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 DeKalb County History
How did NIU Come to DeKalb? Or... Something Fishy on the Kish

Today, there is a lot of debate about the amount of efforts local municipalities put into attracting economic development for their community. Some see offering incentives as a setting dangerous precedent. Those opposed to luring development to a community might be surprised to learn how long such practices have taken place. 

The story of how DeKalb landed Northern Illinois University not only shows that economic development attraction has taken place for more than 100 years, but it also illustrates how creative and ingenious a community can be to get what they want. Or, from the eyes of residents in Rockford, Freeport, Oregon, Dixon, Fulton and Polo, that perception might be different. Skullduggery, embellishment and deceit are words those communities might use in describing an all-out community effort by DeKalb in attracting NIU.

In 1893, John P. Altgeld, a democrat, took office as governor of Illinois. He had run on a platform that included adding more teacher colleges in the state, especially in northern Illinois. Republicans controlled the Illinois legislature and they were not warm to his idea of building more colleges.

Clinton Rosette, publisher of the local newspaper in DeKalb, who was also a democrat, began to put pressure on Altgeld to fulfill his campaign promises. Colonel Isaac Ellwood, a wealthy and influential manufacturer in DeKalb, who was a republican, tossed his weight around with state legislators. Soon a bill was introduced to build a new state teachers college somewhere in northern Illinois.

On May 22, 1895 the bill became law. A selection committee was formed. Judge A.A. Goodrich of Chicago was named chair of the board that included W.C. Garvard of Springfield, Thomas Sparks of Bushnell and Isaac Ellwood of DeKalb. Almost immediately delegates from Rockford, Freeport, Oregon, Dixon, Fulton and Polo began lobbying for the new college to be built in their communities.

Each community that tossed their name in the hat for the host site of what became NIU was a river community. Rockford, Freeport, Oregon and Polo each boasted the scenic Rock River as an inducement. Fulton had the Mississippi River. DeKalb? Well, compared to the Rock and the Mississippi, the old Kishwaukee River was more like a creek. But the lobbyists were successful in making a scenic river an important consideration in the site selection process.

In July of that year, the selection committee visited each community. Ellwood took note of how impressed the other members were of the Rock River. He had arranged for DeKalb to be the last community visited. The tour took longer than expected so it was decided that the committee would take the weekend to rest and resume their tour, of DeKalb, on Monday.

DeKalb went to work.

The residents of DeKalb agreed to go without water for the weekend. Two dams were constructed on the Kishwaukee River. Almost the entire community dredged mud from the river in key locations and replaced it with gravel and pebbles. In July, on most years, the Kish has little current and its water levels are very low. Not this July – and it was not because of rain.

The inspection tour began on Monday morning. As the team crossed the bridge over what became the Lincoln Highway, the dam holding the city water supply was released. A lone fisherman sat in his boat near the bridge and just happened to catch a rather large fish in plain sight of the committee. They also saw a stringer of large fish attached to his boat.

"The Kish has always provided us with a good supply of fish," Ellwood stated as they crossed the bridge.

People in other communities who were familiar with the Kishwaukee River were outraged at the showmanship DeKalb displayed that day.

A July 1895 editorial in the Oregon Republican stated: "Just where this fish came from is unknown, but it looked haggard and footsore, like it had tramped a long distance. There is some talk of stocking the Kish with salt-cured cod. They stand the pressure all right in either a wet or dry season."

But the committee was impressed. DeKalb was accepted as a finalist as a host site community. On July 15, 1895 in Judge Goodrich’s Chicago office each of the selected communities made their final pitch.

Incentives? Jacob Haish offered to donate $100,000 for the college library. Joseph Glidden offered to donate 70 acres of land for the campus. Ellwood offered a $30,000 cash donation and to build a housing development adjacent to the campus. The City of DeKalb offered sewer, water and road connections.

On October 1, 1895 news reached DeKalb that it was selected as the host site for the new Northern Illinois State Teachers College. A gigantic community celebration ensued with fireworks display, factories blasting their horns and flags waving on almost every building. At least 35,000 people descended upon a community of 5,000 for a parade and the official lying of the first cornerstone of what became Altgeld Hall.

Another parade was held on September 22, 1899 when the school was dedicated. The dreams of the community had been realized. The fruit of all the labor in attracting NIU was harvested. In Rockford, Freeport, Oregon, Dixon, Fulton and Polo, however, that fruit tasted like sour grapes.