Why Naper Settlement is ending Civil War Days after 37-year run

The 37-year run of Civil War Days at the Naper Settlement is over.

The Settlement on Thursday announced the event will not return in 2020 and beyond as the historical museum in downtown Naperville instead plans to present a new educational event on a different topic each year.

The decision comes on the heels of a decision this summer by Lake County Forest Preserve District officials to cancel their Civil War Days after 27 years.

But while Lake County officials cited unspecified safety concerns that later were found not to be credible, Naper Settlement leaders say their decision was based solely on dwindling interest.

Attendance at Civil War Days in Naperville has declined 52% during the past five years, leading to a 50% drop in revenue since 2015, Settlement leaders said in a news release.

In 2015, 2,731 people attended the two-day event. This year, attendance was down to 1,320.

So the decision to cancel was solely a financial one for the partially city-funded museum, said Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, the Settlement's president and CEO.

"This was exclusively a business decision," she said in a written statement. "While we, too, share in the difficulty of letting it go, we are proud to know that Naper Settlement is part of so many special family moments and memories."

Civil War Days began in 1982 and took place each May, featuring a daily cannon-fire battle between historical portrayers representing both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, along with reenactments of 1860s-era medical care, music, campsites, clothing, food and prominent political figures.

Among the reenactors for roughly 25 of the event's 37 years were Max and Donna Daniels of Wheaton, portraying President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, to generations of visitors who made Civil War Days a tradition.

"It's going to be bittersweet when it comes around next year and we're not there," Max Daniels said Thursday. "We're just thankful that we've been able to participate in it all these years."

Although she said Civil War events in general have been facing "political pressure lately," Donna Daniels said the Naper Settlement's version always seemed well-attended and well-liked.

"It's always been one of our favorite events," she said, "a good opportunity to do some living history."

But during the past five years, the number of volunteer reenactors like the Davises who helped bring the history to life also declined, by 35%, the Settlement said.

"Events have life cycles, and we analyze all the variables on a rolling basis," Tamayo-Calabrese said.

The museum's decision to move on also comes after news the venue will not host Christkindlmarket this November and December for what would have been the fourth year. It instead will present a new holiday event called Yuletide Fest, put on by Chicago-based Star Events.

The museum now is preparing for the first new pop-up event it will offer, Homefront 1940s Weekend, which will bring back the era of World War II in conjunction with the museum's spring 2020 exhibit "Manufacturing Victory: The Arsenal of Democracy," which will be on loan from the National World War II museum in New Orleans.

The new event aims to show how the homefront in Naperville and across the country supported the war effort by featuring activities such as radio shows, a fashion show, jazz music, 1940s swing dancing, flim screenings, an assembly line, victory gardening demonstrations and military vehicle displays.

Tamayo-Calabrese on Thursday said visitors also will be able to learn about how Naperville-based Kroehler Manufacturing shifted its business model to play a key role in the nationwide war effort, and how women in Naperville became "Rosie the Riveter" and worked the plant's lines during the height of the war.

"The homefront was a way of life for many Napervillians during World War II, and it directly affected our residents and community, shaping how we live as a city today," Tamayo-Calabrese said. "There are compelling stories right here in our town, and they are important to tell the next generation of Naperville."

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  Watching a battle between the Union and the Confederates was a mainstay during the 37-year run of Civil War Days at the Naper Settlement. Museum leaders called off the event for 2020 and beyond, citing declining attendance and revenue. Marie Wilson/ May 2012
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