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Back to the past: MC history

February 19, 2016

Photograph by Professor John N. Swan / Old main winter: The campus in 1897-98. Snow shoveling would have been done by the janitor who lived in the house to the left. The two limestone boulders, presented as gifts from graduating classes are all that remain.

It began in 1829. The Associate Reformed Presbyterians arrived in Warren and Henderson Counties. The Findleys of Indiana and their son-in-law, William Jamieson, settled on the banks of South Henderson Creek near Biggsville. They were the trailblazers of that church in Illinois and set the way for a stream of immigrants from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and the Carolinas. Twenty years later, strong congregations had been developed there at South Henderson, Cedar Creek and Monmouth. James Porter, pastor of Cedar Creek and Robert Ross, pastor of South Henderson were the two men of vision whose foresight would lead to today’s Monmouth College. With millions of energetic people flocking to the West, the idea of an educational institution higher than the common schools of the day, would serve the moral, educational and cultural needs of the region. The two men spread their dream of an academy through all the local villages and took their idea to a meeting of the Second Presbytery which was meeting at South Henderson. After receiving strong backing there, they took their vision to a prominent Monmouth attorney who helped them raise enough money to convince the Presbytery that Monmouth was serious about the endeavor. It was that financial backing, along with the fact that one of their main competitors, Oquawka was a notorious river town with no railroad, that convinced the Church to back the Monmouth location. So on April 18, 1853, Founders Day was established.

For the next few years, Monmouth operated as an academy, serving some college-age students, but also children of the community. The first classroom was in a dingy frame building on the site of the current Security Savings parking lot. It was shared by the Christian Church and crude desks were hinged to back of the pews. A large calico curtain was hung across the room to partition it into classrooms. A year later, the academy moved to the basement of the Presbyterian Church on South Main Street next to the current Maple City Chiropractic office. In 1856, a petition to the state legislature resulted in the elevation of the academy to a college. A few months later, the college moved into its first real home, a solid, two-story brick structure, 40 by 80 feet on North A Street, not far from the current Walgreens. While waiting for that building to be completed, they convened for the first time as a college on the corner of South First Street and East First Avenue, next to the First Street Armoury.

Just three years later, the building was bursting at the seams with higher enrollment. The country and region were in financial crisis due to crop and bank failures. Monmouth College was no exception. Fortunately, two brothers, A.Y. and David Graham, donated 10 acres of land on the east side of Monmouth for a college campus and 25 adjoining acres to be sold as building lots, with the proceeds going to the college endowment. They stipulated that a brick or stone building be started by 1861 and finished by 1864. MC President David Wallace chaired the committee made up of Monmouth’s finest leaders. Their fundraising was not very successful and they were forced to sell 25 acres of the land donation to offset costs.

Ivory Quinby, the successful lawyer who built the current president’s house, was dispatched to Chicago to draw up plans and specifications for a new building with the firm of Carter and Bauer. Their work was finished on November 30, 1860. The plans called for a brick structure three stories high with basement and attic. The overall measurements of the building were 78 feet by 53 feet. A square observatory added a decorative touch to the roof and quality hardwood trim would ornament the interior of the Italianate structure. A full basement with classrooms was on the lower level and the main floors were divided into generous classrooms, as well as the influential literary societies. There was also a room for a chapel but no room for offices. The plan also included “two double privies fitted up with suitable seats with hinged covers.”

Construction on the building that was to become Old Main, began in 1861 under the personal supervision of President Wallace. When the builders broke their contract with the college, the committee decided to complete the work themselves and finished the job so efficiently that it was on time and $1000 under the contracted price. It was Wallace’s idea to manufacture the bricks right on campus, with clay, straw and kilns being brought to the site. The building was completed in August, 1862. The debt that had accumulated, however, caused the building to remain empty until spring of the next year. The total cost of this building, including grading and furniture was $18,489, nearly a half million dollars in today’s economy.

In the first two years of its existence, Old Main was fairly empty, due to the Civil War. In 1863, there were no able-bodied men on campus, only boys under military age and young women. By October of the following year, larger groups began to return and by June of 1865 the building was teeming with students. Despite the planning and sacrifice to erect an enduring campus center, just 12 years later, a $14,000 addition, The Annex, nearly doubled the size of the building. The new north wing included a larger chapel, a library, more efficient science laboratories, a natural history museum, and additional classroom and office space.

Generations of MC alumni held Old Main close to their hearts. Other than a janitor’s house at the base of the hill to the rear, the president’s house, near the current Wells Theater location, the Auditorium (built in 1896) and the small gymnasium constructed in 1902 behind the Auditorium (later the Little Theatre), Old Main was Monmouth College. In 1906, Andrew Carnegie gave the college a $30,000 challenge to erect a library to the west of Old Main (now Poling Hall) and construction of a central heating plant was started by the spring of 1907. The new library was going up and all seemed well until the morning of November 14, 1907.

During a morning biology class, in the northwest corner of the Annex, a fire in a defective chimney broke through the ceiling and an alarm was sounded. With no panicking, students quietly filed out of the building and didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation until they stood on the campus and looked up at the roof which was enveloped with smoke and flame. By the time the firemen arrived, the building was engulfed in fire. Immediately, the students and townspeople began saving furniture, books and valuable equipment. Many rushed back into the rooms and laboratories which were filled with smoke. Some carried chairs and tables, others saved books and records from the literary societies. Burning embers filled the air and falling timbers crashed through the floors of the building. Despite the conflagration, only a telephone employee who served as volunteer fireman, was lost when he was crushed by falling timbers.

Some thought that would be the end of the college. But the institution, led by President Thomas McMichael, thought otherwise. He rallied loyal alumni, townspeople, faculty, and friends of the college everywhere to come to the rescue. Only one day of classes was missed. Within 24 hours, classes had moved to the current Faith Church on South 8th Street, as well as the Auditorium, gymnasium and homes of professors. When asked whether the building was insured, McMichael said he believed there was about $30,000 of insurance on the building. Luckily, the San Francisco earthquake, just 19 months earlier, had prompted the college to adjust its policy.

Not only were plans made for a new main classroom building to be named after first president Wallace, but trustees also decided that a science building and dorm for women were necessary. A campaign for $150,000 was launched. Architects competed for the job and famous New York architect and alumnus Daniel Everett Waid chose the firm of Herbert Hewitt of Peoria to design Wallace Hall. The cornerstone was laid June 10, 1908 and the first classes were held on February 8, 1909, just 452 days after the fire. Except for a few years with inclement weather, the steps of Wallace Hall, formerly the steps of Old Main, have seen more than 100 graduation ceremonies.

Doug Rankin
with generous assistance from Jeff Rankin

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