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“Tremendously in Touch with Life”

by Ronald R Johnson (

When Isabel Bevier arrived at the University of Illinois in 1900 to become the head of its Home Economics Department, this is how she reacted: “I thought I had never seen so flat and so muddy a place, no trees, no hills, no boundaries of any kind” (Isabel Bevier, “The History of the Home Economics Department at the University of Illinois, 1900-1921,” University of Illinois Home Economics Library, Urbana, p. 14).

“It takes some imagination to visualize the five buildings on the campus when I arrived,” she said (p. 13).

She may have been exaggerating the sparseness of it, for records say there were more like ten buildings, if you include greenhouses. At any rate, the overall effect was the same.

Although this photo was taken after the erection of several important buildings, it gives us a sense of the wide-open spaces Professor Bevier saw in 1900. This was the view from the north end of the commons, facing south. Beyond the dome-shaped Auditorium is that part of campus that was devoted to agriculture, horticulture, and floriculture. From Jack A. Scanlan Scrapbook, 1907-1911, Student Scrapbooks and Papers, Series No. 41/20/39, Box 1, University of Illinois Archives, University of Illinois. Copyright University of Illinois.

But the situation changed quickly. Fifteen new structures were added between 1900 and the fall of 1911 when Lloyd Douglas arrived, and fifteen more were built during his brief time there (between 1911 and 1915). In contrast to Professor Bevier’s experience of wide-open spaces, Douglas saw a whirlwind of activity, with construction going on everywhere. (From Leon Deming Tilton and Thomas Edward O’Donnell, History of the Growth and Development of the Campus of the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1930), Table: List of Chief Buildings and Tabulation of Building Data, pp. 179-183.)

Using data from a few of these sources, I drew a crude map of the campus as it looked just after Douglas left in 1915. The north end was taken up by the various departments of engineering and by the physics department. A stream called “the Boneyard” runs east-and-west here, as well as Green Street, the commercial district of Champaign.

South of Green Street was the central campus, where most of the other departments were clustered around the commons. The library and the Auditorium were also located here.

Although the School of Agriculture was part of the main campus, the southern section had barns, fields, labs, and greenhouses for agricultural, horticultural, and floricultural research.

As you can see, it was no longer a wide-open place with empty spaces. Many of these buildings were added while Douglas was working at the university.

But it wasn’t just construction that made the place a buzzing hive of activity. For example, Allan Nevins wrote in 1917: “Twenty-six departments of the University are equipped with laboratories, placed in a dozen buildings.” Among them, he listed the following: “The mining engineering laboratory contains materials for drilling, blasting, mine rescue, and ore concentration work. In the mechanical engineering laboratory are large experimental boiler plants and gas engines, and such pieces of special equipment as an ice and refrigerating machine capable of making one and a half tons a day. In civil engineering are satisfactory road and cement laboratories, and in electrical engineering a wealth of machinery – sixty direct or alternating current machines, fifty transformers, experimental telephone switchboards, and so on.” (Allan Nevins, Illinois (Oxford University Press American Branch, 1917), p. 292.

Perhaps the most dramatic of these was the locomotive testing laboratory, which was unveiled in 1913 (while Douglas was there). The train engine was securely locked into place on a suspended track within a warehouse, then the engineer ran it at high speed while technicians measured its “tractive effort,” as well as its consumption of coal and water. The steam from its smokestack was funneled and directed out through the roof of the lab. There were only three other testing sites like it in the United States, and only two outside the US. (From E.C. Schmidt, “A New locomotive testing plant at the University of Illinois” (Chicago: American Railway Master Mechanics’ Association, 1913. Circular no. S-1912-1913).)

I.C. 2-8-0 Steam Locomotive (4) circa early 1910-1930, Locomotive in shop. Found in Box 9, Folder Engineering-Civil Engineering, Negative Number 899, Record Series 39/2/22, University of Illinois Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Copyright University of Illinois.

A reporter for the student newspaper wrote, “The locomotive’s roar, the spinning of its giant wheels, the sight of its glowing firebox, and its sway from side to side, make lasting impressions on the visitors to this department” (“New Building Dedication Begins with Convocation,” Daily Illini, Friday, May 9, 1913, p. 8).

Graduate student Olive Deane Hormel (Class of 1916) summed it up well when she wrote that the university was “tremendously in touch with life.” (Olive Deane Hormel, Co-Ed (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1926)). She used this phrase three times in her book (pp. 10, 26, and 28).

The school was a buzzing hive of restless activity. Students were in training to be architects, engineers, lawyers, journalists, politicians, and lots of other things that were needed in the surrounding communities. By 1912 (while Douglas was there), “women interested in landscape architecture had begun to invade the classrooms of the University of Illinois, taking surveying courses and learning the names and characteristics of plants.” Two young women who were there at the same time as Douglas went on to successful careers: Annette Hoyt Flanders (class of 1918) set up her own practice in New York City in 1922; Florence Yoch (class of 1915) “became one of the leading designers of Hollywood estate gardens and film sets” (Natalie Alpert and Gary Kesler, “Florence Bell Robinson and Stanley Hart White: Creating a Pioneering School of Landscape Architecture.” In Lillian Hoddeson, ed., No Boundaries: University of Illinois Vignettes (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), pp. 114-115).

From Melville J. Eames Papers, 1907-1908, Student Scrapbooks and Papers, Series No. 41/20/32, Box 1, University of Illinois Archives, University of Illinois. Copyright University of Illinois.

But it wasn’t all just academics. For male students, daily military drills were also compulsory. That was part of their education.

From Jack A. Scanlan Scrapbook, 1907-1911, Student Scrapbooks and Papers, Series No. 41/20/39, Box 1, University of Illinois Archives, University of Illinois. Copyright University of Illinois.

And then there was the social side of it all. The first several weeks of each school year were taken up with “rushing,” a word that nicely captures the frenetic activity involved. Not only did new students have to get used to the campus and their classes, but they also had to put their best foot forward as they were considered for membership by the various fraternities or sororities. Nor was it simply a question of what their social status would be among their peers. Even with all the construction going on around campus, the university had not yet built a residence hall. Those students who were not selected to join a chapter house were left having to rent a room nearby. For those who were chosen, however, here are a few examples of accommodations, along with a view of the residents, all from student Jack Scanlan’s scrapbook at the university archives:

Here’s a closer look at the main campus:

The chapter houses of the fraternities and sororities were all to the west, located either on John Street or down one of the side streets branching out from John Street. Every day, students by the thousands walked back and forth on that one street – passing right by Lloyd Douglas’s office. For he worked at the newly-constructed YMCA Building, which was on the corner of John and Wright Streets. (The females – the members of the YWCA – were in a house across the road, on the southern side of John Street.) There was all this buzzing activity going on, and Douglas was right in the middle of it.

They called him “the live wire down at the Y,” and yet, compared with the previous several years, he was strangely quiet. And there were reasons for that.

(To be continued…)

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