THE COLLEGE IN THE HILLS
One of the most interesting and unusual stories of our area of Southern Illinois is that of the College in the Hills, which was located near at the juncture of Karber's Ridge road and Illinois Route 34 about 2 miles south of Herod. The story is particularly interesting to me because both my uncle, George Carr, and my father, James R. Carr, befriended "Penny Cent," the artist member of the college staff. This was during the great depression of the '30s, and Penny Cent helped my uncle and my father get jobs with the WPA Federal Arts Project and Federal Writers' Project respectively. Penny Cent has become a somewhat mysterious figure to modern researchers.
From the onset, the staff of the College in the Hills was suspected by some local residents of being a group of communists. Penny Cent (a German), particularly fell under increasing local suspicion. Both his German accent and obviously fictitious name worked against him. My father was one of the very few whose friendship lasted to the very end — the day Penny Cent left the area never to be heard from again in these parts.
The following two-part article, by Mildred B. McCormick of Golconda, Illinois appeared in the April and June, 1989 (Vol. 6, Nos. 2 and 3) issues of the Springhouse Magazine, (reprinted here with permission of Mrs. McCormick) shed more light on the subject than anything yet published about the college. The College in the Hills was covered again in the February, 2001 (Vol. 18, No. 9) issue of the magazine, in a reprinted article originally published in 1980, entitled "A Phenomenon of the Great Economic Depression" by Fred J. Armistead.
W.R.C., Oct. 2003
College In The Hills
©Mildred B. McCormick
(from Springhouse Magazine Vol.6, No.2, April 1989)
College In The Hills. What was it? Who was involved? What happened to it? Why?
For most of my life, I had heard an occasional reference to the College but never any real information. I promised myself whenever I heard these casual allusions that someday I would find answers to some of my questions. This article is the result of my delayed attempt.
I started by asking everyone I knew, my age or older, what he could remember about the College. I was further intrigued to learn they knew no more than I--that there was supposedly such an institution, but they knew nothing about it.
My research began with a call to Oren Gross, Elizabethtown, former sheriff and retired barber. Although he had no first-hand information, he began knocking on doors on my behalf and soon had a list of names and suggestions, which paved the way for me to several good sources. My old friend, Leonard (Hartley) Farmer, Elizabethtown, retired from the Forest Service, was one of that number. He spent hours at the Hardin County courthouse tracing deed records, wrote friends in the Forest Service, and helped me read years of back issues of the Hardin County Independent, which Noel Hurford and his staff so generously supplied.
Norman Ferrell, Rosiclare, supplied the answer to what seemed one hopeless quest--he had pictures of the building, which illustrates the article, and shared his memories of the institution. There were others--Gary DeNeal, Taylor Barger, Audie Ferrell, Aletha Sivyer, Lorna Briddick, John Wernham (US Forest Service, retired), who responded graciously to my requests. The last person I interviewed was James Carr, Herod (Possum Ridge), who was particularly helpful in placing my uncoordinated assortment in perspective.
There are others to whom I am indebted who, for various reasons, did not wish to be recognized in print. It is the usual custom to list credits at the end of the article, but because some of these people were so deeply involved, I felt they deserved more than a postscript "Thank You."
What was the College?
In trying to answer that question, I ran into such stuff as legends are made on (apologies to Shakespeare). My sources range from such respected authors as Baker Brownell (The Other Illinois, 1958), and John W. Allen (Legends & Lore, 1963), through Stefan Fosfore’s periodic columns "College In The Hills" in the Hardin County Independent, 1934-1936, clippings from other area newspapers, and personal interviews. Opinions from these sources run the gamut from "it was a much-needed development for rural education," to "it was a Communist/Nazi spy-ring." My self-imposed task is to attempt to piece out an objective story between such extremes: PR-man Fosfore’s rosy reports and the rumors, which sound like stories from the National Enquirer.
One thing about which there can be no controversy is the location. The College was located on 40 acres, more or less, at the intersection of Route 34 and the Karbers Ridge Road (east side of Route 34 near the Pope-Hardin line). The actual building site was located "South of Karbers Ridge Road in the Southeast one-fourth of the Northwest one-fourth of Section 14, Township 11 South, Range 7, East of the third principal meridian, Hardin County, Illinois."
The land was listed in tax records to College In The Hills, 1935-36. It was assessed to W. C. Kane in 1934, tax paid by Donald Monson, College Of The Hills, 10-12-35. Taxes were paid 7-31-36 by the College, and 22 April 1937, taxes were paid by Claude V. Parsons, land assessed to College-In-The-Hills. No record of deed for the College was found by my researcher. W.C. Kane and wife, Ethel, deeded the land in 1948 to Warren P. Tuttle and S.H. Frazier, Jr.
The earliest printed reference to the College, which I located, was in the 24 May 1934 Herald-Enterprise, an announcement of the new College: "New labor college--summer quarter, 25 June - 1 September." The news release promised 20 standard courses, 10 in humanities. Tuition for 10 weeks was $28. Purpose: "to develop students capable of living in a modern world of new social and economic values."
A follow-up announcement in the 19 July 1934 Herald stated that all classes except Modern Civilization and Art were meeting weekdays 9-12 a.m. Art, taught by Penny Cent, met 2-4 p.m. and featured "individual instruction in character sketching and caricature." Neighborhood people were invited to visit the school. This same news release discussed a weekly radio program over WEBQ Harrisburg each Monday at 9 p.m. The first program included a play, directed by Mildred George, speech instructor; songs by Harriet Rolfe; a speech by Donald Brown, president of the College. The next program was to be "Art In the Modern World," led by Penny Cent.
Also mentioned was the Modern Civilization class which met at 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoons, public invited, George Guernsey, instructor.
The first article by Stefan Fosfore, in the Hardin County Independent, which Leonard and I were able to locate (in separate searches), was printed 10 October 1934. This column appeared, like a pebble dropped into a pond--no explanation, no introduction of either College or reporter, no statement of purpose. The last column we found, 19 December 1935, gave no hint that it was the final report. There was no mention of the College through 15 July 1937 where we abandoned the search of the Independent files.
Fosfore’s 10 October article described a permanent art exhibit at the College, featuring works by Penny Cent’s students and other local artists. Those mentioned were Norman Tucker, Karbers Ridge, whose works greatly impressed the College instructor, and Eugene "Breezie" Partain, 12-year-old artist from Cross Roads school, whose oil painting of the Cowsert cabin at Decker’s Spring was much admired. Photos of works of Peterpaul Ott, sculptor of Evanston, were also exhibited. Ott was a frequent visitor at the College.
On 28 March 1935, Fosfore reported that the library hall was complete. This is the building shown in the photos supplied by Norman Ferrell. Fosfore described it as having "sweeping windows," built mostly of oak lumber with homemade walnut stain. In his 25 July 1935 column, he further described the building which replaced "tents and one old shack" as now a "beautiful building with broad rock chimney, ladies’ dorm, kitchen, library, study hall." At that time, the excavation for a 26 x 34-foot, 20-bed dormitory was complete. Plans for future buildings specified that they, like the initial structure, were to be constructed of oak lumber and sandstone from the College quarry--as far as possible only native materials were to be used. A scale model of the proposed campus was on display in the library, "showing slope of grounds, miniature flagstone campus yard, community hall, and a string of classrooms, administration and dorm buildings, grouped around one inner court to extend northwest across Karbers Ridge Road (Fosfore, 1935). Until construction of the library hall, classes were held wherever space was available--courthouse, school buildings, even a shop, according to Taylor Barger who was a member of an art class but never attended at the campus.
In September 1935 Peterpaul Ott and Architect Richard Windlish inspected the, College building and gave advice on the construction of the dorm. Dorm plans included two rooms, three big rock fireplaces and a study hall. One-foot oak weatherboarding, simple standard windows, terracing to follow slope of the ground--nothing out of the ordinary today, but then it was regarded as foreign and somewhat bizarre by many local people.
All construction was carried out by students and faculty under the supervision of Donald Monson, business manager, architect, and emergency carpenter. Baker Brownell says "the house served them well and was praised by the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright." Noel Hurford remembers reading of the eventual success of the young architect in later years, but has as yet not been able to locate the story.
Most of my sources agree, for the most part, on the nature and content of the College curriculum. Allen lists courses in economics, art, speech, psychology, geology, German, political science and modern civilization. Another source thought the University of Chicago plan was used--lower level (freshman-sophomore) in regular classes; upper level (junior-senior) in seminars. Each student was required to do four hours of manual labor each day.
Both students and faculty were expected to adhere to the following schedule:
4:30 a.m. --rise, do chores: carrying water, chopping wood, etc.
6:30-10:00 a .m . --construction, gardening, housework
5:45-8:00 p.m.--study and recreation
8:00 p.m.--taps and lights out
Many names of faculty members have surfaced through various sources. It is not clear how many were on campus in any given term. Besides those already mentioned: President Donald Brown; Art Instructor Penny Cent; Donald Monson, business manager, architect, and carpentry instructor; Mildred George, speech; George Guernsey, Modern Civilization; there were Earl Edgar, humanities; Astrid Aronson, social studies; Ethlyn Potter Rolph, history, geography, geology; Eunice Bonniwell, household sciences; Richard Peterson, psychology.
Various visiting lecturers were mentioned. Alvin Lee, graduate of Davy School of Tree Surgery, and member of the forestry camp at Herod, spoke on classification of shade trees, their care and disease prevention. Professor of Sociology Neva Boyd, Northwestern, recognized as a national authority on recreation, spent three days at the College in September 1935. She admired Penny Cent’s painting of J.F. Humm’s mill at Eichorn, stopped at the mill to watch its operation, and went back to Chicago with two bags of what Fosfore called corn flour.
The faculty held impressive credentials in a day when many local teachers had little formal education at the college level. Edgar’s degree was from DePauw University, Bonniwell was degreed in Home Ec (Iowa State) and sociology (Northwestern). Most of the others held degrees from Northwestern. Aronson, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Northwestern, took a leave in the summer of 1935 to serve as recreational director of a girls’ camp at Dixon Springs.
In his 1 August 1935 column Fosfore described the "education caucus" held after each series of lectures to discuss viewpoints which had been presented. There was also a general survey on the progress of students. These meetings "attempted to bring various courses and sciences into a unified whole--to assist students in understanding how all hang together and contribute to the modern world."
As mentioned before, each student was to do manual labor four hours per day. Tuition and room and board could be paid in cash or kind. There were references to a three-acre garden, cultivated by students (seeds donated) under the supervision of Robert Zerlin, garden director and art student. A reference to the garden in October mentioned the canning of produce by students and faculty.
As far as I have been able to ascertain, the school had official backing from neither government nor educational agency. Baker Brownell says "it was five or six youngsters just out of college with stars in their eyes." John W. Allen agrees that it was a "highly idealistic venture" begun in 1933 in the depths of the depression by a small group, most of whom were graduates of Chicago and Northwestern universities. They wished to offer a liberal education to the youth of the area which they, "poor as they were, could afford."
At that time, Southern Illinois University was the only hope in the area for instruction beyond high school. Allen described the "deplorable conditions" in Hardin County at that time--true also for Pope, all of southern Illinois, and much of the nation. Fluorspar mines, the only industry in the county, were either closed or operating at 25 per cent capacity or less. More than one-fourth of the county was dependent on emergency relief. As Allen says "those were the times and conditions that prompted a dream.
School opened 25 June 1934 with sixteen students and eleven staff members (Allen, 205). An eight-weeks session was conducted with courses as listed above. Staff members received no salary. Tuition was ten dollars for the first term and each student was to provide bedding and personal articles, including "high boots, over-alls, and rough warm outdoor clothing." (Other sources say the first three teachers received $50 per month, plus $15 expenses, source not specified. The $10 tuition is also less than the $28 advertised in the 1934 Herald article.)
James Carr remembers that some of the instructors worked for WPA Writers’ Project (as did Carr) and hoped that WPA would adopt the work-college and assume responsibility for its operation. That hope was never realized.
The story of the College will be continued and will explore the areas of community involvement, including Hicks CCC Camp, plans for further service (the only public library in Hardin County in the 1930s was at the College), and interaction with area schools. There is also the negative side--local resentment, misunderstanding on both sides, suspicion, clash of cultures.
It is my hope that there are people who have knowledge of the school who will make their contribution to the history before the next installment is published. I can be reached at Box 63, Golconda, IL 62938.
Mildred B. McCormick is a member of the Barger family which has lived in Pope County since 1818. She graduated from Pope County schools, earned the BA degree from University of Illinois, Urbana, and the MA from SIU-C.
She has been a teacher of English at LaSalle-Peru, IL, and Pope County high schools, and taught part time from 1973-1986 at Southeastern Illinois College. She writes a weekly column for the Herald-Enterprise, Golconda, and is a regular contributor to Springhouse.
College of the Hills, Part 2
©Mildred B. McCormick
(from Springhouse Magazine Vol.6, No.3, June, 1989)
In Part I of "College In The Hills" I discussed some of the background of the school: location, building construction, faculty, class schedules. Thanks to Judy Tippy, research librarian at Shawnee Library System, and Mark W. Sorenson, Assistant Director of Illinois State Archives, I now have a copy of the signature page of the charter issued 9 October 1935 to the College, listing board of directors, and the formal statement of purpose.
Named as directors are Aronson, Bonniwell, Cent, Edgar, Lee, Monson and Rolfe, all instructors who were introduced in Part I. The application was signed by Alvin Lee, Donald Monson and Walter S. Vose (a name which appeared at no other time during my search).
According to the charter, the object for which the College was established was "to furnish for the residents of Hardin and adjacent counties in Southern Illinois a center for promoting educational and recreational opportunities, for teaching social hygiene and progress in various industries, particularly agriculture, to own the necessary equipment and property to provide such facilities, to do such experimental work in industry and agriculture as may be necessary to accomplish the purpose stated above. "
Stefan Fosfore’s columns in the Independent, which were a sort of newsletter of school activities, described the varied attempts by the faculty to carry out their announced plans. In an effort to establish a working relationship with the community a series of free programs were scheduled. These included drama, community chorus, folk music, instrumental and vocal concerts, children’s programs, and a Sunday Open Forum. The college bus would call for groups of ten or more.
One community night was described (25 April 1935, Independent) by Fosfore. The reporter gave the attendance as 140, some by horseback, some by auto, some on foot. The guitar teacher, Marcello Tabago, and Raymond Cacatian, "who had travelled with the South Sea Hawaiian Serenaders, and local talent, Willard Hamp, furnished part of the program." Entertainers on other programs were Edward Schmidt, Camp Hicks, with his "concert piano accordion, 168 keys, 2 keyboards, mother-of-pearl hull--cost $560, the price of an auto"; Robert Zerlin, art student, who did portrait sketches of guests; S. Hale, forester from Herod, once a caller at WLS Barn Dance; local entertainers, Edward Seets and son Randall (mountain music).
During Christmas week of 1935 (following the last published article by Fosfore) Miss Bonniwell had scheduled a Christmas party at the College. Tom Moore was to sing. Decorations were in place: cedar boughs from John Ledbetter’s place "straight east one mile as the crow flies." The tree was furnished by Louis Hamp. There was to be a special party for children on Saturday afternoon. Bonniwell had previously sponsored a Halloween party for children. There was a "play and games night’s’ every Friday. She had also presented a style show by her sewing class.
The Open Forum, directed by Earl Edgar, philosophy and English instructor, aired national and international topics on science, art and literature. Prof. Ethlyn Rolfe led one discussion on "Religion In The World Today." All programs were open to the public at no charge.
In addition to scheduled programs there were also exhibits, both permanent and temporary. Some of the art on display was mentioned in Part I. Besides the art shows, there was a permanent exhibit of works of Penny Cent’s students. Works by Norman Tucker, Eugene Partain, Adrian Holbrook, Taylor Barger, Fowler Curtis, and Herbert Jenkins were mentioned.
Art instructor Penny Cent, who seemed to be amazingly productive, also had several works on exhibit. One was a large painting of Camp Hicks. This was a traveling exhibit, from Camp Hicks, to the College library, to the District Conference of Camp Commanders. It was later purchased by Lt. Fulton, commander of Camp Hicks. Other Penny Cent works which received publicity were: the store and post office at Thacker’s Gap (Herod), the John Shetler home (Rosiclare), a map of Cairo, St. Joseph’s Church, and many others. There are several of his works remaining in the area, all in private collections. We will have more to say later about this very controversial artist.
There were displays other than paintings. Thomas Dobbs and Henry Hamp brought "fine specimens of native rocks and minerals for the geology department." Attorney William B. Morris, Golconda, presented the College library with his original play about Oliver Cromwell, plus other dramas he had written.
One type of art which seemed to fascinate Penny Cent was the hand-pieced quilt. It was reported that he was so excited by the quilts pieced by Mrs. J. F. Humm, Eichorn, that he persuaded her to enter some of them in a show in Chicago. Later a quilt by Mrs. Elmer Stuby, Karber’s Ridge, was sent to Northwestern to be exhibited in a class of Southern Illinois folk art. Mrs. Mary Schroll, Karber’s Ridge, was the second to lend her work. Penny Cent began work on modern quilt designs, three of which were exhibited at Camp Hicks.
Perhaps the most important collection at the College, to the community at large, was the library. The 2500 books at the College were available on free loan to those who wished to borrow. At that time there was no public library in Hardin County. Pope County had the Golconda City Library, established in 1915, but there were few resources, compared to today’s offerings.
Many of the volumes (probably all of them) were donated by friends of the faculty in Chicago-Evanston. There were 200 children’s books, a gift of Evanston Public Library. In addition to their own collection, the College arranged with Illinois State Library for art materials, magazines, books, illustration plates--all phases, including carpentry and furniture-making--and all were available to the public. Lawrence Herman, Elizabethtown, whose beautifully crafted furniture was recently exhibited at SIUC, was one of those who studied books from the College library.
The Junior Wood Workers Group, led by Penny Cent, made toys of cherry wood. Rodney Johnson was named foreman of the group. Other members were Eugene Partain, Willard Hamp, and Orval Henson. There was talk of organizing a horseman’s club.
One of the College aims was to establish a cooperative effort in connection with area schools. Teachers were invited to visit and some responded. One news report mentioned a party of Harrisburg High School faculty. Two members of the College faculty spoke at Hardin County Teachers Institute in August 1935. Rolfe spoke on the geology of Hardin County and Penny Cent’s topic was "The Value of Art In Our Schools." County Superintendent Clyde Flynn and Harvey Suits, Hardin County, visited the College. Flynn was interested in helping collect legends and lore of the county, and at one time he and Mrs. B. (Catherine) Burgess began plans to organize a museum of Southern Illinois arts and crafts, in which quilts were to play a major role. The museum was to become part of the College.
The closest relationship with another school apparently existed with Cross Roads, one of the one-room units, taught by Inda Norman. There are numerous references to activities which reveal this association, in the Independent columns. An extension service from the College library to Cross Roads was arranged. The College faculty attended graduation exercises at the country school and invited them to present their program at the College. Penny Cent wrote a dramatic sketch for the last-day-of-school program, "The Farmer And The College Man," with the help of Loren Johnson of Herod. Norman Ferrell generously supplied me with a copy of their effort. Great drama, it is not, but the theme--farmer vs. college-trained know-it-all--involves a departure from the usual triumph of the farmer, in such stories. In this version the two battle as expected, but the decision is a draw--they agree that "farming and education go well together."
The following November, Cross Roads students, Mrs. Norman, and a parent, Mrs. Bill Partain, attended a wiener roast at the College. The report says they "played ball. The catcher stood under the composition nose of A. Lincoln, whose beautiful portrait carving by famous sculptor Peterpaul Ott of Evanston-Chicago hangs on the north wall of the library, facing the playground." (An earlier report said Ott’s Lincoln sculpture was one of the models for the new Oak Park post office.) The students gathered before the fireplace in the library for games led by Miss Bonniwell, later enjoyed hot dogs at a campfire "in the hollow north of two ponds." The students wrote of the experience in their newspaper, the Cross Roads Herald, the first paper published by a country school in Hardin County (possibly the only one).
The College was toured by many educational groups outside the area. NYA representatives studied the school; the Treasury Department offered two art scholarships. Dr. Van Riper, Illinois State Superintendent of Adult Education, came down from Springfield with photographer Frederick O. Bemm, once staff photographer for the Art Institute of Chicago. Prof. Lawrence H. Howe, vice-president of Olivet College, Danville, IL, led students in a traveling show group in the summer of 1935, and studied the campus and operation. A state forester, accompanied by a scientist from Illinois University, said College In The Hills was mentioned at a meeting of educators at Illinois U. Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Kuenzel, with Shawnee Forest, heard of the school in Columbus, Ohio and paid them a visit. Occasionally the German instructor got a call for help in translating a letter or document from Germany.
An early friend of the group was Gardner Bride, principal of Harrisburg Junior High. Bride and Russell Malan, principal of Harrisburg High School, visited at the end of the first year of operation, and Malan recalled his student days at a work college similar to College In The Hills. He paid for stationery used by the school. There were several gifts to the new institution, besides the books. A Chicago firm, Cable Piano Co., furnished a piano, which was delivered from Harrisburg by John Hamp. Two automobiles came from the Chicago area, as did $25 worth of tools (we must remember that a dollar went pretty far in those depression days). One-third of a $215 donation from Mrs. Herman Fabry, Evanston, for use in construction, went the following day for 3000 board-feet of lumber.
Although most of the gifts came from the Chicago area, there were local donors. Mrs. Tom McMurphy and a Mrs. Oxford of Hardin County shared their beautiful roses to help with landscaping. The day following Mrs. McMurphy’s donation, her home burned and her rose garden was destroyed.
As the first anniversary of the College opening drew near, a news release featured the story of Ray Odle, son of Albert and Drusilla Odle, farmers near Parrish, IL, 45 miles northwest of College In The Hills. Ray wanted to go to college but the big schools were too expensive. The parents and son drove a team and wagon to the school on an inspection trip. The parents drove the mules away in the evening, on their return home, leaving their son as a student.
At the beginning of the second year, an announcement was published which claimed that 85 percent of students were from the local area, as compared to 11 percent the first year. No actual totals of student enrollment were given.
Such were the lofty aims of the fledgling group of educators. They brought youth, idealism and the zeal of missionaries. They were well-qualified, had made detailed plans, and were not afraid of work. They failed.
Why were they unable to sell their dreams? Their projected institution seemed to embody most of those elements which flourish in today’s junior colleges and vocational schools. In 1963 John W. Allen wrote (in Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois, p. 206): "Much credit for the formation of this group and their noble effort toward being helpful to the region belongs to Baker Brownell, who later came to teach at Southern Illinois University and to initiate the program of Community Services that the University offers. Brownell’s recent book, The Other Illinois, grew out of his work in the region."
Brownell, himself, was quite bitter about the fate of the school. In The Other Illinois, 1958, pp. 150-15 1, he wrote, "Its voice was never more than a whisper but its career across life and death is still the symbol for a few people of the pathos and failure and the dark unresponsiveness of this burned-over land. From the beginning this college for people was doomed by the ill-report of those whom it had come to serve." The College, says Brownell, "got off on the wrong foot. It did not know the angles; it missed the turns; it ignored the local dogmas. And the people of the neighborhood had neither the educational nor social resilience to take it for what it really was.... From ridicule the response to their efforts hardened into hatred. They had little money, then no money. The situation went beyond recovery, and so another gay, heroic thing died."
A hint that all was not well in Eden appeared in the fall of 1935 in an issue of the Cross Roads Herald. A sixth-grader wrote, "The prominent people of our county are keeping quiet like a church mouse. With two or three exceptions, they haven’t said a word of appreciation nor offered any help. What’s the matter with them?"
Although Brownell, according to my research, was correct in identifying the basic causes of the failure of College In The Hills, he placed far too much of the blame on local residents. It was certainly true that fifty years ago we feared and mistrusted outsiders. Southern Illinois was not unique in that respect--it was true of most rural areas (and still is to some extent). Much has been made of the Deep South attitude that only those families who were there before the War (Civil War to us--War Between the States to them) are to be considered top drawer.
Novelist Margaret A. Robinson in her delightful Courting of Emma Howe spoke of the Vermonter’s distrust of "people from away." A character in her book complains that out-of-staters are never considered to belong, even if they had lived in Vermont all their lives. Even her children who were born there were slighted, she says. The old lady to whom she aired her grievances replied, "Well, if your cat had kittens in the oven, you wouldn’t call them biscuits."
Into this closed society came these brash young people, with all good intentions, and with the idealism which infected most of us as new college graduates. They knew what was wrong and how to fix it. Unfortunately they ignored local culture and customs and it became rather a case of the cannibals eating the missionaries. Their Bohemian ways deeply offended the ultra-conservatives. Leroy Cochran told me the first women he ever saw dressed in shorts were from the College. This was a good seven years before I and some of my classmates daringly bought shorts to wear to our high school senior-class picnic. These had matching skirts. Last night I got out my senior class scrapbook. There we were--a row of slender, seventeen-year-olds, demurely lined up on a little footbridge. All of us had those skirts securely buttoned, waist-to-hem.
Given this opportunity for gossip, the word spread that they were nudists. A reputable eyewitness saw communal skinny-dipping at the ponds. The stories grew. James Carr heard two men arguing whether they were Communist or Nazi (Hitler was moving onto the world scene, and an anti-German hysteria reminiscent of WWI was also growing).
The youngsters also misjudged the community’s readiness to accept their programs--aside from the social rejection. There were certainly young people who wanted more educational opportunity, but there were more who had little encouragement at home. James Carr, Penny Cent’s good friend, warned him that not everyone was ready for them. There were too many, what Carr called, one-book families. They owned a Bible. They didn’t necessarily read it, but it was a talisman which gave them a form of security.
A quarter of a century later, the junior college concept was sold by civic and educational leaders, newspaper editors and politicians. This little group tried it alone, appealing to prospective students and private donors. By the fall term of 1935, despite heroic measures, the College was deeply in debt--$400, plus an over-due land payment. A concert was arranged in Chicago to raise funds, but they were broke.
The most controversial figure at the College was Penny Cent, and he was the focus and the target of most of the more bizarre tales. He was a roamer, turning up in odd places with sketchbook and paints--an early-day hippy. He had an obviously phony name which reminded one of a bad Hollywood press agent’s idea, and he was German.
One of the more ridiculous stories that went the rounds (and is still being told) is that Penny Cent was a German spy and had a map tattooed on his chest. No one seems to be sure what it was--sketch of Rosiclare mines layout, Marion Ordinance Plant, Ohio River dams--and I couldn’t find anyone who actually saw it (a person who often swam with him at the Harrisburg pool can’t remember anything unusual about his torso). For all these rumors about the school I found lots of "They say" stories, but not one "I know" statement. There were stories from people who were sure the school was a Communist cell--they had red flags on the campus. When asked about these, one of the faculty explained that the flags marked the latrines. Stories such as these suggest that if they were spies and engaged in such activities, they must have been the world’s most inept agents--Keystone Kops trained by the Marx Brothers.
A rather lengthy article about Penny Cent appeared in the 14 August 1938 Evansville Press. At that time the College had closed, the buildings had burned (under what circumstances I have been unable to learn). The artist at that time had a studio in Harrisburg. Penny Cent told the reporter his name was Penrod Centurion (the man was his own worst press agent!). One person who knew him well said his name could have been Frederich Wilhelm Schmidt, but the Schmidt/Smith name certainly bears no proof of its own identity. He claimed to have been born in 1905 of German-American parents, and to have been sent back to Germany at an early age to "help the American branch of the family keep its fingers on a valuable inheritance." The inheritance vanished in WWI.
Cent said he attended Frederick Wilhelm University in Berlin, specializing in political economy and history. He also took art training at college, later attended Berlin Academy. He was a business correspondent in English, French, and German in 1924, in Finland. He also wrote movie reviews for the German press. In 1926 he moved to Chicago, and at one time worked in the art department of Marshall Field.
Penny Cent came to Southern Illinois with the College In The Hills group in 1934. He worked on a Federal Writers Project and continued his painting. He later won a Guggenheim fellowship in "nonobjective art," now known as abstract art. Cent called the form, which he had turned out for years, "Cromorfs," a term he coined from two Greek words--"chromos-color" and "morphos-form."
No one seems to know what became of Penny Cent. There were rumors that he was arrested as a spy and sent to Leavenworth, but several years ago a reporter failed to find any proof of that. Others thought he moved to a city and became a street person. The last Saline and neighboring counties saw of him was on the day James Carr and Paulus McClendon, who had befriended him to the end, helped him pack his belongings in his red convertible and waved good-bye as he drove away--destination uncertain. Carr never heard from him again.
College In The Hills, as an organization, was formally dissolved by the Secretary of State in November of 1946. The last known agent was Earl E. Edgar, then of Chicago. The correspondence originated from Donald and Astrid Aronson Monson, then living in Wayne County, Michigan. Seldom has any organization, so small, of such brief duration, been responsible for so much speculation, misinformation, and all-out curiosity. Many people who remember it do not like to talk about it, and some who did give information were afraid of raising old animosities--hence their reluctance to speak for the record.
So ends the tale of the stubborn unlaid ghosts of College In The Hills. In addition to those who have already been mentioned in the article, I wish to thank Mrs. Hattie Williams, Lester Cox, S.F. Frazier, Jr., and Mrs. Sol Cox, all of whom were gracious in their efforts to help me. I also owe thanks to Marilyn Wikerson of Evansville Public Library who expended much effort in an attempt to trace an article about the College, which one source said was printed in an Evansville paper in October 1934, and which she was unable to locate in spite of an exhaustive search.
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