Artifacts and memories: Piecing together Old Main history
Jessica Griffin sits in what looks like a closet in Schroeder Hall, steadily sifting through a cardboard box filled with pieces of broken glass bottles. The work is typical for Griffin on a Friday afternoon. An archaeology master’s student, she has teamed with archaeology professor Jim Skibo and cultural anthropology professor Gina Hunter on a quest to reveal the campus of yesteryear by examining artifacts from the University’s first building.
What once stood as grand Old Main has been reduced to bits and pieces lying beneath flowerbeds on the Quad. Nearly 100 boxes of artifacts are now all that remain of the first classroom and administrative building to open on the Illinois State Normal University (ISNU) campus.
One key artifact at the site on the Quad was the Old Main cistern, which was located underneath the building’s front porch.
The materials were unearthed in a 1981 dig on campus by then graduate student Keith Barr, M.S. ’83. Along with a team of excavators, Barr tore up a good deal of the Quad nearly 30 years ago to remove what was left behind from Old Main’s demolition in 1958. Now Griffin is picking up where Barr left off, going through 40 boxes of glass, 11 boxes of ceramics, five boxes of metal, and one box of faunal remains uncovered in Barr’s dig.
“This is mostly a process of ‘work with what you have,’” Griffin explained as she pulled shards of broken glass from one of the boxes. Once she pieces together the remains, she will be able to statistically calculate how many objects have been uncovered. The results of her research will be revealed in her thesis, In the Shadow of Old Main: Consumer Behavior at Illinois State University from 1917 to 1932.
The timeframe was pinpointed from items thrown into a cistern uncovered by Barr. At the bottom was a lamp, patented in 1917. Several objects were piled on the lamp, but at the very top of the heap was a glass prescription bottle made in 1932.
The opportunity as a graduate student to engage in research so meaningful to the school is a thrill for Griffin, who is especially pleased to be building on the work of an earlier graduate student.
“It’s funny, I feel like I’m working with Keith Barr even though I have never met him,” Griffin said.
Barr completed his master’s degree in history with an emphasis in historical archaeology. While at ISU he worked for the Midwestern Archaeological Research Center (MARC) as a historical archaeologist and principal investigator. MARC director Edward B. Jelks initiated the Old Main archaeological explorations and involved Barr in the project.
“The building itself was an icon when it was still there and is a grand memory for anyone who ever saw it,” Barr said. “It would be difficult to decide what building, if any, still standing on campus holds the same place in the hearts of the ISU family.”
Now working as a historian with the Air Force Reserve Command History Office at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, Barr is pleased to know the Old Main project continues. “I am very glad that professors Skibo and Hunter and others have become interested in the Old Main site,” Barr said. “I believe it is an important part of the ISU campus.”
Skibo and Hunter agree and are confident more can be learned about Old Main from the boxes of fragmented items that now line Griffin’s office wall. Studying the excavated materials is the best way to learn about the real history of the building, which is discussed at length in the University’s official records yet remains a bit mysterious to generations who never had the opportunity to set foot in the campus landmark.
Once a stately structure, Old Main, above, was constructed at a cost of $200,000. It stood for nearly 100 years.
“There has been a great deal written about Old Main, but we don’t really know the whole story,” Skibo explained. “There is always an official story, one people want to tell, but there is always another story too. It will always be the official story unless we find another one.”
To gain a more complete understanding, the research team is also working to tap into the memories of alumni and community individuals who had campus ties during the years that Old Main still stood.
Oral histories have been gathered from graduates who attended between 1933 and 1942, which puts some of them close to reaching the century mark. Griffin has also interviewed some of the faculty and staff members who worked in the building up until the late 1950s.
Speaking with people who walked Old Main’s halls has brought life to the project. “It’s exciting and interesting to hear people talk about Old Main,” Skibo said. “The alumni are a rich data source, and time is ticking by.”
Hunter explained how joyous she felt to find alumni eager to help the historical project. “I think we have a lot to learn from the alumni,” she said. “The one theme that we kept hearing over and over again was ‘we were so lucky to go to school.’”
Alumni interviewed have talked less about what they learned in Old Main’s classrooms and more about the hallways, stairways, clock tower, and friendships they made with people from differing backgrounds.
The stories and overall project have increased the sense of pride Hunter and Skibo have for the University, as well as sparked ideas for other areas of Illinois State they would like to examine. Hunter is interested in studying domestic life on campus and the history of ISNU women. Both are intrigued by ISU’s integration of minority students over the years, given Illinois State was one of the first universities to open its doors without regard to race.
Old Main’s foundation was exposed during the 1981 dig, above. The bell from the clock tower remains on the Quad on the site where the building once stood.
Even Barr came up with another research project. “Perhaps Cook Hall,” he suggested. “I nominated Cook Hall for the National Register of Historic Places and it was accepted about the same time I was doing the Old Main work.”
As for the possibility of continuing the Old Main project with another excavation, there are no plans as of now. The responsible thing to do is to go through the information Barr found first, Skibo said, noting he would be thrilled with the opportunity to gather more artifacts from the Quad.
“It would be good to show we have research to do on campus about our campus,” Skibo said. Another dig would also bring an opportunity to engage more students in the project, which is something both Skibo and Hunter would welcome.
“Students always need projects and research experience,” Hunter said. “This is an opportunity for hands-on research, which is the best way to learn. The topic is a great one, and it’s right here at our fingertips.”
Griffin knows from experience how a project such as the Old Main dig would serve as a great learning tool for future students. “It would remind people of what’s buried just below the surface,” she said, while sipping from a glass bottle of ice tea she had purchased before beginning work that afternoon.
“It’s amazing to think that I’m just drinking this on an average Friday,” she said holding up the bottle to examine it closer, “but in 70 years someone like me could be agonizing over the manufacturer’s label on the bottom to figure out something about the past.”