Clark Robinson Griggs and Family. Source: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Choosing the location for the University of Illinois was “one of the strangest contests in the state’s history,” says Allan Nevins in his 1917 book Illinois.
According to Nevins, the battle over the university’s location eventually boiled down to four sites—Jacksonville, Bloomington, Lincoln, and Urbana-Champaign. Of the locations, Champaign County offered the smallest incentive package. And yet, when the dust had finally settled, Urbana-Champaign was awarded the state’s flagship university.
How in the world did that happen?
Champaign County boosters can thank the appeal of huge oyster suppers and quail dinners, which were used to entertain and lobby politicians. But they can also thank one man: Clark Robinson Griggs.
Griggs was a member of the Massachusetts legislature before coming to Champaign County in the spring of 1859 and buying a farm two miles north of Philo. But his farming career was short-lived. In the winter of 1859, he lost three fingers when his glove got caught in farm machinery, crushing his hand. So Griggs gave up farming and moved to Urbana; in fact, his home at 505 W. Main Street still stands, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
During the contest over the location of the university, Nevins says that “Griggs’s shrewdness, ability to manage men, and judgment in perceiving just where doubtful political transactions would become illegal made him an ideal agent” for Champaign and Urbana.
Griggs, now a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, was a wheeler and dealer who knew how to make friends and influence people. In his 1906 memoir, he says he agreed to withdraw his candidacy for Speaker of the House if he could be appointed chairman of the Committee of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. He knew that all of the bills locating the new university would go through his committee, and his influence could win the day for Urbana-Champaign.
Under Grigg’s leadership, Champaign County rented spacious quarters in the largest hotel in Springfield—the Leland Hotel. They reserved offices, bedrooms, and a reception room that held 200 people.
“Members of either party, hostile or friendly, were invited to the hotel for liquor, for light refreshments, or for huge oyster suppers or quail dinners,” Nevins says. “They found here a place to lounge in easy chairs, to chat or read newspapers, and to listen to legislative gossip…They were supplied with cigars, and groups of them were taken to the theater.”
No other community invested this amount of money or energy in lobbying. In fact, one legislator later said he voted for Champaign County “simply because Griggs and his fellows worked so hard.” But his tactics also “bred a general whisper that he was guilty of bribery,” Nevins writes.
Although Urbana-Champaign spent the most money on lobbying, its bid for the university didn’t measure up to other communities. These bids could include anything from buildings and land to bonds as a lure to attract the new institution. Jacksonville offered the equivalent of $491,000, while Bloomington set aside property and bonds valued at $470,000, and Lincoln’s bid was valued at $385,000.
In contrast, Champaign County’s bid was estimated to be valued at about $285,000, Nevins says.
Griggs argued that Jacksonville had already been given its share of “plum” institutions, such as an insane asylum, while Bloomington already had what was then called Illinois State Normal University. It was only fair to award Champaign County a landmark institution as well.
Champaign County also benefited from the announcement that the Danville, Urbana, Bloomington, and Peoria Railroad would run east-west through Urbana-Champaign. Before this, trains could only access the two communities from the north and south.
Finally, on the afternoon of February 20, 1867, the Illinois General Assembly voted on the Jacksonville location, sending it down to defeat. When debate reopened that night, the halls and galleries were full as Governor Richard J. Oglesby and Attorney General Robert G. Ingersoll made a dramatic entrance, taking seats near Griggs to signal their support.
Votes soon followed on Bloomington and Lincoln, and both were defeated. Then came the vote on Champaign County, and it was approved by such a wide margin—67 to 10—that “even the members from Jacksonville crowded around him [Griggs] to congratulate him,” Nevins says.
But the choice of Urbana-Champaign also met disapproval from some influential corners. Jonathan Turner, the Illinois educator who led the nationwide movement for state universities, was crestfallen by the choice.
According to Nevins, Turner’s daughter “had never seen him so discouraged as by this legislative decision.” The Chicago Tribune applauded Turner’s statement that “this is the first time in my life I ever knew a valuable piece of property to be knocked down to the lowest bidder.”
But if you were a Champaign County backer, you probably preferred the sentiment of Milton W. Matthews and Lewis A. McLean, who had this to say in their 1886 book, Early History and Pioneers of Champaign County: “No man ever lived in Champaign County who exercised a greater influence or accomplished more good for the county than Clark R. Griggs. That splendid temple dedicated to learning, the University of Illinois, will always stand as a monument to his indomitable energy and perseverance.”
It’s also a monument to the political potency of oyster suppers and quail dinners.
Sources: Illinois, Allan Nevins, Oxford University Press, 1917; Early History and Pioneers of Champaign County, Milton W. Matthews and Lewis A. McLean, Champaign County Herald, 1891; University of Illinois Archives, Clark R. Griggs Memoir, 1906; and Semi-Centennial History of the University of Illinois, Volume 1, Burt E. Powell, University of Illinois, 1918.