Altgeld Hall -- The Dawn of a New Century

Historical Perspective

Dawn of a new century

Milan Township Schoolhouse
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.

With 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.”

College Avenue Bridge
Above: the College Avenue Bridge
over the Kishwaukee River, just east of the
present-day campus, in the winter of 1895.

Altgeld Hall

Glidden family
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.

Ellwood Society

Advancing knowledge

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

John P. AltgeldHistory 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.