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A Little Journey to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois’ Shifting Seat of Learning

By Richard H. Little

Circa 1906-1907


 

The following article was written by Richard Henry Little (1869-1946). Mr. Little was a LeRoy, Illinois native and renowned newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribute and Chicago Daily News. This article is in our museum collection but the paper it appeared in is not listed with the article. It is assumed that this article appeared in the Chicago Tribute sometime after a decision was made by University President Edmund James and Board of Trustee Member Mary Busey to officially list " Urbana-Champaign" as the university's official address.


According to research by University Archivist William Maher and Bryan Whitledge, the issue of the University's official home reached a rolling boil in the fall of 1906 with members of the Champaign Chamber of Commerce and citizens from both communities petitioning the university. At that time, the university had simply been using "Urbana, Illinois" on all university correspondence.


According to Maher and Whitledge, the issue was formally submitted to the Board of Trustees in September 1906. The issue was referred to a special committee consisting of President James and Trustee Busey. While their research shows no further board action, the university began using the Urbana-Champaign name shortly after.


Mr. Little's little article features the author bouncing back and forth by streetcar between Champaign and Urbana asking "prominent" citizens for their take only to return to the prior city and drum up further trouble! Little's article helps shed light on the debate of that fall and even elicits very strong feelings as members of both communities made the case for why their city should or should not be included in the official name.


One can't help but compare this article to a debate playing out on Facebook or some other social medial platform of today with its anonymous comments and the vitriol that comes from anonymity!


 

Is the University of Illinois in Champaign or in Urbana or in Champaign-Urbana or in Urbana-Champaign or in Chambana or in Urpaign? They would like to know down in Champaign, also in Urbana. The University of Illinois authorities, after getting in hot water in regard to this delicate matter at least many times, have settled the difficulty to their own satisfaction by addressing all their mail from “Urbana-Champaign.”


While this is satisfying to the university authorities, nobody else is pleased. Champaign wants to know why the university authorities do not write “Champaign-Urbana” and over in Urbana they ask, why is Champaign?”


Champaign and Urbana are two lovely little cities that would have no trouble at all were it not that they’re both in love with the same girl, the fickle, flirting University of Illinois. The university has many buildings and much money and many students, and both towns claim the honor of possession.


Urbana citizens when approached on the subjects, or any other subject, for that matter, will say modestly: “Urbana claims the university simply because the university is operated in Urbana, that’s all. If the university was in Peoria, then Peoria could claim it. If it was in Chicago, then Chicago would claim it; or if it was in Champaign, then Champaign might claim it; but as it happened to be in Urbana, then for the sale of truth, why not say so?”


Over in Champaign they say that the university is in both towns. “You will observe,” says Frank Harris, the president of the Champaign Chamber of Commerce, as he spread a large map out before the visitor and jabbed at it with a pencil, “that here is Wright street. It is the dividing line between Champaign and Urbana. It was named by a disgusted citizen of Urbana, who moved out of the town. He didn’t care where he moved to, just so he got out of Urbana. So, he moved just outside of the Urbana boundary and then said: “Now I’m all right.” Hence you see the origin of the street name. It was originally spelled that way, but in after years, out of respect to the sensitive feelings of Urbana citizens, the spelling was changed to “Wright.”


“Now you will observe that if you stand in Wirhgt Street facing toward the university, Champaign is on your right hand and Urbana on your left, or nigh side. You will observe that Right Street if extended would almost equally divide the university ground so that one-fourth of them would be in Champaign and three-fourths in Urbana. Do you follow me.”

“I do,” I assented, “if Wright street were extended it would equally divide the university grounds so that one-fourth of them would be Champaign and three-fourths in Urbana.”


“Quality,” interposed Mr. Harris pleasantly, “must be taken into account as well as quantity. The buildings on the Champaign side of the university grounds are much newer and more imposing than those on the Urbana side. The great horticulture hall is on the Champaign side. What is more important than horticulture? All the nation is now concerned over the preservation of the forest trees in the United States. That matter will all be settled by the horticulture experiments on the Champaign side of the University of Illinois.”


“If you visit the university grounds you will observe that the grass is longer, thicker and greener on the Champaign side than it is on the Urbana side, where pennyroyal and bear grass chiefly grow. Also, the sky is much bluer overhead and the air is sweeter and purer.

Thanking Mr. Harris, I hastened on a street car to Urbana to interview the leading citizens there on the subject. The leading citizens snorted loudly at the remarks of Mr. Harris. They pointed out that the new and modern and very expensive buildings on the Champaign side of the university grounds besides the horticulture building were the swine building, the sheep building and the cattle pens.


“We didn’t want the sheep and hogs over on the Urbana side of the University grounds,” said a prominent citizen of Urbana. “We wanted them over on the Champaign side, where they would feel more at home.”


Slap right on the wrist, like that, for Champaign with Urbana’s compliments.

The prominent citizen of Urbana who said this wanted his name withheld. He said he did big business with citizens of Champaign, who at least knew a real store when they saw one, and that they all sneaked over to Urbana when they wanted real bargains, and didn’t want his remark published, because while what he was saying was true he didn’t believe in needlessly hurting anyone’s feeling.


“In this connection, however, I might say,” resumed the prominent citizen of Urbana, “that the pigs and sheep are deeply indignant at being placed on the Champaign side of the university grounds. They feel deeply humiliated, and I understand they have addressed a communication to the university authorities demanding a transfer to the Urbana side. Of course, even sheep and pigs have feelings. We are sorry for them, but there is n place for them in Urbana.”


We took down data furnished by both towns as to the size of each town, and as to the origin of the contest over the property location of the university. Urbana is the older town. It was settled largely by people from around Urbana, Ohio, in Champaign County. The town they founded in Illinois they call Urbana.


The Illinois Central came through the town, or tried to, and got into a dispute with the town officials and principally with the Buseys, who were the overloads of the community, as to where the depot should be located. The railroad said unless they could locate their depot in a certain place they would not come through the town at all. Urbana said the railroad could to Urbana or go to some other place.


“Finding it impossible to go to the place we mentioned,” quoth an Urbana resident, “it went to Champaign”.


As a matter of simple historical fact Champaign did not exist at the date. The railroad moved a couple of miles west of Urbana and established its station. A town sprang up around the station, which for a number of years was known as West Urbana. This was hateful both to the railroad and the residents of the new town, so the name was changed to Champaign, after Champaign County, Ohio. It is, as the proud residents of Champaign to-day tell you, the only town named Champaign in the world.”


“ And it always will be,” say the scornful Urbana residents. “One town like that is enough for the world.”


Statistics regarding the two towns are easy to obtain, but they vary depending on where you collect them, Here is the deadly parallel from a Champaign standpoint:


Champaign

Population 30,000. Location of the University of Illinois, Burnham Library, Illinois Central depot, Champaign Association of Commerce, Hotel Beardsley, Congressman William B McKinley, magnificent Clothing Emporium of J. Kaufman, G. Huff, Gigantic stores, the Country Club, six banks, four parks, a golf expert.


Urbana

Population 4,000. Location of the county jail. That’s about all.


The deadly parallel from an Urbana standpoint:


Urbana

Population 20,000. Location of the University of Illinois, Big Four shops, Champaign County courthouse, Champaign County fairgrounds, Crystal Lake Park, Illinois Theater.


Champaign

Population 9,000. Location of a hotel, a congressman, a chop suey café, Jake Kaufman’s gents’, furnishings store, hog building University of Illinois, sheep building University of Illinois. More stores and some banks.



Against both of these reports, it might be well to mention that the census of 1900 gives the population of Champaign at 9,098 and Urbana 5,728.


The university has 5,000 students and both towns in stating their population use this phraseology: “The entire community with the student body present has a population of, etc.”

In times past the university authorities used to write their letters under the date line of Champaign. When Mrs. Samuel T. Busey of Urbana became a member of the board of trustees of the University of Illinois the Champaign was dropped and Urbana was given by the university authorities as the city in which the institution was located.


The Urbana post office established a substation at the university and then Urbana regarded the matter as settled. Champaign grew black in the face with rage and protested bitterly. Then the Champaign Association of Commerce took up the war and bombarded the university board of trustees with resolutions until finally, they agreed that the University of Illinois was officially located in Urbana-hyphen-Champaign. As far as the university is concerned, therefore, the twin cities are now united. Both Champaign and Urbana however, indignantly protest any union. Neither city will give up its own name or its individuality. Such composite names as Chambana or Urpaign are mocked at in scorn, and even Urbana-Champaign or Champaign-Urbana is derided.


“It is nonsense to think of Champaign ever being willing to annex Urbana,” said a prominent resident of Champaign, who said that for obvious he did not with his name published.

“Champaign is such a flourishing city that we could not be bothered with the petty, sordid details of a village.”


“Annex Champaign!” said a prominent resident of Urbana when the proposition of amalgamating the two cities was mentioned to him. “Ah, no; quite impossible. Urbana as the seat of one of the greatest educational institutions in the country, the University of Illinois, and with all its magnificent county buildings and fine streets and palatial homes, is too busy with its own development to give attention and care that Champaign so badly needs. The idea is impossible.”


That seems to settle it. One prominent Champaigner, who for obvious reasons” wished his identity concealed, said in a deep up-stage whisper that Urbana was a very primitive community.


“Urbana is a clannish, shut-in sort of a place,” he muttered, looking suspiciously around to see that nobody from Urbana was listening. “If you will investigate you will find that the people there intermarry, and have for generations, thus producing a peculiar and unmistakable type. They regard Urbana as the only city in the country and think themselves superior to other people.”


“And are they?” I asked.


“Oh not at all” said the prominent Champaigner hastily. “They are very nice people without doubt, but self-centered and perverse.”


“For instance?” I asked.


“Why, in many ways,” said the prominent Champaigner. “For instance, they refuse to consider dropping the name Urbana, which you will admit is an ill-sounding freak sort of a name, and being annexed to Champaign.”


“Oh, generation of vipers.” I said.


“Yes, indeed,” said the prominent Champaigner. “It is hard to understand how they can refuse the honor of being a part of a great metropolis like Champaign.


“Gaze on our advantages. Champaign is the seat of the University of Illinois, a splendid people, six banks, stores that Chicago would be proud of, the Hotel Beardsley, one of the finest hotels in the country; palatial homes, beautiful parks, a golf course with nine holes, pure water, fine air, much wealth, in all respects an ideal city, and one of the proudest and most progressive in the country.


“However, we are very patient with them, and in time, no doubt they will come to see the error of their ways.”


After talking with the prominent Champaigner it was only right to get back on the streetcar and travel over for a talk with a prominent Urbanaite.


“I don’t want to talk for publication,” said the prominent Urbanaite, “but for your own information, I don’t mind giving you a few facts. If you have been around much in the two towns you will have observed a great difference in the people of the two communities. There is an aristocracy in Urbana, while in Champaign the common people predominate. Very nice people and all that, but lacking the pride and spirit that characterize our people.

“Urbana has so many rights to claim ascendancy over Champaign that I need hardly enumerate them. In the first place, we have the University of Illinois located here, the county courthouse, then a very superior population, magnificent homes, and splendid stores, fine water and pure air.”


“We were willing at one time to consider annexing Champaign, but they are very obstinate, peculiar people over there. They do not wish to give up the name Champaign. It is not a good name. It is almost an immoral name. It might as well be named ‘Whisky’ or ‘Booze’ or ‘Highball.’


“Both towns are prohibition, no saloons being in either, and yet the suggestion of strong drink is kept continually before the mind of the students in the university and the young people of the two communities by the name Champaign.”


“Urbana is a rich, phonetic sounding name, a delight to the ear, and has no meretricious significance. I hope, however, that the prohibition wave that is sweeping over the country and has carried away so many saloons will in time compel the citizens in our neighboring community to abandon the inebriating title of their city and come under the grand old name of Urbana.”


Continuing my investigations in Urbana, I found another prominent citizen who was stirred to mocking scorn by my enumeration of the conversations I had had with the prominent Champaigners.


“Champaign is a joke,” said this prominent Urbanaite. “What they got over there? They got the congressman, when he’s home, George Huff and Charley Hatch, who used to be a lieutenant in the navy, and Jake Kaufman and a chop suey parlor.”


“Now, I don’t want to knock, but the congressman is as much our congressman as he is Champaign’s. He belongs to the district. G. Huff is the athletic director of the University of Illinois, and, as the unitarity is in Urbana, George belongs to us, after all, and not to Champaign. Charley Hatch is all right, but the very fact that he resigned from the United States navy to come back and live in Champaign shows a sort of lacking somewhere, and Jake Kaufman knows that it is his Urbana customers who keep his store going.

“They’re all swelled up over their country club at Champaign, and because they’ve got a golf expert who comes from Chicago to give ‘em lessons. They need lessons all right. When we start a country club in Urbana in won’t be a dinky little nine-hole course in a cow pasture. By golly, we’ll have twenty holes in our gold course, or Forty – anything to beat Champaign.

After hearing all this from the Urbana standpoint it was time to go right straight back to Champaign with it. Another prominent Champaigner was consulted and showed the documents in evidence. He sputtered in vitriolic wrath.


“Sure they have a county courthouse over in Urbana,” said this prominent Champaigner. “It was put there so it would be convenient for the accused. The county seat means the location of the jail, and we put it in Urbana so the families of the prisoners could visit them without spending money for car fare. But don’t believe what they tell you Urbana. They know better. It’s just jealousy. We’re not jealous here in Champaign. Urbana is too small a place to be jealous of.”


With this terrible shot the prominent Champaigner strode away.


So as yet the only institutions that seem to recognize a dual community are the University of Illinois, which addresses its mail, “Urbana-Champaign,” and the Twin Cities Woman’s Club. The women of the two communities had amalgamated in the joint club and meeting in peace and harmony.


Another move that looked like the beginning of a coalition between the two cities dies ignominiously. A proposition was advance to have a township high school, which meant one great high school to serve both cities.


“But it was a no go.” Said a prominent Champaigner. “Whose people over in Urbana spoiled it. We naturally wanted it on our side of Wright Street, the dividing street between the two towns, because the best land on which to erect a high school happened to be on the Champaign side of Wright Street.


“But no, those Urbana fanatics wouldn’t stand for the idea of a joint high school unless it was built with its middle right in the mathematical center of Wright Street with 240,350 ½ bricks on the Champaign side and 240,350 ½ bricks on the Urbana side. And after the building was finished they would probably refuse to have anything more to so with the scheme or pay their share on the grounds if there were three more bricks on the Champaign side than were on the Urbana half.”


But the Twin Cities Women’s Club still peacefully peruses its way, or still pursues its way peacefully, and also proudly, and at the office of the University of Illinois they write their letter from Urbana-Champaign.


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