Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter. jrankin@monmouthcollege.edu
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President Robert Gibson addresses the audience at a memorial service for President Kennedy held in the Auditorium on the Monday following his assassination. (Photo by Lee Schaeffer ’65)

Before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the universal date on which everyone alive at the time remembered exactly what they were doing was 11/22/1963 — the assassination of President Kennedy. As the passing of another November causes that once-vivid memory to fade a little farther into the mists of time, I thought it would be worthwhile to record the recollections of a few witnesses who happened to be on or near the Monmouth College campus that fateful day.

Only 11 known faculty and staff members from 1963 are still living, and the youngest former students are now 75 years old. The student newspaper had been put to bed earlier that day, prior to news of the assassination, and the following week was Thanksgiving, so there was little written about the events on campus surrounding the assassination. …


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Students help move furnishings into Monmouth College’s new Rotary Hall in November 1946. Because it was built on a hillside, the front of the building was one story, but the rear encompassed two stories.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — Rotary Clubs have a proud history of contributing to civic projects, such as building parks or planting trees, but the Monmouth Rotary Club holds the distinction of contributing to a project unlike any other — the construction of a college dormitory.

To understand the motivation for the dormitory project, which occurred in the summer and fall of 1946, we must consider the unusual historical circumstances facing the country that year. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act — also known as the G.I. …


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As an 18-year-old freshman, Douglass illustrated the Monmouth College yearbook with maturely-executed cartoons, a skill that would land him a spot on the Chicago Daily News in 1924.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — With the exception of a handful of artists like Milton Glaser, who designed the iconic “I Love New York” logo, graphic art visionaries are mostly unsung. One such unsung graphic designer, who had a remarkably long and versatile career, was closely associated with Monmouth College.

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Graphic designer Ralph Douglass graduated from Monmouth College in 1920.

Born in St. Louis in 1895 to parents who graduated from Monmouth in 1890, Ralph Waddell Douglass entered Monmouth College in the fall of 1914 and immediately made an impression as a cartoonist for the college’s yearbook and student newspaper. Signing his compositions simply “Doug,” his highly-polished pen-and-ink drawings drew heavily from the influence of celebrated cartoonists of the day H. T. …


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Monmouth photographer Scott McQuown took this photo of Woodbine Cottage in 1921. By this time, it was the home of Monmouth College president Thomas McMichael.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — Woodbine is a fragrant climbing plant with purple-tinged yellow flowers, more commonly known as European honeysuckle. It’s not surprising that two Victorian-era sisters named Woods appropriated the name to christen their “cottage” — a fanciful towered Queen Anne mansion that stood directly opposite the Monmouth College campus.

When erected by their father as a retirement home in 1893, Alice and Omah Woods’ mansion (two lots, house and barn) cost $12,500, which in today’s dollars would equate to $360,000. After the deaths of their mother and father, the sisters eventually decided to join a movement by Monmouth’s upper class and relocate to Los Angeles. …


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The Rev. W. T. Campbell and his first wife, Rachel, stand in front of the Second Presbyterian Church manse at 818 E. First Ave., not long before Rachel’s death.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — In my five years of writing this column, I have chronicled the lives of Monmouth manufacturers, bankers, lawyers, judges, professors, writers and musicians, but never a pastor. Presumably, that’s because ministers tend to live quiet lives, tending to their flocks, which makes for rather boring reading, but this week will be an exception.

For many years, I have been familiar with the name W. T. Campbell, the longtime pastor of Second United Presbyterian Church in the 1880s and ’90s, but I never took the time to examine his biography. The man led a fascinating and meaningful life.

Born in 1836 at Antrim, Ohio, William Taggart Campbell was the youngest of seven children. At the age of 18, his family moved to DeWitt, Iowa, where he worked on his father’s farm and in 1858 married Rachel Bratton. They had two daughters, one of whom would die at age 4. …


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Sipher Lumber, Coal and Ice Co. occupied a parcel of land bordered by South Second Street, East Sixth Avenue and the CB&Q railroad tracks. (1898 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)

MONMOUTH, Ill. — Although Monmouth recently lost its one remaining lumber company, lumberyards played an important role in the city’s colorful history.

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John W. Sipher was a leading figure in the development of Monmouth from the late 1860s through the 1920s.

In October 1858, Henry’s Lumber Yard was the site of a hastily-erected platform where Abraham Lincoln delivered a three-hour speech in the rain during his celebrated campaign for Senate against Stephen A. Douglas.

In October 1963, fires blamed on a “mad arsonist” were set at Warfield-McCullough Lumber Co., Monmouth Lumber Co. and Fullerton Lumber Co., leveling the latter two establishments. The perpetrator was never caught.

The proprietors of Monmouth lumber companies, with names such as Lord, McCullough, Diffenbaugh and Warfield, were among the most influential community leaders who helped develop and bring the Maple City to prominence. But one lumber executive left a legacy on the town that perhaps earns him the title of Monmouth’s Lumber Baron. …


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Yards of adhesive tape were employed to protect the pants of Pole Scrap participants each fall, as members of the Monmouth College freshman class battled to remove the class colors of the sophomore class from the top of a telephone pole. 1940 photo by Paul Kobler ‘30.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — The current pandemic has caused many time-honored traditions associated with the opening of the Monmouth College fall semester to be put on hold until next year. But one particularly notable fall tradition will not return in 2021, having been banned nearly 70 years ago.

The color rush, an annual battle between the freshman and sophomore classes, was a popular tradition at many colleges beginning in the late 19th century. At Monmouth College, it took the form of a “pole scrap,” in which the sophomores nailed their class colors to the top of a telephone pole and fended off waves of freshmen trying to climb the pole and tear them down. …


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Firefighters train their water cannons on the remains of the Centennial Block.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — When an arson fire damaged Monmouth’s Security Savings & Loan building on April 11, 1974, bank president Ralph Whiteman was probably relieved he was on an aircraft carrier in Oakland, California, performing exercises as a Navy Reserve officer. That’s because a week before the blaze he had joked with a fire inspector, “I guess the only way we’ll ever get out of this old building is if it burns down.”

Fortunately for Whiteman, he was never a suspect in the fire, which began at 2:30 a.m. Thursday in a pizza restaurant in the old Centennial Block, south of the bank, on the east side of the 100 block of South Main. Nine businesses were destroyed or damaged in the conflagration, including a magazine store, a fabric store, photography studio, an art studio, two barbershops and an insurance agency. …


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Monmouth College students help man a fire hose at one of three raging fires that were set in Monmouth on the night of Oct. 14, 1963.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — If you’re a Maple City old-timer who remembers exactly where you were when you heard JFK was shot, you almost certainly also remember Monmouth’s “Mad Arsonist,” who terrorized the city just six weeks prior to the Kennedy assassination.

The magnitude of the arsonist’s crimes not only struck fear into the heart of every Monmouth resident, but stories and photos of his exploits also made the front page of every major newspaper from Florida to Alaska, as well as NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report.

On the night of Monday, Oct. 14, two Monmouth lumberyards and a culvert factory were consumed by fire set by an unknown person or persons. Fifteen fire departments rushed to the aid of Monmouth firefighters, and in ensuing nights 200 police, auxiliary police and volunteers — many of them armed with shotguns and rifles — patrolled the streets of Monmouth, desperately trying to keep the rest of the city from potentially going up in flames. Even Monmouth College students were enlisted to help guard Monmouth’s factories and municipal buildings. …


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An aerial photo of the former 3M plant from the 1940s shows the south pond, where a group of Monmouth boys went fishing, and the north pond, where two of them discovered the body of a strangled murder victim. Inset: Tommy Smith (foreground), who first spotted the body of Eldon Belt, and Frank Galusha, who threw rocks at the body, in a 6th-grade class photo.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — In the Stephen King novella The Body, a group of young boys goes on a quest to find a corpse, rumored to be lost in a remote area. The story inspired the 1986 coming-of-age film Stand by Me.

A similar scenario unfolded near Monmouth in the summer of 1946, with one key difference — the boys who discovered a corpse in a remote area came upon it quite by accident.

One of the discoverers, who was 13 at the time, recently related the story to me. Chuck Hart, who today lives in King George, Virginia, contacted me about researching an unsolved murder case into which he and his friends were unwittingly drawn. Specifically, he hoped to track down a photo taken of him and his fishing buddy, Tommy Smith, by a Rock Island Argus photographer after they had stumbled upon the body of the victim. …

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