Illinois Pioneers

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.