lead singer Harry, was from Wheaton. Harry was a real showman and could sing Grace Slick better than Grace could. Some of the songs we did included Jefferson Airplane’s Do You Want Somebody to Love, Hold On, Light My Fire by the Doors (great organ riff), a Vanilla Fudge version of You Keep Me Hanging On, Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band and A Day in the Life by the Beatles and Jimmy Hendrix Fire, along with many other popular songs of the day. Our drummer, Lonnie, was from Champaign and had a particular double beat on the bass drum that gave the band a driving rhythm that audiences really liked, and the organ gave the band a sound that was popular at the time. Rich, our rhythm guitarist was in the ATO fraternity and got us lots of Greek gigs. There’s nothing more fun than the Greek parties at the U of I. FIJI Island and a gig in a barn north of town in particular stick out in my mind. We also had a psychedelic light show to top it all off.

The band lasted until the end of 1968 when we all kind of went our separate ways. I traded my organ and a couple of other guitars for an Ovation 12 string Balladeer, which I still have. Ovation was only a couple of years old and mine is an early model. A 12 string is neat, but not suited to every application, so a couple of years later, I bought a used Yamaha 6 string which is still my main guitar today. I also resurrected my song writing and into the 70s I went. Early influences were Simon and Garfunkel and Peter, Paul and Mary, but in the 70s I discovered John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot and all the other greats of that period.

What the Heck are Thrips, Anyway?

    I finished my undergraduate degree in 1969 and having nothing better to do, decided to go to graduate school in Entomology. During my last undergraduate year, I had a job mounting Thrips, a microscopic insect, for Lew Stannard at the Illinois Natural History Survey. He liked my work and me and offered to secure a Research Assistantship for me, which would pay my tuition and provide me with some income to pay for a car while I went to school. I moved back home to Danville and commuted the 30 miles to the U of I each day.

    I finished my Master’s Degree by the fall of 1971 and my thesis on the identification of immature thrips and life cycle of soybean thrips became a very nice publication for the Natural History Survey. My first job was as a naturalist at Kickapoo State Park west of Danville. My wife Susan was also from Danville and just finishing up her teaching degree at Eastern Illinois University when we were married in February of 1972. We rented a house from some friends west of town and began married life.

The Kennekuk Indian Hobbyist Association

At about that time, most of the members of our Indian Lore Explorer post were becoming adults, so we formed the Kennekuk  Indian Hobbyist Association to continue enjoying our interest in Native American Culture. The group sponsored an Indian Hobbyist Powwow at Kickapoo Park on Memorial Day in 1971 which is what gave me the inside track when a naturalist job opened up that December. We did three more annual powwows, the last of which was in 1974 just before I took the job at Lincoln Log Cabin south of Charleston. Sue and I maintained our ties with the Danville group, however, and in 1975 we even hosted National Powwow III at the fair grounds southwest of Danville.

One of the things that we did was to learn Indian singing and form a drum of about 5-6 of us plus our wives. We met once a week and sang round dance songs, war songs, trot dance songs, snake and buffalo dance songs, two step songs and 49er songs. It took me about two years to internalize Indian singing as the beat of the drum is just opposite of the beat of the song where as in other music the two beats are the same. I kept my drumbeater in the car for the two years I was commuting to the U of I and would usually sing all the way over and back. What was interesting was to pull up next to someone at a stop light with my drumbeater going on the dashboard.

A Naturalist At Kickapoo State Park

At Kickapoo, I developed nature trails, led school groups on thematic field trips, developed a “nature-mobile” to go on the back of a pickup that could take nature displays out to the picnic areas and campgrounds, planned the annual powwow, supervised the summer recreation program of crafts for camper children and did campfire sing alongs. When Dan Walker became Governor in 1973, his budget cutting included my naturalist job. I transferred to an open Ranger position at Kickapoo for about a year which was primarily maintenance work, so when a position came open at Lincoln Log Cabin, I was ready to go.

The Lincoln Log Cabin Years

Sue and I moved into the small brown house at Lincoln Log Cabin in June of 1974. With only one maintenance worker and two seasonal employees, life was pretty much in the slow lane at the site to start with. In actuality those early years in the 1970s hold some of the best memories as we made new friends and embarked on an exciting journey of transforming the site into a modern open air, living history museum. I went back to Eastern Illinois University and completed a second Master’s degree in Historical Administration and began visiting other open-air museums around the country, mainly through conferences sponsored by the regional and national living history organizations MOMCC and ALHFAM. The idea for developing the Thomas Lincoln farm into a living historical farm and the need for a modern visitor center facility became obvious and that’s the direction we headed. About 28 years later, two living history farms and a three million dollar visitor center were in place, and early retirement incentives encouraged me to move on to the next phase of my life. But Lincoln Log Cabin holds the memories of many wonderful friendships and good times as well as the birth in 1983 and the first 20 years of life for our daughter Erin.

As music played an important part in the lives of people in the 1840s, it also played an important part in the programs at Lincoln Log Cabin. One of the things we found when we moved the 1843 Sargent house to the site was a fretless wooden banjo neck (see photo). I had already learned to play the banjo to accompany 19th century songs at site special events such as the 1845 Independence Day celebration. The song Buffalo Gals, for example was written in 1844 by a minstrel named Cool White. As his minstrel band played in different cities and towns around the country, they would sing the song according to the town name. For example, if they were playing in Baltimore, they sang it Baltimore Gals. The song gained its permanent name after a big show in Buffalo, New York in 1848. But being in the year 1845 at Lincoln Log Cabin, we sang the song Charleston Gals, (or what ever other area town we were in) and the song is still a mainstay in my sing along program today. And speaking of sing along programs, I began doing sing along programs for nursing homes and other groups by the early 1980s. Sue sang with me and we took Erin along. She had several children’s songs that she did, and then she usually danced and stole the show while Sue and I sang. Then in 1982, Sue and I formed an acoustic group with friends Steve and Toni called Driftwood. We specialized in easy listening folk and pop music with strong harmonies and good acoustical instrumentals.

A Quest For Personal Development

Another interest that began for me in the early 1980s is the area of Personal Development and Self Improvement. Goal setting, Time Management, personal motivation, spiritual understanding, meditation, stress management, even going beyond fears and blocks through fire walking, have all played a part in my life. I have come to believe in the vast potential of the human mind and the concept that it acts much like a computer that has had both positive and negative programming put into its data base. These programs then act on a subconscious basis to move us forward or hold us back in life. The trick is to find ways of enhancing the positive programming and minimizing the negative programming. I have also come to believe that what you focus on is what you create in your life. Many people focus on what they don’t want and then they’re surprised when it shows up.

So, there it is, my life in a nutshell. Stay tuned for the next chapter as well as more in depth information in the Wit & Wisdom section, but this is a good overall summary for now.

Thank You All

My sincere love and gratitude go out to all of the people who have been a part of my life over the years, to all those who have taught me so much about myself and about life, to my recent and current coaches in success, voice, guitar and banjo, Julie Roy, Frances Crawford, Myles Womack and Steve Worthy, and most of all to my wonderful, understanding wife and daughter, Sue and Erin. Thank you all.