CARBONDALE — The first institutions of higher education in Southern Illinois were born of generosity, civic spirit and an overwhelming desire to learn.

By 1850, residents of Old Du Quoin were desperate for a “trained and competent teacher,” wrote famed Southern Illinois historian John W. Allen, in “Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois.” They contacted an East Coast educational society, who sent them a schoolteacher named Eliza Paine, all the way from Massachusetts.

Paine arrived in Du Quoin in 1852. By late 1853, 72 local residents had raised $1,134 to found the Du Quoin Female Seminary, which was to be managed by the Presbyterian Church. Contributions to the school poured in from around the region and from Paine’s backers on the East Coast.

W.S. Gilman, of New York, bought six acres of land for the Seminary, Allen wrote. Mrs. P.C. Morrison, of Collinsville, gave $2,500 to see the school through the financial depression of 1857. Their generosity allowed the school to operate for over 50 years in Southern Illinois.

At the same time, a similar story unfolded in Carbondale.

When a Presbyterian group from Alton, Illinois picked the fledgling town for an educational seminary, in 1856, town residents pledged “$1,045 in cash, seven town lots, and 494 acres of land,” wrote Allen, a former curator of the SIU Carbondale university museum.

Thirty acres donated by Henry Sanders, around what is now the Carbondale Police Station, were selected as the home for the school, named Carbondale College.

The College would ultimately be replaced by Southern Illinois Normal University, the teacher’s college that grew into the modern Southern Illinois University. Carbondale won a hard-fought battle between Southern Illinois towns seeking to host SINU, Allen wrote, by offering the state $150,000 in bonds and land donations.

Just a few years later, SINU again turned to Carbondale for support, when a fire threatened to wipe the school away.

On Nov. 26, 1883, SINU’s flagship three-story building, known as Normal Hall, caught fire. It was the first building constructed for campus, and the center of all activity, wrote Professor and Dean Eli Lentz, in a retrospective on the 75th anniversary SIU’s founding.

When the alarm was called out, students sprang into action.

“Furniture, including the pianos, valuable equipment, and the precious library were brought out of the rapidly developing inferno,” Lentz wrote.

But some things could not be saved.

In just its ninth year, the university lost lab equipment, furniture and essential classroom space when Normal Hall burned. Its museum was destroyed entirely.

Then-university President Robert Allyn was “soot-begrimed, disheveled (and) heartsick” Lentz wrote, “as he plodded slowly homeward at sunset on that tragic November day. He stopped to look back occasionally at the glow from the smouldering (sic) ruins of that great building ... He now felt more than the weight of his sixty-six years of age.”

That night, Southern Illinoisans met at the Carbondale Opera House (on the corner of Washington and Main streets) to offer “store rooms, offices, and churches for the accommodation of the homeless school,” Lentz wrote.

Instruction resumed almost immediately in the hodgepodge of spaces across town, and within a week of the fire, the community had raised $6,000 to erect a temporary school building.

“At that time the General Assembly met every other year,” said SIUC political science professor John Jackson. “People recognized it was going to be a long time before any state money was approved to rebuild the school.”

The temporary structure was completed two months later. Teaching was difficult, in thin-walled rooms that failed to insulate the noise of a music class from the lecturing of a mathematician.

Commencement was held in a tent, Lentz wrote, “jokingly referred to by underclassmen as ‘the circus.’”

And in spite of all the challenges, SINU enrollment continued its gradual growth.

Normal Hall was rebuilt as Old Main, another iconic Carbondale building that burned down in 1969. By then, SINU had become a 20,000-student university with international reach, known as SIU Carbondale.

But even in modern times, the largest employer in Southern Illinois has relied on its community, wrote P. Michael Kimmel, in the latest SIU retrospective: “Southern Illinois University at 150 Years.”

Nowhere is that clearer than Saluki Way, the $83 million SIU project that renovated the basketball arena, built the $25 million Saluki football stadium, and financed the Lew Hartzog Track and Field Complex.

The SIU Board of Trustees passed an increase to student fees, over protests from some student groups, to pay for about $50 million of the $83 million project through 20-year bonds, beginning in 2009.

But in order to secure those bonds, the university needed to prove it had other sources of reliable financial backing.

The City of Carbondale, under then-Mayor Brad Cole, stepped in, approving a half-percent local sales tax increase to commit $20 million to the project: $1 million per year over 20 years.

At the time, it was an uncommon approach to local development.

“The use of local sales tax to fund public school needs has since occurred throughout Illinois, but Carbondale was one of the first to employ the approach,” wrote Kimmel, a lifelong Carbondale resident, and former Carbondale city attorney.

Cole had used the same tactic to help fund construction of the new Carbondale Community High School, on the city’s east side, Kimmel added.

Like many tax hikes, Saluki Way remains controversial, years later. It’s part of the reason Carbondale has one of the highest sales taxes in the region, at 8.75 percent, plus a 1 percent School Facilities Sales Tax throughout Jackson County.

Carbondale revenues not keeping up with tax increases

It has contributed to the growing deficit in the SIUC Athletics Department, reported at $26 million in February 2018 by the Daily Egyptian. Meanwhile, decreasing enrollment means the university collects less in student fees, making it harder for the athletics department to cover its $3.83 million bond payment on Saluki Way each year.

Carbondale's shrinking population could jeopardize home rule

But for Carbondale officials, supporting Saluki Way was an investment in Carbondale’s future.

“The city looked at it as a driver for Southern Illinois’ economy, which it certainly is,” Kimmel said. “The university brings people into Carbondale. The new football stadium allowed us to host NASA for the solar eclipse, for instance.”

The sales tax increase has also helped Carbondale update its fire and police stations, and cover its pension obligations.

To Kimmel, Carbondale’s cooperation in Saluki Way was a good investment, even if there’s less fans in the football stands, in recent years.

“Carbondale’s economics are tied to the university,” Kimmel said. “Retirees come here because they can take continuing education classes. We recruit better doctors because they know their kids will attend good schools, with good faculty. It’s all a big circle.”

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Gabriel Neely-Streit is a reporter for The Southern covering higher education.

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