Illinois Pioneers

WILL - Illinois Pioneers - February 24, 2011 ~ Comment (0)

Champaign African-American History

WILL-TV’s Illinois Pioneers looks at African-American history in Champaign, Ill., through the eyes of Estella Merrifield and Hester Suggs, sisters and members of the Nelson family, one of the earliest African-American families in the city. Through their memories and photos, the program chronicles a portion of history from the Civil War through the Civil Rights protests of the late 1960s.

They talk about their grandfather, Joseph Nelson, who around 1900 was one of the first African Americans in the Champaign County Sheriff’s Department, and describe the importance of organizations such as the American Legion in the lives of African-American residents. Churches, such as Salem Baptist and Bethel AME, were all-important as well, they said.

WILL - Illinois Pioneers - January 27, 2011 ~ Comment (0)

Parkland College History

WILL-TV’s Illinois Pioneers looks back at the time when Parkland Junior College students attended classes in downtown Champaign, sometimes occupying church Sunday school classrooms where small chairs had to be stacked in the corner to make room for college-sized desks. 

Host Rick Atterberry uses photos and recollections of former Parkland employees to tell the story of the 45-year history of Parkland, which held its first classes in the fall of 1967 with an enrollment of 1,338 students. Guest Rachel Schroeder, former assistant to the first president of Parkland, and Dale Ewen, retired executive vice president, describe the excitement of building the college from the ground up.

WILL - Illinois Pioneers - November 25, 2010 ~ Comment (0)

Presidential Visits

When the president of the United States comes to town, everyone remembers. But people don’t always remember the remarks the president made or even why he came—sometimes the logistics of his arrival and departure are what stick in people’s minds.

That was the case when President Bill Clinton visited Champaign-Urbana in 1998. Clinton spoke to a full house at the Assembly Hall just days after his State of the Union address. His speech went smoothly, but his flight out of Willard Airport did not. When the pilot of Air Force One turned a tad too sharply and drove off the taxiway, the plane got stuck in the mud. Clinton had to de-board and depart on a backup jet. It took bulldozers, dozens of workers, and the better part of the day to get the first plane back on the asphalt. The story made national news.

A fourth of all U.S. presidents have visited Champaign-Urbana—either while in office or before or after their years as president. Their time here is the focus of this episode of Illinois Pioneers, broadcast on WILL-TV at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010.

The episode explores visits of presidents as well as first ladies such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Host John Paul shares photos of the visits and interviews Al Griggs and Jon Rector who helped plan and manage presidential visits. Griggs, a former assistant principal of Centennial High, organized President Gerald Ford’s visit when Ford spoke at the school. Rector, a former marketing director at Willard Airport, helped manage the Air Force One incident. Both say the experience of meeting the president was one of the most memorable of their lives—both for the privilege of hosting the president and for the funny things that happened along the way.

The first to visit was Abraham Lincoln, who before he was president sat for a portrait in Urbana in 1857. President Taft passed through on his way to Springfield and reviewed the troops, and Teddy Roosevelt, a past president at the time, spoke to 18,000 people crowded in Westside Park. Neither President Truman nor President Eisenhower got off the train when they came to Champaign-Urbana; both stopped and spoke at the depot on their whistle stop tours of the country. Presidents Nixon, Kennedy, Ford, Carter and Obama have also come through town either before or during their presidencies.

WILL - Illinois Pioneers - October 28, 2010 ~ Comment (0)

University of Illinois history

Most of us think about history in terms of the events we have personally witnessed. “But history precedes us and then continues with the next generations,” says John Paul, host of the WILL-TV’s Illinois Pioneers. This episode shows how the history of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is much richer than most of those who pass through the campus realize.

Paul interviews Professor Emeritus Winton Solberg, author of three books on the university’s past, as they discuss the formative years of the university, even before it made its home in Urbana-Champaign. Had it not been for the efforts of a particularly vigorous and vocal politician, Clark Griggs, the university might have ended up in Jacksonville, Bloomington-Normal or Lincoln. Paul says the agreement to found the university in Urbana “was Illinois politics as usual. Strings were pulled. Deals were made.”

The first campus building, located roughly where the Beckman Institute now stands, housed all classrooms, libraries, offices and laboratories, and was derisively nicknamed “The Elephant” by mid-19th century students. Also within those walls, university policy required all students to perform daily military drills, as well as attend daily chapel and religious instruction.

The Morrill Act, which provided federal funding and support for land grant universities not just in Illinois but nationwide, was signed by President Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War when the Union government needed more educated officers. Illinois Pioneers touches on seminal university figures such as Jonathan Baldwin Turner, who expanded the university’s industrial and agricultural curriculum to include a greater variety of subjects and classes, and John Milton Gregory, the university’s first regent who requested that his final resting place be on campus.

The program also delves into the stories behind the names of prominent campus buildings, areas and streets, such as Mathews, Peabody and Morrow, reminding us how the university’s early legacy is still alive today—if we only take the time to learn about it.

WILL - Illinois Pioneers - September 23, 2010 ~ Comment (0)

Streetcars and the Interurban

The first streetcar in Champaign-Urbana was powered by horses, pulling passengers on a rail between the Illinois Central depot in Champaign and the courthouse in Urbana. When electricity came to town in the 1890s, horses were phased out and the line extended, with power coming from wires above instead of horses.

On this WILL-TV Illinois Pioneers episode, John Paul and his guest George Friedman look back at the days when streetcars were the way to get around town and when the Interurban Railway made it easy to travel from city to city in central Illinois. “The Interurban was to streetcars as a Greyhound bus is to a city bus,” said Friedman, a retired University of Illinois professor whose hobby is researching the history of transportation in the area.

The Gazette offered this advice for boarding a streetcar: “Never stand on the sidewalk if you wish to hail a motor car (a streetcar), but step out on the crossing and stand near enough to the track to keep from getting struck by the car. Don’t wait until the car is past you and then yell ‘stop the car.’ When the car is about a quarter of a block from you, just quietly raise one hand and by the time the car has reached you the motorman will have it under control.”

Friedman tells Paul that in the early days, transportation was strictly privately owned. “Businessmen got into it because they thought they could make money,” he said. William McKinley, who became a U.S. Congressman and Senator, as well as a U of I trustee, owned both the streetcars and the electric utility in the early days, Friedman said.

Photos of streetcars in downtown Champaign and on campus, as well as rare video footage of the Interurban Railway, help Paul and Friedman tell the story.

WILL - Illinois Pioneers - August 26, 2010 ~ Comment (0)

Vice and Bootlegging

The presence of railroad workers, soldiers from Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul and University of Illinois students insured that Champaign always had its share of vice.

City officials sometimes ignored it, said John Paul, host of this WILL-TV’s Illinois Pioneers episode on the history of vice and bootlegging in Champaign. But occasionally, dramatic incidents made the community take notice and even take action.

Paul and his guest, city of Champaign history enthusiast Mark Chenail, talk about a 1939 case in which 20-year-old sophomore U of I engineering student William Spurrier was out drinking with some friends, when they decided to visit the Pullman Hotel, a brothel in near the Illinois Central tracks. After operator Margaret Strothers refused their entrance, the students pelted the door with bottles. Strothers fired her gun, hitting Spurrier, who died the next day.

Classes were cancelled the following Monday as students held a mass meeting U of I President A.C. Willard at Huff Gym to discuss the situation. The Daily Illini and News-Gazette demanded action from the city, as did U of I Trustees. Some officials ended up losing their jobs.

Paul and Chenail also talk about the days of Prohibition, including the time a 26-year-old federal agent named Eliot Ness, not yet a household name, went undercover as a student at the U of I to ferret out illegal drinking at fraternity houses. “He apparently blended right in,” said Chenail.

They also look at the time Carrie Nation brought her temperance campaign to Champaign in the days before Prohibition. Chenail looks at the reasons Champaign and Urbana banned liquor in May 1907, 13 years before Prohibition.

“I chose the subject of vice because it’s a forgotten, but shocking part of Champaign history,” said Paul. “We think of Champaign as a pretty nice city, but at one point, it wasn’t.”

WILL - Illinois Pioneers - July 22, 2010 ~ Comment (0)

Champaign Schools

Erma Bridgewater, who graduated from Champaign High School in 1931, recalls jumping on the back of a moving company’s horse-pulled wagon to hitch a ride to elementary school. “The driver would pretend that he didn’t know we were there,” she said. Bridgewater and Cheryl Van Ness of Champaign talk about their recollections of attending schools in Champaign County.

Host John Paul and his guests talk about earlier times in local schools and look at historic photos of schools, classrooms and leaders such as Dr. Hartwell C. Howard, for whom Dr. Howard School is named.

Bridgewater helped integrate Lincoln School, now an apartment building at the corner of Healey and State streets, in 1917. She and her brother were the only black students, because most African-Americans lived in the north part of town and attended another school.

Van Ness attended Bondville grade school, which was closed by the district in 1971. She was in the first graduating class from Centennial High School.

“It will be a chance to look back at how the school district has evolved over the years,” Paul said. The program will also look at some of the schools that are no longer there, about some of the sports teams that won state championships, and about periods when enrollment soared, resulting in the building of schools to keep up with the numbers of children, he said.

Funding for Illinois Pioneers – Champaign @ 150 is made possible, in part, by the Noel Foundation, and by donors to the Champaign 150th Anniversary Celebration Fund. More information on the city’s 150th Anniversary is at

WILL - Illinois Pioneers - June 24, 2010 ~ Comment (0)


Remember when newspapers had competition and when broadcasting was new and experimental? We’re premiering WILL-TV’s next episode of "Illinois Pioneers" here on Vimeo and Facebook! Follow the link the watch the program now about the history of the media in Champaign County. You can also watch it on WILL-TV Thursday, June 24, 2010, at 7:30 pm. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Program detail: Host John Paul talks to Tom Kacich of the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and Doug Quick, weather broadcaster and broadcast historian, about when Champaign-Urbana had as many as seven local newspapers and about the early days of radio and TV in the county. They look at old photos and share stories.

WILL - Illinois Pioneers - May 27, 2010 ~ Comment (0)

Champaign Theatres

Theater historian Perry Morris joins WILL-TV’s John Paul to look back at the days when downtown Champaign was filled with theaters. Morris and Paul look at photos of the grand dames of the Champaign theater district and bright neon marquees lighting up downtown streets.

The show examines the days of the opera houses, when Mark Twain, the Marx Brothers, Houdini, Frederick Douglass, Sarah Bernhardt and Susan B. Anthony came to town to speak or perform. “The first opera house was Barrett’s-Swannell’s where Jim Gould’s restaurant is now at the corner of Neil and Main. It operated above Swannell’s drug store and opened the same year Lincoln was shot, 1865,” Paul said.

“We gathered some great photos showing some of the 15 different locations of downtown Champaign theaters and their marquees,” Paul said. The names changed often for many of the locations, he said. The Varsity, which opened in 1906, became the Rex, the Illini, the Encore and then the Illini again, he said. One theater still remaining is the Art, which opened as the Park Theatre in downtown Champaign in 1913; it joined the Crescent Theatre, the Crystal Theatre, the Lyric Theatre, the Varsity Theatre, and the Walker Opera House.

Over the next few years, the Orpheum Theatre, Theatre Belvoir (later known as The Rialto), and the Virginia Theatre opened. The Art still operates as a movie theater, the Virginia houses live performances and movies, and the Orpheum provides a home for a children’s science museum. “But most of the theaters have disappeared,” Paul said.

Paul and Morris also talk to Leonard Doyle, a former usher and manager at the Virginia, who has been associated with Champaign theaters for the past 40 years.

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