Galesburg City

Knox County, Illinois

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Galesburg City Hall is located at 55 W. Tompkins Street; Galesburg, IL 61402.
Phone: 309‑343‑4181.


Galesburg as described in 1939 [1]

Galesburg is one of the few Illinois cities that grew along a preconceived plan, rather than accumulating haphazardly around a group of pioneer cabins. The city was conceived in Oneida, New York, its site was chosen after a careful examination of land in Indiana and Illinois, and its plan was laid out before its proprietor-settlers came West.

In 1835, George Washington Gale, a thin Presbyterian minister, circulated among his parishioners in the Mohawk Valley a prospectus for a community he contemplated founding on the frontier. The paucity of religious and educational institutions there alarmed him, and he hoped that the proposed community would remedy the situation somewhat. Land was to be bought with money from a joint fund, and the nucleus of the village was to be a manual labor college whose chief function would be the training of ministers for the Middle Border. Gale believed that settlement of the land by a group of sober industrious farmers would raise land values, and from the sale of farms at an increased price he expected to obtain a fund to endow the college.

Into the Reverend Mr. Gale's plan some 50 families poured more than $20,000. A "spying-out" committee selected and purchased, for $1.25 an acre, 20 square miles of land here. In 1836-37 the families came west, some overland, some by way of the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, a few of the more affluent along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. On arrival they built a temporary town. Log City, at the grove that bordered Henderson Creek. From here they went out on the prairie to the selected site and built permanent residences, because it had been decided that there were to be no crude log cabins in the new city. Many built their new houses at the grove, where lumber was plentiful, and then hauled them with oxen to the new town. Despite Galesburg's planned beginnings, it does not differ perceptibly from other prairie towns with no such orderly birth. Its streets follow the typical checkerboard pattern centered on the usual public square.

The strict morality of the early Galesburgers was combined with hard-headed practicality and versatility. Perhaps the most prolific of the pioneers were the Ferrises, one of whom, Olmsted Ferris, experimented with popcorn and later introduced it into England. The Prince Consort, Albert, became interested and the prairie New Englander gave a "command performance" of corn-popping before Queen Victoria. Another Ferris invented the ferris wheel, first exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Harvey Henry May, one of the original settlers, invented in 1837 the steel self-scouring plow, thus further complicating the historical problem of the invention of the first steel plow.

Archetype of all the moral New Englanders who settled here in the West was Jonathan Blanchard, early president of Knox College. In 1854 Galesburg obtained its first railroad by draining the resources of the town to raise a $250,000 subsidy. On the second Sunday of the railroad's operation Blanchard, magnificent in black frock coat, strode out to the tracks and curtly commanded the locomotive engineer to put the engine up and refrain from profaning the Sabbath. "You can go to hell and mind your own business," replied the engineer. "I'll take my train out as ordered."

The engineer's attitude was prophetic, for the railroad broke the grip of the New Englanders on Galesburg, and the population increased from 880 in 1850 to 4,000 in 1856. Galesburg was made a division point on the Burlington; the railroad's shops were established here; and the line is now the city's major employer. In 1857 a large number of Swedes from the Bishop Hill colony came to Galesburg, further diluting the authority of the founding fathers. Galesburg's increased distinction enabled her to wrest the county seat from Knoxville, occasioning the decline of that town. During the Civil War the deeply entrenched abolitionist sentiment of the New Englanders made Galesburg a strong anti-slavery town in the midst of communities which definitely favored the South. Galesburg was one of the most important stations on the Underground Railroad, and many of its Negroes are descended from slaves who were smuggled up from Cairo in farm wagons covered with hay.

Memorial to the New Englanders is Knox College, bounded by South, Cedar, Brooks, and Cherry Streets. Chartered in 1837, four years before Galesburg was incorporated, it began to function in 1838 in a crude frame building that also served as preparatory school, church, and town meeting hall. The college was a heartbreaking problem to the early settlers. Gale's prospectus had offered scholarships with each farm, and the school opened with the equivalent of 500 four-year scholarships outstanding. For a time the institution was named Knox Manual Labor College, and all boys worked several hours daily on the college farm to pay their board. Tuition for the few whose parents had no scholarship was $24 a year, exclusive of room rent.

The boom in land prices that followed the coming of the railroad, however, aided Knox financially. The college was retarded for some time by a violent jurisdictional quarrel between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists, who were about equally represented among the founding fathers. The quarrel was resolved by a decline of sectarianism, and although this broke the bond between town and gown, Knox's scholastic standing was greatly improved.

In 1870 women were admitted to the full college course, although previously a "female department" had been operated in close conjunction with the college. In 1909 Karl Baedeker laconically listed eight of the United States' 400 colleges as being "well-known," and included Knox with Amherst, Dartmouth, Williams, and Rutgers. Lombard College, founded by the Universalists in 1851, was absorbed by Knox in 1930. Knox students have included Carl Sandburg, Don Marquis, Eugene Field (by adoption from Lombard), and George Fitch, whose humorous "Old Siwash" stories in the Saturday Evening Post, based on Knox College, gave the American language a catchword for freshwater colleges. At Old Main, oldest building on the campus, the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate was held on the raw windy afternoon of October 7, 1858. The building is the only structure associated with the seven debates that is still standing.

  1. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Illinois, Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide, American Guide Series, A.C. McClurg & Company, Chicago, 1939.

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