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College of the Hills, Part 2

©Mildred B. McCormick


In Part I of "College In The Hills" I discussed some of the background of the school: location, building construction, faculty, class schedules. Thanks to Judy Tippy, research librarian at Shawnee Library System, and Mark W. Sorenson, Assistant Director of Illinois State Archives, I now have a copy of the signature page of the charter issued 9 October 1935 to the College, listing board of directors, and the formal statement of purpose.

Named as directors are Aronson, Bonniwell, Cent, Edgar, Lee, Monson and Rolfe, all instructors who were introduced in Part I. The application was signed by Alvin Lee, Donald Monson and Walter S. Vose (a name which appeared at no other time during my search).

According to the charter, the object for which the College was established was "to furnish for the residents of Hardin and adjacent counties in Southern Illinois a center for promoting educational and recreational opportunities, for teaching social hygiene and progress in various industries, particularly agriculture, to own the necessary equipment and property to provide such facilities, to do such experimental work in industry and agriculture as may be necessary to accomplish the purpose stated above. "

Stefan Fosfore’s columns in the Independent, which were a sort of newsletter of school activities, described the varied attempts by the faculty to carry out their announced plans. In an effort to establish a working relationship with the community a series of free programs were scheduled. These included drama, community chorus, folk music, instrumental and vocal concerts, children’s s programs, and a Sunday Open Forum. The college bus would call for groups of ten or more.

One community night was described (25 April 1935, Independent) by Fosfore. The reporter gave the attendance as 140, some by horseback, some by auto, some on foot. The guitar teacher, Marcello Tabago, and Raymond Cacatian, "who had travelled with the South Sea Hawaiian Serenaders, and local talent, Willard Hamp, furnished part of the program." Entertainers on other programs were Edward Schmidt, Camp Hicks, with his "concert piano accordion, 168 keys, 2 keyboards, mother-of-pearl hull--cost $560, the price of an auto"; Robert Zerlin, art student, who did portrait sketches of guests; S. Hale, forester from Herod, once a caller at WLS Barn Dance; local entertainers, Edward Seets and son Randall (mountain music).

During Christmas week of 1935 (following the last published article by Fosfore) Miss Bonniwell had scheduled a Christmas party at the College. Tom Moore was to sing. Decorations were in place: cedar boughs from John Ledbetter’s place "straight east one mile as the crow flies." The tree was furnished by Louis Hamp. There was to be a special party for children on Saturday afternoon. Bonniwell had previously sponsored a Halloween party for children. There was a "play and games night’s’ every Friday. She had also presented a style show by her sewing class.

The Open Forum, directed by Earl Edgar, philosophy and English instructor, aired national and international topics on science, art and literature. Prof. Ethlyn Rolfe led one discussion on "Religion In The World Today." All programs were open to the public at no charge.

In addition to scheduled programs there were also exhibits, both permanent and temporary. Some of the art on display was mentioned in Part I. Besides the art shows, there was a permanent exhibit of works of Penny Cent’s students. Works by Norman Tucker, Eugene Partain, Adrian Holbrook, Taylor Barger, Fowler Curtis, and Herbert Jenkins were mentioned.

Art instructor Penny Cent, who seemed to be amazingly productive, also had several works on exhibit. One was a large painting of Camp Hicks. This was a traveling exhibit, from Camp Hicks, to the College library, to the District Conference of Camp Commanders. It was later purchased by Lt. Fulton, commander of Camp Hicks. Other Penny Cent works which received publicity were: the store and post office at Thacker’s Gap (Herod), the John Shetler home (Rosiclare), a map of Cairo, St. Joseph’s Church, and many others. There are several of his works remaining in the area, all in private collections. We will have more to say later about this very controversial artist.

There were displays other than paintings. Thomas Dobbs and Henry Hamp brought "fine specimens of native rocks and minerals for the geology department." Attorney William B. Morris, Golconda, presented the College library with his original play about Oliver Cromwell, plus other dramas he had written.

One type of art which seemed to fascinate Penny Cent was the hand-pieced quilt. It was reported that he was so excited by the quilts pieced by Mrs. J. F. Humm, Eichorn, that he persuaded her to enter some of them in a show in Chicago. Later a quilt by Mrs. Elmer Stuby, Karber’s Ridge, was sent to Northwestern to be exhibited in a class of Southern Illinois folk art. Mrs. Mary Schroll, Karber’s Ridge, was the second to lend her work. Penny Cent began work on modern quilt designs, three of which were exhibited at Camp Hicks.

Perhaps the most important collection at the College, to the community at large, was the library. The 2500 books at the College were available on free loan to those who wished to borrow. At that time there was no public library in Hardin County. Pope County had the Golconda City Library, established in 1915, but there were few resources, compared to today’s offerings.

Many of the volumes (probably all of them) were donated by friends of the faculty in Chicago-Evanston. There were 200 children’s books, a gift of Evanston Public Library. In addition to their own collection, the College arranged with Illinois State Library for art materials, magazines, books, illustration plates--all phases, including carpentry and furniture-making--and all were available to the public. Lawrence Herman, Elizabethtown, whose beautifully crafted furniture was recently exhibited at SIUC, was one of those who studied books from the College library.

The Junior Wood Workers Group, led by Penny Cent, made toys of cherry wood. Rodney Johnson was named foreman of the group. Other members were Eugene Partain, Willard Hamp, and Orval Henson. There was talk of organizing a horseman’s club.

One of the College aims was to establish a cooperative effort in connection with area schools. Teachers were invited to visit and some responded. One news report mentioned a party of Harrisburg High School faculty. Two members of the College faculty spoke at Hardin County Teachers Institute in August 1935. Rolfe spoke on the geology of Hardin County and Penny Cent’s topic was "The Value of Art In Our Schools." County Superintendent Clyde Flynn and Harvey Suits, Hardin County, visited the College. Flynn was interested in helping collect legends and lore of the county, and at one time he and Mrs. B. (Catherine) Burgess began plans to organize a museum of Southern Illinois arts and crafts, in which quilts were to play a major role. The museum was to become part of the College.

The closest relationship with another school apparently existed with Cross Roads, one of the one-room units, taught by Inda Norman. There are numerous references to activities which reveal this association, in the Independent columns. An extension service from the College library to Cross Roads was arranged. The College faculty attended graduation exercises at the country school and invited them to present their program at the College. Penny Cent wrote a dramatic sketch for the last-day-of-school program, "The Farmer And The College Man," with the help of Loren Johnson of Herod. Norman Ferrell generously supplied me with a copy of their effort. Great drama, it is not, but the theme--farmer vs. college-trained know-it-all--involves a departure from the usual triumph of the farmer, in such stories. In this version the two battle as expected, but the decision is a draw--they agree that "farming and education go well together."

The following November, Cross Roads students, Mrs. Norman, and a parent, Mrs. Bill Partain, attended a wiener roast at the College. The report says they "played ball. The catcher stood under the composition nose of A. Lincoln, whose beautiful portrait carving by famous sculptor Peterpaul Ott of Evanston-Chicago hangs on the north wall of the library, facing the playground." (An earlier report said Ott’s Lincoln sculpture was one of the models for the new Oak Park post office.) The students gathered before the fireplace in the library for games led by Miss Bonniwell, later enjoyed hot dogs at a campfire "in the hollow north of two ponds." The students wrote of the experience in their newspaper, the Cross Roads Herald, the first paper published by a country school in Hardin County (possibly the only one).

The College was toured by many educational groups outside the area. NYA representatives studied the school; the Treasury Department offered two art scholarships. Dr. Van Riper, Illinois State Superintendent of Adult Education, came down from Springfield with photographer Frederick O. Bemm, once staff photographer for the Art Institute of Chicago. Prof. Lawrence H. Howe, vice-president of Olivet College, Danville, IL, led students in a traveling show group in the summer of 1935, and studied the campus and operation. A state forester, accompanied by a scientist from Illinois University, said College In The Hills was mentioned at a meeting of educators at Illinois U. Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Kuenzel, with Shawnee Forest, heard of the school in Columbus, Ohio and paid them a visit. Occasionally the German instructor got a call for help in translating a letter or document from Germany.

An early friend of the group was Gardner Bride, principal of Harrisburg Junior High. Bride and Russell Malan, principal of Harrisburg High School, visited at the end of the first year of operation, and Malan recalled his student days at a work college

similar to College In The Hills. He paid for stationery used by the school. There were several gifts to the new institution, besides the books. A Chicago firm, Cable Piano Co., furnished a piano, which was delivered from Harrisburg by John Hamp. Two automobiles came from the Chicago area, as did $25 worth of tools (we must remember that a dollar went pretty far in those depression days). One-third of a $215 donation from Mrs. Herman Fabry, Evanston, for use in construction, went the following day for 3000 board-feet of lumber.

Although most of the gifts came from the Chicago area, there were local donors. Mrs. Tom McMurphy and a Mrs. Oxford of Hardin County shared their beautiful roses to help with landscaping. The day following Mrs. McMurphy’s donation, her home burned and her rose garden was destroyed.

As the first anniversary of the College opening drew near, a news release featured the story of Ray Odle, son of Albert and Drusilla Odle, farmers near Parrish, IL, 45 miles northwest of College In The Hills. Ray wanted to go to college but the big schools were too expensive. The parents and son drove a team and wagon to the school on an inspection trip. The parents drove the mules away in the evening, on their return home, leaving their son as a student.

At the beginning of the second year, an announcement was published which claimed that 85 percent of students were from the local area, as compared to 11 percent the first year. No actual totals of student enrollment were given.

Such were the lofty aims of the fledgling group of educators. They brought youth, idealism and the zeal of missionaries. They were well-qualified, had made detailed plans, and were not afraid of work. They failed.

Why were they unable to sell their dreams? Their projected institution seemed to embody most of those elements which flourish in today’s junior colleges and vocational schools. In 1963 John W.

Allen wrote (in Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois, p. 206): "Much credit for the formation of this group and their noble effort toward being helpful to the region belongs to Baker Brownell, who later came to teach at Southern Illinois University and to initiate the program of Community Services that the University offers. Brownell’s recent book, The Other Illinois, grew out of his work in the region."

Brownell, himself, was quite bitter about the fate of the school. In The Other Illinois, 1958, pp. 150-15 1, he wrote, "Its voice was never more than a whisper but its career across life and death is still the symbol for a few people of the pathos and failure and the dark unresponsiveness of this burned-over land. From the beginning this college for people was doomed by the ill-report of those whom it had come to serve." The College, says Brownell, "got off on the wrong foot. It did not know the angles; it missed the turns; it ignored the local dogmas. And the people of the neighborhood had neither the educational nor social resilience to take it for what it really was.... From ridicule the response to their efforts hardened into hatred. They had little money, then no money. The situation went beyond recovery, and so another gay, heroic thing died."

A hint that all was not well in Eden appeared in the fall of 1935 in an issue of the Cross Roads Herald. A sixth-grader wrote, "The prominent people of our county are keeping quiet like a church mouse. With two or three exceptions, they haven’t said a word of appreciation nor offered any help. What’s the matter with them?"

Although Brownell, according to my research, was correct in identifying the basic causes of the failure of College In The Hills, he placed far too much of the blame on local residents. It was certainly true that fifty years ago we feared and mistrusted outsiders. Southern Illinois was not unique in that respect--it was true of most rural areas (and still is to some extent). Much has been made of the Deep South attitude that only those families who were there before the War (Civil War to us--War Between the States to them) are to be considered top drawer.

Novelist Margaret A. Robinson in her delightful Courting of Emma Howe spoke of the Vermonter’s distrust of "people from away." A character in her book complains that out-of-staters are never considered to belong, even if they had lived in Vermont all their lives. Even her children who were born there were slighted, she says. The old lady to whom she aired her grievances replied, "Well, if your cat had kittens in the oven, you wouldn’t call them biscuits."

Into this closed society came these brash young people, with all good intentions, and with the idealism which infected most of us as new college graduates. They knew what was wrong and how to fix it. Unfortunately they ignored local culture and customs and it became rather a case of the cannibals eating the missionaries. Their Bohemian ways deeply offended the ultra-conservatives. Leroy Cochran told me the first women he ever saw dressed in shorts were from the College. This was a good seven years before I and some of my classmates daringly bought shorts to wear to our high school senior-class picnic. These had matching skirts. Last night I got out my senior class scrapbook. There we were--a row of slender, seventeen-year-olds, demurely lined up on a little footbridge. All of us had those skirts securely buttoned, waist-to-hem.

Given this opportunity for gossip, the word spread that they were nudists. A reputable eyewitness saw communal skinny-dipping at the ponds. The stories grew. James Carr heard two men arguing whether they were Communist or Nazi (Hitler was moving onto the world scene, and an anti-German hysteria reminiscent of WWI was also growing).

The youngsters also misjudged the community’s readiness to accept their programs--aside from the social rejection. There were certainly young people who wanted more educational opportunity, but there were more who had little encouragement at home. James Carr, Penny Cent’s good friend, warned him that not everyone was ready for them. There were too many, what Carr called, one-book families. They owned a Bible. They didn’t necessarily read it, but it was a talisman which gave them a form of security.

A quarter of a century later, the junior college concept was sold by civic and educational leaders, newspaper editors and politicians. This little group tried it alone, appealing to prospective students and private donors. By the fall term of 1935, despite heroic measures, the College was deeply in debt--$400, plus an over-due land payment. A concert was arranged in Chicago to raise funds, but they were broke.

The most controversial figure at the College was Penny Cent, and he was the focus and the target of most of the more bizarre tales. He was a roamer, turning up in odd places with sketchbook and paints--an early-day hippy. He had an obviously phony name which reminded one of a bad Hollywood press agent’s idea, and he was German.

One of the more ridiculous stories that went the rounds (and is still being told) is that Penny Cent was a German spy and had a map tattooed on his chest. No one seems to be sure what it was--sketch of Rosiclare mines layout, Marion Ordinance Plant, Ohio River dams--and I couldn’t find anyone who actually saw it (a person who often swam with him at the Harrisburg pool can’t remember anything unusual about his torso). For all these rumors about the school I found lots of "They say" stories, but not one "I know" statement. There were stories from people who were sure the school was a Communist cell--they had red flags on the campus. When asked about these, one of the faculty explained that the flags marked the latrines. Stories such as these suggest that if they were spies and engaged in such activities, they must have been the world’s most inept agents--Keystone Kops trained by the Marx Brothers.

A rather lengthy article about Penny Cent appeared in the 14 August 1938 Evansville Press. At that time the College had closed, the buildings had burned (under what circumstances I have been unable to learn). The artist at that time had a studio in Harrisburg. Penny Cent told the reporter his name was Penrod Centurion (the man was his own worst press agent!). One person who knew him well said his name could have been Frederich Wilhelm Schmidt, but the Schmidt/Smith name certainly bears no proof of its own identity. He claimed to have been born in 1905 of German-American parents, and to have been sent back to Germany at an early age to "help the American branch of the family keep its fingers on a valuable inheritance." The inheritance vanished in WWI.

Cent said he attended Frederick Wilhelm University in Berlin, specializing in political economy and history. He also took art training at college, later attended Berlin Academy. He was a business correspondent in English, French, and German in 1924, in Finland. He also wrote movie reviews for the German press. In 1926 he moved to Chicago, and at one time worked in the art department of Marshall Field.

Penny Cent came to Southern Illinois with the College In The Hills group in 1934. He worked on a Federal Writers Project and continued his painting. He later won a Guggenheim fellowship in "nonobjective art," now known as abstract art. Cent called the form, which he had turned out for years, "Cromorfs," a term he coined from two Greek words--"chromos-color" and "morphos-form."

No one seems to know what became of Penny Cent. There were rumors that he was arrested as a spy and sent to Leavenworth, but several years ago a reporter failed to find any proof of that. Others thought he moved to a city and became a street person. The last Saline and neighboring counties saw of him was on the day James Carr and Paulus McClendon, who had befriended him to the end, helped him pack his belongings in his red convertible and waved good-bye as he drove away--destination uncertain. Carr never heard from him again.

College In The Hills, as an organization, was formally dissolved by the Secretary of State in November of 1946. The last known agent was Earl E. Edgar, then of Chicago. The correspondence originated from Donald and Astrid Aronson Monson, then living in Wayne County, Michigan. Seldom has any organization, so small, of such brief duration, been responsible for so much speculation, misinformation, and all-out curiosity. Many people who remember it do not like to talk about it, and some who did give information were afraid of raising old animosities--hence their reluctance to speak for the record.

So ends the tale of the stubborn unlaid ghosts of College In The Hills.


In addition to those who have already been mentioned in the article, I wish to thank Mrs. Hattie Williams, Lester Cox, S.F. Frazier, Jr., and Mrs. Sol Cox, all of whom were gracious in their efforts to help me. I also owe thanks to Marilyn Wikerson of Evansville Public Library who expended much effort in an attempt to trace an article about the College, which one source said was printed in an Evansville paper in October 1934, and which she was unable to locate in spite of an exhaustive search.



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