Old ledger reveals first money given to start UI here

Old ledger reveals first money given to start UI here

URBANA – Just an old book.

At least that's what it looked like at first.

Antiques dealer Denni Shurts-Hubert bought an old Champaign County ledger book from a man who reportedly retrieved it from the garbage after cleaning up a demolition site in downtown Urbana.

She was more intrigued with a "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster tucked in the back of the book than the ledger itself.

"I threw it up on the counter, and didn't pay too much attention to the book because I was busy," said the Urbana resident, who also owns The Big Red Shed antiques shop in St. Joseph.

Then, during a blizzard a few years ago, she took some time to flip through the pages. She read through various county records that showed payments to build a poorhouse and a bridge.

Later, she came across some pages in the back of the book.

"I was flabbergasted by what I saw," she said.

There, in long, flowing handwriting, were entries detailing the names of people who donated land or money to establish the Illinois Industrial University.

Or, as it's now known, the University of Illinois.

Now she keeps the ledger locked in a safe in her home.

"It does appear to be a 19th century, circa 1867-68, handwritten ledger book recording obligations of the county. It records a number of financial obligations on behalf of the county," said University of Illinois archivist William Maher, who has seen the book.

Local entrepreneurs who were interested in having the university sited in Champaign County donated land and money for the cause.

"There's a piece of university history in the item. ... But it is also a record of Champaign County government," Maher said.

"It shows every nickel, who gave, when they gave it – all this really neat information," Shurts-Hubert said.

The name of C.R. Griggs is the first listed.

Griggs was a key player in bringing the university to Champaign County, said local historian and former Champaign mayor Dan McCollum.

At the time, four Illinois counties were lobbying to have the state's land-grant university be located within their borders: Champaign, Morgan, Logan and McLean.

A referendum proposal to raise money for the cause passed in Champaign County.

"All the counties had incentives, but of the four incentives, the one in Champaign County was considered the leanest," said McCollum, who is also author of the book, Essays on the Historical Geography of Champaign County.

But in the county's corner: Clark Robinson Griggs.

Griggs, who had been Urbana's mayor, was a state legislator and "managed to get himself selected as chair of the selection committee," McCollum said.

Sound a little questionable? So was what reportedly happened to some of the money raised by the county. Some of it was used to rent a suite for legislators at a prominent hotel in Springfield, McCollum said.

And so the General Assembly established the Illinois Industrial University in Champaign-Urbana.

"This is the crux of the university," Shurts-Hubert said, holding the book.

It is an important document, said Anke Voss, director of the Champaign County Historical Archives located at the Urbana Free Library.

"We are making every effort to make sure it's preserved and the community has access to it," Voss said.

The Champaign County Historical Archives library does have the original, handwritten and microfilmed county board minutes from those years. Those minutes trace the history and establishment of the university, Voss said.

But she has not been able to find any microfilm copies of the information contained in the ledger owned by Hubert.

The board minutes do state that the county's board of supervisors, as it was called then, had requested somebody compile a list of individuals who gave to the effort to locate the university in Champaign County.

"I think maybe that's where that list came from," Voss said.

Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden said old documents and microfilm rolls were stored in the basement of the county courthouse annex. After the building was torn down in 2000, those documents were supposed to go to another storage facility, he said.

"I'm disappointed that in the destruction of the annex, proper procedures were not taken to protect county property and records," Shelden said. "We would certainly want the volume. It belongs to us."

It is common, Voss said, that once municipal or county records are microfilmed, the original documents are disposed of. Shelden said staff from his office have been transcribing county documents from that time and he's intent on one day making the history available online.

Since 1987 the Champaign County Archives has been the repository of the county's records and the library has many county documents, such as civil court cases going back to the 1830s, Voss said.

The book seems to have been stored in relatively dry, temperate environment, she said. If it had been stored in basement or attic, it would look different.

"It looks just as pristine as I would expect it to look," Voss said.

In 1860s the paper used in books had a much higher linen or cotton content. That preserves better than paper made from wood pulp, she said.

But the cover, made from leather, is falling apart and the binding needs repair.

The book can be restored, but that process can be labor intensive, Maher said.

If it's not restored to the original condition, he believes the book should be placed in a protective enclosure.

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