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Settlement of Galesburg, Illinois, Including Noble Phelps and Family

Knox Manual Labor College

Up till 1838 the college had consisted of nothing more than virgin land and a board of trustees. Steps were taken to give it a concrete existence, but they were taken more slowly than had been anticipated because of unexpected obstacles. It was first necessary that the colonists should be established in their new homes, with some sort of economic machinery functioning to enable them to carry on life, and there was nowhere else to turn, no others who could be called on for either work or money. The trustees were practically doing a real estate business, with Silvanus Ferris as chief salesman, extending time, taking back farms and lots, and selling to newcomers attracted as the fame of the colony became bruited about.

The ad-interim trustees elected in Whitesboro, or such of them as had now reached the prairie, held their first meeting in the promised land at Gale's one-room cabin at Log City, where seated about on beds and boxes with a roaring fire on the hearth, for it was one of the coldest winters on record, they took two important steps. They elected a new board to take over as soon as the charter was secured, and they changed the name of the institution.

The new board was John Waters, Nehemiah West, George Gale, Nehemiah Losey and Thomas Simmons, from the old board, Matthew Chambers and Erastus Swift, who represented the new element in the colony, men with perhaps more worldly experience and not subscribers to the original plan. To give the college a broader base in that region, four men from neighboring settlements were added: Ralph Hurlburt, a country storekeeper at Mt. Sterling, a small settlement about twenty-five miles south of Galesburg, and George Wright, a doctor at Monmouth, ten miles west. Both these men were immigrants from Oneida County, New York, where they were no doubt known to some of the Galesburg colonists. Two men from Knoxville were also elected, of quite different origin—John Gould Sanburn, born in New England of the same Yankee strain as the other trustees, and Parnach Owen, a Hoosier, from Virginia, an outstanding and picturesque character. Sanburn, who had married Owen's sister, was probably the ablest man in Knoxville, holding nearly all the county offices, and that of postmaster as well. He was simultaneously circuit clerk, recorder, probate judge and notary, and carried the business of all these departments in his tall beaver hat, along with letters for delivery.

Before applying for a charter, it was thought diplomatic to seek the backing of the Hoosier settlers in the immediate neighborhood. They were invited to a meeting, the purpose of the college explained to them, and they were asked to sign the petition for a charter, which most of them did, all who could write, in fact. This was to propitiate a legislature composed of their sort of people, as well as to forestall any counter movement. It was believed, or at least feared, that the Campbellites or Disciples of Christ, a wing of the Baptist denomination strong in that neighborhood, not overly fond of Yankee Presbyterians, might start something of their own, opposition, at least, if not a school, and it seemed best to spike their guns.

It was at the meeting in Gale's cabin that cold December night that the name of the college was changed from Prairie College to Knox Manual Labor College. Why the name was changed, and why Knox was chosen, has puzzled the chroniclers ever since. Perhaps as the time of applying for a charter approached the name Prairie seemed too commonplace, too rural, for such a school as they visioned. But no one knows to this day what particular Knox was honored by the new name—whether it was named "after" Knox County, and thus for General Henry Knox, the first Secretary of War, or for that strong-willed religious reformer and Calvinist, John Knox. Considering the character of these founders, the latter seems more likely.

"Contrary to general belief," says George Candee Gale, great-grandson of Founder Gale, and great-great-grandson of Founder Ferris, "Knox was not named for either General Knox or the Scotch Presbyterian Knox, according to my father. He said his grandfather (Selden Gale) had told him how some of the original founders used to chuckle about the name. Some wanted the college named for one Knox, some for the other; so they compromised on KNOX. Certainly most of them were pious enough to want the churchman and fighters enough to want the soldier as well." The general would have been surprised, no doubt, even if not greatly interested, but the uncompromising theologian erect a sawmill, a lot to another group to set up a flour mill, and a site for a brickyard to Levi Tucker to be paid for in "good merchantable brick" with which the college building could be built. Ten acres were set aside for a burying ground, much too near the center of the town, and donated to the church.

There had been a school at Log City, and when a sufficient number of families had moved to Galesburg—"out on the prairie" as they put it—school was held in a novel building designed and contributed by Chauncey Colton, with a sloping floor like a theatre, so that all pupils could see the teacher, and what was more important, be seen by him. But these were elementary schools, connected with the college only in the sense they were raising up pupils for it.

It was not until 1838 that any building was erected for the use of the college, and this was a plain, inexpensive, even primitive story-and-a-half structure of wood, build not on the college grounds, but on Main Street where it would be more accessible, for they planned to use it for a church and for secular purposes. The first floor was one large schoolroom with built-in benches, occupied by the academy or preparatory school. Access was by two doors, for the sexes entered separately and sat apart, as they did in church, and in fact in all gatherings. On the floor above, reached by a naked outside stairway, were three small rooms. Two of these were occupied respectively by the chairs of science and of languages, presided over by Professors Losey and Grant. The roof sloped to the floor; only in the middle of these rooms was it possible to stand erect.

The third room was a sort of entry where the students hung their wraps and stamped the snow off their feet, but it was the nucleus of a physical laboratory. Here was installed the "philosophical apparatus" which Gale brought back from one of his soliciting visits to the East. He must have regarded this first materialization of his dream with mingled feelings as he recalled his visions at first sight of the University of Virginia.

This humble building was the architectural beginning of Knox College. It became the social as well as the educational and religious center of the village. In it were held the classes of both "prep" school and college, the three Sunday sessions of the church, the mid-week prayer meeting, the town meetings, the sessions of the college trustees and the elders of the church. Here also were the singing schools, and such decorous entertainments and social gatherings as were countenanced by the theocratic government of the community. For Sunday service it was soon over-crowded, and it was necessary to build an annex where the female half of the congregation worshipped, known as the "court of women."

Extracted from They Broke the Prairie: being some account of the settlement of the Upper Mississippi Valley by religious and educational pioneers, told in terms of one city, Galesburg, and of one college, Knox. By Calkins, Earnest Elmo, 1868-1964. New York: Scribner's, © 1937.