Dawn of a new century
Nearly all of NIU's earliest graduates
went on to teach in one-room schoolhouses like this one in DeKalb
County's Milan Township.
In the fall
of 1899, they converged upon DeKalb from across the region: from
bustling Chicago to the outposts of Rockford, Aurora and Elgin,
but mostly from the vast farmlands of northern Illinois, where
the highest seat of education often was the one-room schoolhouse.
For the 146 women and 27 men in its inaugural class, the sight
of the new Northern Illinois State Normal School must have appeared
on the horizon as if out of a dream, a European-style castle on
the wide open Midwestern plains.
The “Castle on the Hill,”
as it would come to be known, was born out of necessity. As the
turn of the century approached, Illinois colleges in Normal, Carbondale
and Chicago couldn’t keep up with the demand for trained
educators created by the rapid demand for more—and better—public
education. Many school districts hired unqualified or ill-prepared
teachers. Seldom were they high school graduates. Gov. John Peter
Altgeld, a champion of higher education, expanded the normal school
system through-out the state. He recognized that better-trained
teachers would advance education of the masses.
At the time Altgeld Hall rose as
a palace on the prairie, it stood as a symbol of an evolving America.
Built during the Gilded Age, Northern
Illinois State Normal School was born at the dawn of a new century.
Westward expansion continued, and the first glimpses of modern
transportation—Henry Ford’s automobile and the Wright
brothers’ airplane—were right around the corner.
a nation poised at the edge of new prosperity and technological
achievement, great minds of the day foresaw a burgeon ing need
for a better-educated populace. When Altgeld Hall was built, an
eighth-grade education was considered sufficient for most citizens.
The concept of separate “elementary schools” for young
children and “high schools” for teenagers had only
begun to make its way into American public education: At the turn
of the last century, only six percent of American youth graduated
from high school.
More than 30,000 people attended
Altgeld Hall’s cornerstone-laying ceremony on October 1,
1895—the biggest event in DeKalb history. Gov. Altgeld himself
addressed the audience, defining the importance of the new school
in the language of a man far ahead of his time: “We have
met to lay the cornerstone of an institution that is designed
to produce the perfect teacher,” he said. “The intellectual
and literary activity is already being shifted from the hills
of New England to the prairies of Illinois, and the time is near
at hand when from this state will go out the most advanced ideas
in all the fields of human knowledge.”
Above: the College Avenue Bridge
over the Kishwaukee River, just east of the
present-day campus, in the winter of 1895.
Top: Children from the Glidden family
play with friends in the Kishwaukee River circa 1899. Below: Members
of the Ellwood Society plant a tree on school grounds circa 1900.
A little more than a century later, Northern
Illinois State Normal School is now Northern Illinois University—the
Midwest’s leading regional public university. From its inaugural
class of 173 young farm kids, NIU has grown to serve an enrollment
of more than 25,000 students from cities, suburbs and rural areas
across the nation’s third largest metropolitan region.
Altgeld Hall no longer stands in
the middle of nowhere, but rather at the center of a major, comprehensive
research university. The campus stretches well over 750 acres
and boasts more than 60 major buildings. While producing the perfect
teacher remains a primary endeavor— nearly 7,000 current
NIU students are seeking degrees in education—the institution’s
mission has expanded to include applied research, artistry, regional
economic development and outreach. As Altgeld predicted, NIU has
indeed taken nourishment from its strong roots, and is now advancing
“all the fields of human knowledge.”
In another new century, NIU stands on the edge
of another new frontier: one not of dirt roads and untamed prairie,
but of fiber optic cable and nanotechnology. Years before historians
can define or even categorize this era, in a landscape unrecognizable
to the first professors and students who walked this ground, NIU
finds new inspiration in Altgeld Hall, where past, present and
future live together in a castle where knowledge is king.
A worthy namesake
looks fondly upon John Peter Altgeld, one of the most progressive leaders
of his time. Yet, during his tumultuous term as Illinois governor (1893-97),
he was among the nation’s most controversial fi gures. A staunch
advocate of higher education, Altgeld tripled the University of Illinois
budget and created teachers colleges in Macomb and DeKalb. He crusaded
against child labor and in favor of women’s rights. Yet, newspapers
across the country condemned him for his pro-labor views and his pardoning
of the remaining prisoners of the 1886 Haymarket Riot. He also clashed
publicly with President Cleveland over Chicago’s Pullman strike.
While Altgeld was defeated for re-election, he still
held political sway. He was almost solely responsible for the defeat
of the Cleveland-supported presidential candidate at the 1896 Democratic
National Convention. He also set the Democratic Party on a course representing
minorities, the urban poor, immigrant laborers, debt-ridden farmers
and academic liberals.
Altgeld died March 12, 1902. He is buried in Chicago.