Champaign-Urbana and the University: An abbreviated history

University Hall was constructed in 1870 where the Illini Union is now. To the left is Harker Hall, the only remaining building from that time. 

You’re stepping foot on unfamiliar land — land that you know close to nothing about. 

That never happened to me, I grew up in Central Illinois. I’m comfortable here. The corn, the history, the people — I’ve known it all and loved it all for my whole life.

I know close to everything there is to know about these quirky little towns, and now, I’m going to share that knowledge with you. I mean, hey, maybe knowing a little bit about this area’s rich history will ease your transition to your new home.

The information in this story comes mostly from a book titled “Urbana (Images of America)” by Ilona Matkovszki and Dennis Roberts, as well as “John Milton Gregory and the University of Illinois” by Harry Kersey and the “Dictionary of American Biography — Supplement 7.”

Originally, this land was one of the seasonal stomping grounds of the Pottawatomie Native Americans, but in 1822, the first Euro-American settlers came after the United States government had acquired the land years earlier.

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    This was a hard area to settle. Primitive plows couldn’t till the soil under the tall prairie grasses, so settlers opted to build their homes and farms at the edges of a huge, majestic forest — Big Grove.

    Big Grove — which has a restaurant, located at 1 E. Main St., Champaign, named after it – was 12 miles long and an average of three miles wide. But by 1830, the area didn’t even have a town — just a collection of cabins huddled around this massive forest. 

    That changed in 1833 when the state senator for Vermilion County, which the Big Grove community was part of, passed a bill to make Big Grove a separate county — his condition was that the resident’s name the new county seat Urbana, after his former home in Ohio.

    Champaign and Urbana

    The land that made this new county seat was donated by two families — the Buseys and the Webbers, powerful names that you’ll see around this area to this day.

    Between 1850 and 1860, Champaign County saw a population boom, rising 553 percent. This is because the Illinois Central Railroad was constructed to the west of the town, breathing new life in the region with new types of residents: not just farmers, but also intellectuals, investors and laborers. 

    However, they didn’t all land in Urbana. Most settled in West Urbana — which grew so large by 1860 that it was made into a new town — Champaign.

    Since it was on the railroad tracks, Champaign grew much faster and surpassed Urbana in population and development. This is the root of a more-than-century long division between these two cities.

    To this day, you can see it for yourself. Urbana has no high rises, but by this time next year, Champaign will have several, and a Hyatt to boot. Champaign has a research park and huge corporate development north of town, and Urbana doesn’t really have that.

    That’s not to say Urbana stagnated. During the 1850s it received a new industrial area, a newspaper, new county offices, and of course, a new courthouse.

    This courthouse was frequented by a young lawyer from Springfield. His name: Abraham Lincoln. Years later, Lincoln would sign a federal law that, after the Civil War ended, would change Champaign County forever.

    The University

    The Morrill Act of 1862 enacted a law to enable states to receive federal land to establish universities — particularly universities with a focus on agriculture and mechanics.

    An Urbana politician, Clark Griggs, went to Springfield during 1867 with $40,000 from the Champaign and Urbana townships. He bought legislators oyster and quail dinners, cigars and theatre tickets. 

    Because of this, and “a little bit of horse trading” and manipulation, Griggs won the university, according to Daniel McCollum’s “Remembering Champaign County.”

    It was named the “Illinois Industrial University” and was placed in a stretch of land between the two townships in a building that’s no longer around — “the Elephant.”

     It stood five stories above the vast prairie, and over the years, those prairies were cut and drained and an array of buildings were constructed.

    Where the Illini Union stands now, a building called University Hall was constructed in the 1870s with Harker Hall to the east, the only building remaining from those early days.

    I won’t get into all of the buildings and histories hidden in this great University, I’m afraid I don’t have enough room on this page to give you that. 

    But know that in those early years, the University fulfilled its goal of focusing on blue collar education, but it did more than that, thanks to our first president, John Milton Gregory.

    The legacy of Gregory

    As I said earlier, the Morrill Act stipulated a focus on blue collar education, but the exact wording included “without excluding other scientific and classical studies,” according to Kersey’s book.

    Gregory latched on to that wording and fought for a well-rounded education, and the state latched on to the practical side. He was forced to resign in 1880 due to this difference, but in his time here, he planted the seed for something great — he may very well be the reason why we’re not solely a trade school.

    “Let us educate for life, as well as for art, leaving genius free to follow its natural attractions,” he implored, according to Kersey’s book. “If some of our graduates shall quit, for a time, the harvest field for the forum, or prefer medicine to mechanic art, we shall hope they will demonstrate that, even in professional life, the education we give is neither inferior nor inadequate.”

    Gregory is buried between Altgeld Hall and the Henry Administration Building in a grave nestled in a grove of trees. On the rock above this grave, there’s a plaque that reads “If you seek his monument, look about you.”

    So as you begin your time here at the University, look about you. This is an institution that’s been 200 years in the making. The history is rich, and I’ve only scratched the surface.

    Austin is a junior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and @austinkeating3.