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Known for Academics and Elegance, Monticello College Opened 180 Years Ago

Article by: Tom Emery, the Telegraph, (217)710-8392
GODFREY – Unlike many community colleges with cookie-cutter campuses, Lewis and Clark Community College features classic grey stone buildings, eye-catching landmarks, and tree-lined, lush lawns. The scenery is a reminder of the institution that occupied the campus before L&C was founded.
This year marks the 180th anniversary of the opening of Monticello College, a well-respected girls school that was a sanctuary of learning and excellence until its closure in 1971. Founded by Alton entrepreneur Benjamin Godfrey, Monticello, which included a two-year college curriculum and preparatory department for much of its existence, carved a national reputation for its academics and elegance.
“Many girls went on to four-year colleges, including some of the prestigious schools in the East,” said Linda Nevlin, a 1959 Monticello graduate who later served the institution in a variety of roles. “Monticello met all of the general education requirements for most other schools. I went on to the University of Florida, and all of my Monticello credits transferred. So that speaks well for itself.”
Godfrey, a towering figure in the early history of the Alton area, ran a major warehousing business, was involved in banking and railroading, and built the first church in Alton. Unlike many men of the era, he was highly interested in women’s education, which was likely a reflection of his own family; Godfrey had eight daughters. He is often quoted as saying “educate a man and you educate an individual. Educate a woman and you educate a family.”
“He was definitely ahead of this time,” said Nevlin, who served as Monticello’s director of public information and also taught freshman English. “The story goes that Godfrey was once sick in bed, and his wife was tending to him. One of his daughters was a toddler at the time, and he noticed that everything the mother said, the child repeated. He really saw the value in educating women, in a time when most men didn’t.”
As a result, Godfrey was subject to criticism, and some blasted his beloved institution as “Godfrey’s Folly.” History proved that Godfrey had the last laugh.
Work began on what became Monticello Female Seminary in 1835, and the school opened on April 11, 1838. The first principal was Theron Baldwin, a Yale-educated theologian who came West and quickly impressed Godfrey.
“He visited the large schools in the East to get teachers, and devise a course of study,” said Nevlin. “The early curriculums were patterned after Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the big men’s schools in the East. Though many people today think Monticello was a finishing school, it actually never was. The subject matter was really elevated for the frontier, which is what this area still was at the time.”
Godfrey remained highly involved in the operation of Monticello until his death in 1862. “He was a hands-on administrator who came by the school every day, to see if supplies or anything for the physical structures were needed,” remarked Nevlin. “Philena Fobes, who succeeded Baldwin, later implied that Godfrey was like her right hand.”
Fobes headed the school for twenty years, and implemented some unusual measures to attract interest in Monticello. “She knew that enrollment had to be increased, so she created public examinations for students,” laughed Nevlin. “This was in the days before television, radio, and computers, of course, and they attracted big crowds of people.
“Students would have to write a personal essay, and answer questions in front of everyone from their professors, on the subjects that they had taken,” continued Nevlin. “They also had to do some sort of musical or theatrical presentation. This was their final exam.
“Anyone in attendance from the community could ask questions on any of the topics, too,” said Nevlin. “Obviously, this was added pressure for the girls, having to do all of this in public, rather than in the classroom. But Fobes was right. Enrollment did pick up afterward.”
Fobes oversaw the continuing academic excellence of Monticello. In 1863, she compiled a report of the school’s first quarter-century and found that only 135 of the combined enrollment of 1,594 had graduated, a testament to the demanding academic requirements of the school. Of that number, sixty-six were trained as teachers. In all, over 300 former attendees were employed in some form of teaching.
The surrounding community was also known as “Monticello” until the name was formally changed to Godfrey in 1872.
Two years after Fobes left, Monticello hired Harriet Haskell, one of the dominant names in school history. Haskell, who remained for the rest of her life, was a graduate of Mount Holyoke and one of many connections of Monticello to that school.
Haskell, who diligently put the school on solid financial footing, presided over the school’s fifty-year celebration in June 1888, a gala affair. But Monticello’s existence was threatened just five months later, as a fire that November 4 destroyed the Seminary building, the main campus structure.
However, Haskell dedicated herself to the continuance of Monticello with remarkable speed. “She met with the board of trustees, and had a temporary building put up where North Elementary School is now located,” said Nevlin. “She sent the girls home, but had them back in January. Then she raised enough money to erect a new building, which was dedicated in 1890.
“That’s only two years, which is quite remarkable,” added Nevlin. “And in all that length of time, she was still educating the girls.”
Life at Monticello in that era has been described as “parochial.” Students could not play cards until 1935, and visitors were prohibited on Sunday, a day for church and Sunday school. But there were plenty of extracurriculars that became hallmarks of Monticello. In 1894, the Echo, an alumnae publication, was first published and was taken over by students in 1911. In 1935, a campus newspaper, the Monticello Times, was originated.
The much-loved Haskell died in May 1907 after forty years as principal and the following year, the entry gates to the campus were dedicated in her honor. Named the Haskell Memorial Entrance, the structure is considered the first monument to a woman in the United States, and remains a striking landmark along Godfrey Road. Likewise, many buildings on the campus are adorned with the names of the key figures in Monticello history.
In 1907, the name of the institution was changed to Monticello Seminary and again to Monticello College in 1936. As the school grew, it attracted attention for its fine campus, rigorous academic programs, and famous alumni. Among them were numerous writers, teachers, and college faculty, as well Ruth Bryan Rohde, who became the first major female American diplomat, and actress Gloria Allyn, a star of the ABC-TV hit Tin Pan Alley.
Monticello students were named Miss Illinois twice in the 1950s, and the official chaperone for Miss Illinois winners in the Miss America contests was Florence Duree, the Monticello dean of students. The campus also featured appearances by big-name stars such as singer Frankie Laine in 1952 and actor Bruce Cabot, a visitor the next year.
There were also plenty of annual traditions that added to the elegance of Monticello, such as the Robing Circle at Commencement, equine shows at the college’s riding facilities, and the May Pole dance. A number of the existing trees on the campus are the result of Monticello’s annual tree-planting ceremonies. Beginning in 1947, students were annually selected to represent each of the “Seven Ideals” of Monticello, which were Democracy, Dignity, Loyalty, Beauty, Friendship, Service, and Wisdom.
Though finances were a recurring issue at Monticello, the college enjoyed a spike in enrollment in the post-World War II years, breeding optimism for the future. But that enrollment jump did not last, and several fund-raising attempts were met with disappointing results.
The school also tried to meet current needs in various forms, discontinuing the preparatory department in 1947, only to reopen it in 1951 before final closure in 1966. The college had a capacity enrollment of 363 in 1964, and some new buildings, such as the school’s performing arts center Hatheway Hall (1963) and Erickson Hall (1967) were constructed.
However, the college was falling victim to mounting deficits as well as a shift in public perceptions. “It really had a lot to do with the social times,” said Nevlin. “A lot of single-sex schools closed in the 1960s and early 1970s. Many of the traditional schools were becoming co-ed, and single-sex schools weren’t always viewed as favorably.”
As the 1970s dawned, Monticello was projecting a deficit of over one million dollars, and administration realized that the school could not continue. With the advent of the community college system in Illinois, the newly formed Lewis and Clark Community College was interested in buying the campus, a transaction that was completed in 1970 for $4 million.
The 1970-71 academic year became the transitional phase as Lewis and Clark began using the campus with an enrollment of 443, mixing with the 233 remaining Monticello students, who were allowed to graduate under the Monticello name. The final Monticello Commencement was held on May 30, 1971, and one of the final graduates was Anne Breckenridge Baumgardner, a descendant of Benjamin Godfrey and fourth-generation alumnae of the school.
Today, the Monticello legacy lives on not only in the beautiful Lewis and Clark campus but also in the Monticello College Foundation, housed in a stately brick home named the “Evergreens,” the traditional residence of the Monticello president.
The foundation operates largely under the same Deed of Trust as established by Godfrey in 1838, and continues to support the higher education of women.
“It’s so important that Godfrey’s vision is still being met today,” said Nevlin, the executive director of the Monticello College Foundation from 1996-2016. “The foundation took over the original charter of the college, changed the name, and has exactly the same mission, implementing the education of women.
“Lewis and Clark was able to start on a lovely campus, with a complete library, classrooms, and faculty in place,” she continued. “The school didn’t have to build a new campus in a cornfield or somewhere, like so many others did. It’s one of the reasons that Lewis and Clark is a premier junior college in the nation.
“In many ways, Godfrey’s vision may be likened to throwing a pebble in the water,” concluded Nevlin. “The ripples keep going and going. And, here we are today.”