MONMOUTH, Ill. — When I was helping to assemble a sesquicentennial history of Monmouth back in 1981, I had essentially one source for locating suitable historical photos — the dusty files of Review Atlas historian Ralph Eckley in the back pressroom, started decades earlier by his predecessor, legendary newspaperman Hugh Robb Moffet.
Now the Internet has opened up virtually endless opportunities for unearthing vintage images. Case in point is today’s photo, which I stumbled upon on a genealogy site in 2012 through a Google search. At first glance, it depicts an ordinary woman in front of a humble frame home — like hundreds of others in Monmouth — but research soon revealed an extraordinary story behind the picture.
The house, it turns out, was the residence of Monmouth blacksmith William Cowan, who had his shop in the former Garrison Inn, the first hotel in Monmouth (today the site of the Spears and Spears law office on West Broadway). The woman in the photo is Cowan’s daughter, Effie.
Cowan had a colorful life. The son of a tanner, he was born in Pennsylvania in 1815 and apprenticed to a blacksmith at age 17. He worked for a time in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for Hiram Baldwin, who would later open the Baldwin House hotel in Monmouth. He then worked for the locomotive shops in Philadelphia, before traveling to Missouri, where he fought under Zachary Taylor in the Seminole War. He came to Monmouth in 1839, where he would later serve as an alderman, marshal and two terms as mayor.
An interesting story, to be sure, but that’s only the half of it. The house was located at the southeast corner of North B St. and East Archer Ave., where Immaculate Conception School now stands. That fact led me to realize that the residence was not originally located at that corner…nor was it originally a residence!
For a few weeks in the fall of 1856, Monmouth College, which for three years had existed as an academy without a building of its own, was still without a home. The new college building, which was being erected on North A Street, did not yet have a roof. With classes scheduled to begin Sept. 3, the board made arrangements to rent an old one-room district school located at the southeast corner of First Street and First Avenue (site of the old YMCA).
According to the late college historian Garvin Davenport, it was in this schoolhouse that Monmouth Academy “became Monmouth College, consecrated by prayer, a song, and the faith of the founders.” Davenport noted that while the building was only occupied for a brief period, its historical significance was great. “On Friday night of the first week of the first term,” he wrote, “twelve young men called a special meeting in this makeshift college building, and organized the first of the famous literary societies.”
The two men who presided over those first classes, professors Marion Morrison and James Brown, would develop a sentimental attachment to the old schoolhouse. Morrison later wrote of keeping a protective eye on the school as it was moved to a site near the present high school in 1857, then to the corner of Archer Avenue and North B Street in 1860, where it would become the home of William Cowan.
About 1950, after standing vacant for many years, the state fire marshal declared the property a hazard and directed its removal. After a public sale, the house was moved to a lot at 812 North D St., where the owner reportedly intended to tear it down and salvage the timbers. Try as he might, however, the ancient building proved too solid to dismantle.
More than a half century has now passed, and while a number of Monmouth College buildings have since gone up or down, the college’s very first building — once a public school, today a private home — remains steadfast.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking on western Illinois history for more than 35 years.