The Birth and Death of Abingdon College
by Terry Hogan
There is a fair amount of reading involved with writing this column. As you may have noticed, I write very little about living folks. It is fraught with too much danger. The dead are much more forgiving about the occasional slip-up. And somehow, "historical history" seems to be so much clearer to write about than "contemporary history". The latter is much too cluttered with facts and first hand observations. Things tend to be much clearer when you know less about them. Facts can often interfere with a historian's perspective of history.
In doing background reading for some articles recently, I came across a few, brief references to Abingdon College and how it became to be such a divisive issue in the town of Abingdon. I had not read of it previously, nor was it any part of the oral history of my own life time, growing up not too far from Abingdon. I've dug around some, but really have not found a lot of specifics. It is a topic mentioned and then not elaborated, not unlike unhappy life of Aunt Birdie in the family history. She's mentioned, but the sad details were discretely left out.
Abingdon College, not surprisingly, was formed in Abingdon, Illinois. It first opened as a school on the first Monday of April in 1853. P. H. Murphy and J. C. Reynolds were the founders. It was established, as many colleges were of that period, with strong religious roots. The goals of Murphy and Reynolds were described as "high and holy". P. H. Murphy was described by one source (Chapman, 1878) as "…a very amiable and genial companion, and bore himself as one of nature's noblemen." The school was held in a Christian church, described as a plain frame building until a charter was issued for the college. The school was known as Abingdon Academy. It was reported to be located near the corner of Martin Street and Main Street.
In 1854, the community of Abingdon constructed a three story brick building for the future college. In February 1855, Abingdon College received a charter from the State of Illinois. At about that time, the college faculty consisted of P. H. Murphy (President), J. C. Reynolds (Professor of Languages), J. W. Butler (Professor of Mathematics), and A. B. Murphy (Professor of Natural Sciences).
The college apparently was co-educational as its early graduates included both men and women. The first two graduates of Abingdon College were women - Ms. Meron Mahew and Ms. Fannie (Francis, I assume) Davis. The next graduation class was all men - Adoniram Judson Thomson, William Decatur Steward, Christopher Columbus Button, Francis Marion Button, and William Griffin. An 1894 history records that Thomson and Steward became "preachers" and the two Buttons became teachers. Griffin became both teacher and preacher and also became the Superintendent of Schools for Hancock County. The two Buttons died of "consumption" (tuberculosis) at an early age.
The 1894 History of Eureka College, in an excellent example of foreshadowing, recorded, "A college that can turn out such a class as that deserves a better fate than that which overtook Abingdon in after years."
J. C. Reynolds, one of the founders, resigned from Abingdon College in 1859, after spending six years of his life to make the college a reality. President P. H. Murphy also died of consumption in 1860. A. B. Murphy had left the college some time prior to 1859, before Reynolds' leaving. Apparently the late President was highly respected.
After Reynolds's death, J. W. Butler became President of the Abingdon College in 1861. The college grew and prospered and new, expensive buildings were constructed and paid for. In 1868, a brick addition to the original school was constructed. It cost $40,000. Abingdon College was then reported to be able to educate 500 students. Chapman (1878) records that Butler was "comparatively young and inexperienced as a presiding officer; the college was greatly embarrassed by a heavy debt hanging over it, while the whole country was agitated by the terrible excitement that immediately preceded the late civil war."
The Board of Trustees decided to seek a new president of the college and found Silas E. Shepherd. J. W. Butler resigned as president, but Shepherd declined the offer. Failing to get Shepherd, Butler was re-elected as the college president, a position that he held until June, 1874. It was during this period that the addition to the college was built.
President Butler's successor, elected on June 16, 1874 was Orval Perkey. He resigned on March 23, 1876, serving less than two years. Clark Braden became the next president of the college, being elected June 1, 1876. President Braden lasted only one year. He was then followed by F. M. Bruner. President Bruner, according to Chapman (1878) was elected college president on July 24, 1878. According to the contemporary reporting (Chapman 1878) of Bruner (elected in 1877), he was well qualified for the position and had served as president of Oskaloosa College for six years before coming to Abingdon.
At this point, the 1894 Eureka College history mentions a few more individuals, but fails to address the fate of Abingdon College, despite its foreshadowing of gloom in the college's future.
Chapman's 1878 history was more contemporary with the unfolding events and was written before the closing of Abingdon College. Even so, it includes the following narrative:
"The period from June, 1875, to June, 1877, may be called the dark day (sic) in the history of the college. It became involved in a quarrel which had its origin in the church, and these intervening years were spent in what seems to have been a needless struggle for the control of the college. The dawn of hope appeared in a compromise in which the parties to the troubles agreed to unite in supporting the college. It was upon this compromise that President Bruner was elected as acceptable to both parties. But the college was by this time without students and its funds in a situation to be almost unavailable, and besides, and perhaps worst of all, public confidence had been destroyed and sympathy for the institution turned away. But even now a change is setting in and there is no good reason why the school should not again prosper. It has buildings worth about $45,000 with every facility for a good school."
Notwithstanding the characteristically positive nature of county histories of the period, Abingdon College only lasted until 1888 before shutting its doors. The quarrel that embroiled the town and the college apparently was too deep. The compromise was apparently flawed as many compromises tend to be - conceived by necessity and nurtured by none.
In 1880, the college was bought by F. M. Bruner. He owned the college outright and tried to make "a go of it" until 1885. In 1885, Abingdon College became united with Eureka College. This explains the brief and perhaps tactfully incomplete history of Abingdon College in the Eureka College history.
Following the consolidation of Abingdon College with Eureka, the remains of Abingdon College were bought by Professor Summers who tried to breathe life into the college, then named Abingdon College Normal. This effort soon failed too, and only the physical assets remained.
Hedding College, located in Abingdon, bought the residual property of Abingdon College/Abingdon College Normal in 1895. Hedding used the buildings for its music and "normal" departments. Hedding College was founded about two years after Abingdon College and was a Methodist affiliated college. Hedding lasted for another half century. And as a personal note, some of the lumber from Hedding College was used in the construction of my parent’s home at Lake Bracken. It was built during WWII when new lumber was difficult to get, so old lumber was often reused. I believe the old native oak floor joists are from Hedding. These old rough sawn slabs of oak are nearly impossible to drive a nail into. They are clearly older than the home. It would not surprise me that a number of other WWII vintage structures have a bit of Hedding and perhaps Abingdon College history in their frames.
One source speculated that the feud created in Abingdon over Abingdon College that which the church, the college and the town was so deep and so slow to heal, that it set back the towns growth to the point that it was never able to recover. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps it is not. Seldom are significant historical events driven by a single force.
Anon. Abingdon College. From, http://abingdonhistory.home.att.net/Content/History/education_history.htm
Anon. January 18: On This Day in Eureka History. From, http://www.eureka.edu/emp/jrodrig/otdieh/jan18.htm.
Bateman, Newton, et al. 1899. Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and Knox County. Munsell Publishing Co., Chicago.
Chapman, Chas. 1878. History of Knox County, Illinois. Blakely, Brown & Marsh, Printers. Chicago.
Dickinson, Elmira. 1894. A History of Eureka College, with Biographical Sketches and Reminiscences. From, http://www.bible.acu.edu/ston-campbell/States/Illinois/histab01.htm.