PEORIA —Seven members of the Wilkinson family made the 40-mile trek from Putnam to visit the Peoria Riverfront Museum when it opened to the public for the first time Saturday morning.
"Papa wanted to be here the first day it opened," said Sarah Wilkinson of her father-in-law. "We all wanted to see it."
Wilkinson stood with her sons Ty, 10, and Tanner, 11, as they learned how the flow of river water affects surrounding soils in the River Science Lab. The boys scooped up mounds of "sand" made from recycled milk jugs as water moved down a long, shallow table, creating eddies and eroding the soft, multicolored material.
"Hey, let's make a moat," said Ty.
The Wilkinsons were slowly making their way through the interactive exhibits, which the boys seemed to particularly enjoy.
"It makes it fun, but you are also learning about things," explained Ty.
Interactive exhibits are a big part of the new museum, which features displays showcasing local history and delving deeper into the intricacies of our environment.
Ten years in the making, the grand opening of the Peoria Riverfront Museum and adjacent Caterpillar Visitors Center was feted with an early-morning ribbon-cutting ceremony complete with speeches by many local dignitaries. Afterward, the VIPs got to tour both facilities, and at 10 a.m. the doors were opened to the general public.
While all the displays are complete in the Caterpillar Visitors Center, about 15 percent of the museum's displays are not yet finished, said Kristan McKinsey, director of collections and senior curator for the museum. The permanent collection gallery, the object theater, and a long line of display cases in the hallway leading to the planetarium will hopefully be finished by Thanksgiving, she said.
There was still plenty to see. Visitors walked "The Street," a gallery focusing on the many innovations that have originated in central Illinois. Occupying a good bit of space in the center of the gallery is the prototype of the Caterpillar D9900 engine that went into production in East Peoria in 1931. Caterpillar donated the engine to the Smithsonian a number of years ago, so for it to be displayed here it had to be loaned back, explained McKinsey.
"It's here on a three-year loan," she said.
Including Caterpillar in a gallery devoted to innovation was a natural. Those interested in learning more about the company walked across the plaza to the new Caterpillar Visitors Center where both the company's past and present are showcased in exhibits.
Oh, and you also get to ride on a tractor.
"Feel free to climb on in," said one of the many yellow-shirted docents on hand as Peoria County Board member Jim Fennell climbed into the seat of a 1930 D8 Caterpillar tractor. Fennell was familiar with the controls because his father owned one many years ago.
"I've driven one before," said Fennell. "I was probably in my 20s. It's like riding a bicycle."
Fennell also checked out the controls on a modern piece of Caterpillar equipment.
"It's so completely different," he said. "On the old one, one arm did one thing, and the other arm did another thing. On the new equipment the main controlling is done with the left hand."
Six-year-old Bobby Morris had no trouble figuring out the controls while using the Caterpillar track type simulator. A video screen made Bobby feel like he was riding through the countryside and shoveling dirt over an underground pipe
"The hands-on part of this is really nice," said Bobby's mother Joy Morris of Peoria of the visitor's center. "It's very kid friendly."
After being coaxed away from the simulator, Bobby checked out the D7E track-type tractor sitting nearby. Robert Bertsch, a Caterpillar engineer who helped develop the tractor, looked on. He was eager to answer questions about the machine.
"It's the newest technology," Bertsch explained. "It meets the latest emissions with the electric drive."
Bertsch and other engineers who helped develop the tractor volunteered to be on hand to educate the public during the museum's opening weekend.
"It's exciting to be a part of the new technology," said Bertsch. "Today we get to fill the public in on what we've been so excited about."
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @LeslieRenken, and Pinterest, larenken.