The Essley-Noble Museum, managed by the Mercer County Historical Society, preserves the past so present generations can understand and appreciate their own history. The museum at 1406 SE 2nd Avenue in Aledo, IL, is named for the parents of E.L. Essley, the man who donated the money to build it. In May of 1812 the federal government encouraged settlers to come to this area by giving land in the Military Tract as payment to volunteer soldiers who fought in the War of 1812. This land was known as "bounty land." All or parts of eighteen counties eventually were created from this land, composed of approximately three and a half million acres of tillable soil. All of present Mercer County was included in the Military Tract.
The Mississippi River was key to the settlement, formation, and development of Mercer County. It served as the "highway" that many settlers used, especially those who came down the Ohio River and then up the Mississippi. The river provided sustenance and income crucial to local, national, and world commerce, as people and goods were transported up and down its length. Today it remains an important part of the global economy. Locally, farmers in Mercer County haul their corn and soybeans to the elevators in New Boston and Keithsburg for shipment by barges, while the river provides recreation for boaters, hunters, fishermen, and campers and other nature enthusiasts.
Many artifacts associated with the river's role are on display at Essley-Noble Museum, as well as pertinent written matter available for research on county history and family genealogy. In addition, many items and documents in the museum have significance and links to events and individuals who were prominent on the national scene.
Some examples of what is on display:
- a rare wooden Brown Corn Planter, produced from the 1850s to the 1880s
- an early horse-drawn Patee Cultivator, produced in the 1870s and 1880s
- a 1902 Hayes Corn Planter, with its "crazy wheels"
- a desk used by Abraham Lincoln, a document with his signature, and the stones he used as a young surveyor to lay out the Mercer County town of New Boston
- a display of the interior of an early settler's log cabin, along with the items that would have been needed
- a lathe that was used to cut blanks from clam shells in order to make mother of pearl buttons
- an actual one-room schoolhouse, complete with contents
- original paintings by the "queen of the bohemian artists" Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977), who lived in Aledo as a young girl
- a display about the works of former Aledo resident Doris Emrick Lee (1905-1983), who is considered one of the most important female artists of the Depression Era
- an original painting by William D.T. Travis, whose panoramic painting entitled The Army of the Cumberland is in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
- trophies, photographs, and possessions of Thomas Marshall of Keithsburg, member of the Trapshooting Hall of Fame, who won the Grand American Handicap twice (1897 and 1899)
- a collection of points and other artifacts from the Archaic and Paleoindian periods collected in Mercer County that experts from the Illinois State Museum say show evidence of human habitation here dating back 10,000 to 12,000 years
In the genealogy and reference section are:
- histories of the county, various families, and many of the towns
- many years' worth of land records, marriages, death record extracts
- some early tax lists
- county directories
- plat books
- past issues of local newspapers on microfilm
- obituary indexes to those newspapers.