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College In The Hills

©Mildred B. McCormick


College In The Hills. What was it? Who was involved? What happened to it? Why?

For most of my life, I had heard an occasional reference to the College but never any real information. I promised myself whenever I heard these casual allusions that someday I would find answers to some of my questions. This article is the result of my delayed attempt.

I started by asking everyone I knew, my age or older, what he could remember about the College. I was further intrigued to learn they knew no more than I--that there was supposedly such an institution, but they knew nothing about it.

My research began with a call to Oren Gross, Elizabethtown, former sheriff and retired barber. Although he had no first-hand information, he began knocking on doors on my behalf and soon had a list of names and suggestions, which paved the way for me to several good sources. My old friend, Leonard (Hartley) Farmer, Elizabethtown, retired from the Forest Service, was one of that number. He spent hours at the Hardin County courthouse tracing deed records, wrote friends in the Forest Service, and helped me read years of back issues of the Hardin County Independent, which Noel Hurford and his staff so generously supplied.

Norman Ferrell, Rosiclare, supplied the answer to what seemed one hopeless quest--he had pictures of the building, which illustrates the article, and shared his memories of the institution. There were others--Gary DeNeal, Taylor Barger, Audie Ferrell, Aletha Sivyer, Lorna Briddick, John Wernham (US Forest Service, retired), who responded graciously to my requests. The last person I interviewed was James Carr, Herod (Possum Ridge), who was particularly helpful in placing my uncoordinated assortment in perspective.

There are others to whom I am indebted who, for various reasons, did not wish to be recognized in print. It is the usual custom to list credits at the end of the article, but because some of these people were so deeply involved, I felt they deserved more than a postscript "Thank You."

What was the College?

In trying to answer that question, I ran into such stuff as legends are made on (apologies to Shakespeare). My sources range from such respected authors as Baker Brownell (The Other Illinois, 1958), and John W. Allen (Legends & Lore, 1963), through Stefan Fosfore’s periodic columns "College In The Hills" in the Hardin County Independent, 1934-1936, clippings from other area newspapers, and personal interviews. Opinions from these sources run the gamut from "it was a much-needed development for rural education," to "it was a Communist/Nazi spy-ring." My self-imposed task is to attempt to piece out an objective story between such extremes: PR-man Fosfore’s rosy reports and the rumors, which sound like stories from the National Enquirer.

One thing about which there can be no controversy is the location. The College was located on 40 acres, more or less, at the intersection of Route 34 and the Karbers Ridge Road (east side of Route 34 near the Pope-Hardin line). The actual building site was located "South of Karbers Ridge Road in the Southeast one-fourth of the Northwest one-fourth of Section 14, Township 11 South, Range 7, East of the third principal meridian, Hardin County, Illinois."

The land was listed in tax records to College In The Hills, 1935-36. It was assessed to W. C. Kane in 1934, tax paid by Donald Monson, College Of The Hills, 10-12-35. Taxes were paid 7-31-36 by the College, and 22 April 1937, taxes were paid by Claude V. Parsons, land assessed to College-In-The-Hills. No record of deed for the College was found by my researcher. W.C. Kane and wife, Ethel, deeded the land in 1948 to Warren P. Tuttle and S.H. Frazier, Jr.

The earliest printed reference to the College, which I located, was in the 24 May 1934 Herald-Enterprise, an announcement of the new College: "New labor college--summer quarter, 25 June - 1 September." The news release promised 20 standard courses, 10 in humanities. Tuition for 10 weeks was $28. Purpose: "to develop students capable of living in a modern world of new social and economic values."

A follow-up announcement in the 19 July 1934 Herald stated that all classes except Modern Civilization and Art were meeting weekdays 9-12 a.m. Art, taught by Penny Cent, met 2-4 p.m. and featured "individual instruction in character sketching and caricature." Neighborhood people were invited to visit the school. This same news release discussed a weekly radio program over WEBQ Harrisburg each Monday at 9 p.m. The first program included a play, directed by Mildred George, speech instructor; songs by Harriet Rolfe; a speech by Donald Brown, president of the College. The next program was to be "Art In the Modern World," led by Penny Cent.

Also mentioned was the Modern Civilization class which met at 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoons, public invited, George Guernsey, instructor.

The first article by Stefan Fosfore, in the Hardin County Independent, which Leonard and I were able to locate (in separate searches), was printed 10 October 1934. This column appeared, like a pebble dropped into a pond--no explanation, no introduction of either College or reporter, no statement of purpose. The last column we found, 19 December 1935, gave no hint that it was the final report. There was no mention of the College through 15 July 1937 where we abandoned the search of the Independent files.

Fosfore’s 10 October article described a permanent art exhibit at the College, featuring works by Penny Cent’s students and other local artists. Those mentioned were Norman Tucker, Karbers Ridge, whose works greatly impressed the College instructor, and Eugene "Breezie" Partain, 12-year-old artist from Cross Roads school, whose oil painting of the Cowsert cabin at Decker’s Spring was much admired. Photos of works of Peterpaul Ott, sculptor of Evanston, were also exhibited. Ott was a frequent visitor at the College.

On 28 March 1935, Fosfore reported that the library hall was complete. This is the building shown in the photos supplied by Norman Ferrell. Fosfore described it as having "sweeping windows," built mostly of oak lumber with homemade walnut stain. In his 25 July 1935 column, he further described the building which replaced "tents and one old shack" as now a "beautiful building with broad rock chimney, ladies’ dorm, kitchen, library, study hall." At that time, the excavation for a 26 x 34-foot, 20-bed dormitory was complete. Plans for future buildings specified that they, like the initial structure, were to be constructed of oak lumber and sandstone from the College quarry--as far as possible only native materials were to be used. A scale model of the proposed campus was on display in the library, "showing slope of grounds, miniature flagstone campus yard, community hall, and a string of classrooms, administration and dorm buildings, grouped around one inner court to extend northwest across Karbers Ridge Road (Fosfore, 1935). Until construction of the library hall, classes were held wherever space was available--courthouse, school buildings, even a shop, according to Taylor Barger who was a member of an art class but never attended at the campus.

In September 1935 Peterpaul Ott and Architect Richard Windlish inspected the, College building and gave advice on the construction of the dorm. Dorm plans included two rooms, three big rock fireplaces and a study hall. One-foot oak weatherboarding, simple standard windows, terracing to follow slope of the ground--nothing out of the ordinary today, but then it was regarded as foreign and somewhat bizarre by many local people.

All construction was carried out by students and faculty under the supervision of Donald Monson, business manager, architect, and emergency carpenter. Baker Brownell says "the house served them well and was praised by the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright." Noel Hurford remembers reading of the eventual success of the young architect in later years, but has as yet not been able to locate the story.

Most of my sources agree, for the most part, on the nature and content of the College curriculum. Allen lists courses in economics, art, speech, psychology, geology, German, political science and modern civilization. Another source thought the University of Chicago plan was used--lower level (freshman-sophomore) in regular classes; upper level (junior-senior) in seminars. Each student was required to do four hours of manual labor each day.

Both students and faculty were expected to adhere to the following schedule:

4:30 a.m. --rise, do chores: carrying water, chopping wood, etc.


6:30-10:00 a .m . --construction, gardening, housework






5:45-8:00 p.m.--study and recreation

8:00 p.m.--taps and lights out

Many names of faculty members have surfaced through various sources. It is not clear how many were on campus in any given term. Besides those already mentioned: President Donald Brown; Art Instructor Penny Cent; Donald Monson, business manager, architect, and carpentry instructor; Mildred George, speech; George Guernsey, Modern Civilization; there were Earl Edgar, humanities; Astrid Aronson, social studies; Ethlyn Potter Rolph, history, geography, geology; Eunice Bonniwell, household sciences; Richard Peterson, psychology.

Various visiting lecturers were mentioned. Alvin Lee, graduate of Davy School of Tree Surgery, and member of the forestry camp at Herod, spoke on classification of shade trees, their care and disease prevention. Professor of Sociology Neva Boyd, Northwestern, recognized as a national authority on recreation, spent three days at the College in September 1935. She admired Penny Cent’s painting of J.F. Humm’s mill at Eichorn, stopped at the mill to watch its operation, and went back to Chicago with two bags of what Fosfore called corn flour.

The faculty held impressive credentials in a day when many local teachers had little formal education at the college level. Edgar’s degree was from DePauw University, Bonniwell was degreed in Home Ec (Iowa State) and sociology (Northwestern). Most of the others held degrees from Northwestern. Aronson, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Northwestern, took a leave in the summer of 1935 to serve as recreational director of a girls’ camp at Dixon Springs.

In his 1 August 1935 column Fosfore described the "education caucus" held after each series of lectures to discuss viewpoints which had been presented. There was also a general survey on the progress of students. These meetings "attempted to bring various courses and sciences into a unified whole--to assist students in understanding how all hang together and contribute to the modern world."

As mentioned before, each student was to do manual labor four hours per day. Tuition and room and board could be paid in cash or kind. There were references to a three-acre garden, cultivated by students (seeds donated) under the supervision of Robert Zerlin, garden director and art student. A reference to the garden in October mentioned the canning of produce by students and faculty.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the school had official backing from neither government nor educational agency. Baker Brownell says "it was five or six youngsters just out of college with stars in their eyes." John W. Allen agrees that it was a "highly idealistic venture" begun in 1933 in the depths of the depression by a small group, most of whom were graduates of Chicago and Northwestern universities. They wished to offer a liberal education to the youth of the area which they, "poor as they were, could afford."

At that time, Southern Illinois University was the only hope in the area for instruction beyond high school. Allen described the "deplorable conditions" in Hardin County at that time--true also for Pope, all of southern Illinois, and much of the nation. Fluorspar mines, the only industry in the county, were either closed or operating at 25 per cent capacity or less. More than one-fourth of the county was dependent on emergency relief. As Allen says "those were the times and conditions that prompted a dream.

School opened 25 June 1934 with sixteen students and eleven staff members (Allen, 205). An eight-weeks session was conducted with courses as listed above. Staff members received no salary. Tuition was ten dollars for the first term and each student was to provide bedding and personal articles, including "high boots, over-alls, and rough warm outdoor clothing." (Other sources say the first three teachers received $50 per month, plus $15 expenses, source not specified. The $10 tuition is also less than the $28 advertised in the 1934 Herald article.)

James Carr remembers that some of the instructors worked for WPA Writers’ Project (as did Carr) and hoped that WPA would adopt the work-college and assume responsibility for its operation. That hope was never realized.


The story of the College will be continued and will explore the areas of community involvement, including Hicks CCC Camp, plans for further service (the only public library in Hardin County in the 1930s was at the College), and interaction with area schools. There is also the negative side--local resentment, misunderstanding on both sides, suspicion, clash of cultures.

It is my hope that there are people who have knowledge of the school who will make their contribution to the history before the next installment is published. I can be reached at Box 63, Golconda, IL 62938.


Mildred B. McCormick is a member of the Barger family which has lived in Pope County since 1818. She graduated from Pope County schools, earned the BA degree from University of Illinois, Urbana, and the MA from SIU-C.

She has been a teacher of English at LaSalle-Peru, IL, and Pope County high schools, and taught part time from 1973-1986 at Southeastern Illinois College. She writes a weekly column for the Herald-Enterprise, Golconda, and is a regular contributor to Springhouse.


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