The Northern Almanac Ep. 1 - 'The Barbed-Wire Barons'

Feb 3, 2020

Welcome to The Northern Almanac, a WNIJ living history project coinciding with NIU's 125th anniversary. Our first installment tells the story of how barbed wire brought Northern Illinois University to DeKalb.

In 1895, Illinois had three state Normal schools to train teachers: Bloomington, Carbondale and Chicago. On May 22 of that year, Governor John Peter Altgeld signed legislation providing for a new normal school to be located in northern Illinois. Competition was fierce for northern Illinois towns, coming down to four choices: Rockford, Oregon, Freeport, and DeKalb. Leading the charge in DeKalb were barbed-wire baron Isaac Ellwood and journalist Clinton Rosette. Another industrialist, and barbed-wire's inventor, Joseph Glidden, offered 63 acres of prime land and $10,000, while Ellwood pledged $20,000 and a no-interest $50,000 loan.

Altgeld Hall in 1905

Businessman Jacob Haish, who had also made his fortune from barbed-wire, donated another $10,000, while the DeKalb City Council obligated itself to the required infrastructure improvements (sewers, sidewalks, etc.) as well as $20,000 to bring electricity to the campus and a steam heat system to the main building. Due to the donations of its barbed-wire barons, DeKalb's application eclipsed all others.

Except for one detail: Rockford, Oregon, and Freeport all benefitted from easy river access. DeKalb had only the small, meandering Kishwaukee River, barely more than a creek. To combat this shortcoming, DeKalb townspeople dammed the small Kishwaukee River just before the state inspection party passed by. The narrow stream swelled, presenting the appearance of a major waterway. 

The Mighty Kish notwithstanding, the political connections of Isaac Ellwood and the large donations of Ellwood, Haish and Glidden no doubt swayed the selection committee. So on July 15, 1895, the decision was announced and all of DeKalb celebrated with fireworks, flags, and a fifteen-minute salute from every factory whistle in town.