The First Years of U of I Student Life: Sesquicentennial Speakers Series Kickoff

Illinois Industrial University campus, circa 1873

The First Years of University of Illinois Student Life…with Reflections on Today, 1868-2017

March 2, 2017

University of Illinois Archives, Rm 146 Main Library


March 2, 1868, marked the first day of class at the newly established Illinois Industrial University.  Who were the University of Illinois’ earliest students?  What did they study?  Where and how did they live?  What did they do for fun?  And, how do their experiences compare to Illinois students 150 years later?  Join us as Professor Gregory Behle shares his extensive research on student life in the earliest years of the University and Vice Chancellor Renee Romano reflects on UI student experience in 2017.   Exhibits and refreshments.

The Archives will exhibit official documents, personal correspondence, recollections, broadsides, maps and photographs that tell the story of early University history.

Here is a sampling:

Frances Adelia Potter, circa 1874

Adelia Potter Reynolds (Class of 1874)

Frances Adelia Potter and Alice Cheever were the first women graduates at the University, class of 1874.  However, Adelia arrived in Champaign at the opening of the school in winter 1868 with her family; her father headed the languages department and operated the University building and her mother took charge of student boarding.  Adelia remembers their arrival at midnight:

“We had thought that we knew what mud was, but surely we had never seen real mud until we walked in Champaign… As soon as our goods arrived, we began living in the University building.  Notice I say the building, for there was but one.  A large, plain, red brick five-story structure set down flat in the black Illinois mud, with not a tree or a shrub, a spear of grass or a fence.  It was as desolate a place as it is possible to imagine.” (Illinois Alumni News October 15, 1915, p23-28)


James Newton Matthews, 1872

James Newton Matthews (Class of 1872) was the first student to enroll in the University.

He describes his schedule in a letter to his father on October 3, 1868:

“I will give you a programme of our daily labor.  7 A.M. three classes recite. 8 A.M. chapel exercise. 9 A.M. three classes one of which is my Latin. 10 A.M. three classes one of which is my Algebra. 11 A.M. farm work. 12 o’clock we have dinner. 1 P.M. Agriculture which is my class, taught by Prof. Bliss a good teacher and nice man. We have about twelve scholars in this class. 2 P.M. Chemistry, taught by Prof. Stuart another good man & teacher, this class contains about 20 members. 3 P.M. there is a class in Botany and bookkeeping and Algebra. 4 P.M. drill or lecture. From 5 P.M. to 7 P.M. is recreation, from 7 to 9 study hours. This programme is not exact, but as near as I can guess it.”

Ralph Allen (Class of 1876)

Ralph Allen and classmates, circa 1874

Ralph Allen’s letter home to his parents, 1874

A timeless student request is for more funds from mom and dad.  Ralph Allen explains his expenses in a letter home to Delevan, Illinois:

Champaign, March 18, 1874

Dear Father.

I will need some money to commence next term with.  I will need $9 for room rent and incidentals.  $10 for Board.  The replenishment of the Laboratory deposits (fudging from past terms) will be about $6.  I don’t know what I will have to get for the study of “Drainage.”  And for the third study I will probably take English.  The English book last term cost in the Neighborhood of $2.  To sum up, $50 will cover all expenses to the end of the first month of Next term.  What would you think of my taking Elocution?  There is a good teacher here. But the students have to pay extra for it.  $4.

From Your Son,

Ralph Allen

I.I.U. Champaign Illinois

Learn more about these students’ experiences and early University days on Thursday, March 2nd!

Inauguration Invitation, 1868

Robert Johns Matriculation Certificate, 1870

Map of the ground of the Illinois Industrial University, circa 1876

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