History As Art: Turner’s Woodblock Prints, 1946-1974


Fred H. Turner (1900-1975) dedicated his entire career – as a student, alumnus, and administrator – to the University of Illinois and its students. Beginning in 1918, while himself a freshman, Turner worked with students continuously until his retirement in 1966.

Turner obtained a B.A. in Chemistry (1922), an M.A. in Psychology (1926), and a Ph.D. in education (1931) from the University of Illinois. He worked as a clerk and chief clerk in the office of the Dean of Men (1922-1931) upon his graduation. In 1931, he succeeded Dean Thomas Arkle Clark as Dean of Men (1931-1943) and was later named the first Dean of Students.

Fred Turner in his office, c. 1930’s. Retrieved from R.S. 41/1/20.

During his 57 year career at the University of Illinois, Fred served under seven presidents, saw enrollment change from 5,000 to 35,000, and despite his accomplishments, “never lost sight of the most important thing to him at any moment, which was the problem or the concerns of the individual student seated before him.”

Outside of his University career, Turner had a range of hobbies, including his interest in railroads and his ability at the piano keyboard, and his curiosity about weather developments, crossword puzzles, and historical perspectives concerning every human development with which he had contact. As an amateur historian he became interested in historic sites after traveling by automobile in the mid-1940s through some of the oldest settlements in Illinois, among them Cahokia (1698), Red Bud (1719), Prairie de Rocher (1722), and Fort Kaskaskia (1733).

Fred and Betty Turner, date unknown. Retrieved from R.S. 41/1/20.

Fred and his wife Betty did not send out usual holiday greeting cards, but woodblock prints that Fred Turner made of historic sites in Illinois. After deciding upon a site, he took photographs and made sketches, or he worked from earlier photographs taken of abolished sites. The finished picture and descriptive text was put on tracing paper. Turner then prepared the woodblock from cherry, tulip-tree or sugar-pine wood by reversing the picture and text on the block and cutting the design with wood carvers tools.

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A map indicating the location of the various historical sites depicted on the woodblocks.

Fred Turner’s original prints were crude, but over the years his carving and printing skills improved. On the inside of each card, the Turners identified the site, the year it was built, and included a thin sheet of paper with the information on the site depicted.

Of special interest are several Christmases when the hand-made wood blocks were cut from pieces of yellow poplar or “tulip” wood reclaimed from shelving used in a University of Illinois building. When University Hall on the campus of the University was razed in 1938, Turner purchased the walnut and yellow poplar shelving from the Board of Trustees room. This shelving was installed prior to 1875.

The Turners mailed the unusual greetings from 1946 through 1974 to approximately 270 people each year.

To enter the exhibit, select a woodblock print, or continue to the Christmas 1949 print.