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Abandoned Illinois College Campus Now An Arboretum Open To The Public

The Buildings Are In Decline, But This Abandoned Site Welcomes The Public

The former campus of Shimer College in Mount Carroll, Illinois is one of those amazingly beautiful places that make you cringe when you learn it’s abandoned.

People walk along tree line sidewalks of the Frances Wood Shimer Memorial Arboretum past the large brick & metal entrance gate to what was once the campus Shimer College, in Mt. Carroll, Illinois.  Part of the Lost Americana series. 
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Shimer College started as Mount Carroll Seminary, in Mount Carroll, Illinois in 1852 as a day school and while the buildings and name have had several changes over the past 166 years it remains a staple in the town.  In 1866, Frances Wood-Shimer who was one of the two original teachers for the school, would make the school female only. When she retired in 1896 the school was turned over to the University of Chicago, who renamed the school Frances Shimer Academy of The University of Chicago. A fire in 1906 destroyed the original main building on campus, but other new structures were not damaged. The University of Chicago renamed the school Shimer College in 1950. It became a coed school once again and began offering four year degrees, but 8 years later the schools parted ways, and Shimer continued on its own as a four year institution.

Abandoned for the first time

During the 1970s enrollment started to drop and the college moved to Waukegan, Illinois in 1979. The campus was put up for auction and was purchased by a group of local residents in 1980 who started the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation. It held workshops offering hands on training architectural  preservation as well as preservation training for people who worked in museums and libraries, or other historical preservation fields. The campus was also turned into an arboretum and made open to the public.

Metcalf Hall is the first building you see and possibly the grandest on the former Shimer College campus, in Mt. Carroll, Illinois. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Abandoned for a second time

While it is unclear who owns the property now, from what I have done research on, according to some residents who live on the surround blocks, the Campbell Center, renamed The International Preservation Studies Center, relocated about a year or two ago to Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois and little has been done preserving the campus. The grass and landscaping has been kept up and doggy waste bag stations appear well stocked, but a neighbor said they were unsure who maintains the property now.

The one fact the people I talked to could agree on is that they fear the demise of the campus may be inevitable if someone doesn’t step in soon. As one resident pointed out, the cornice of the roof on Metcalf Hall as well as other buildings are suffering from water rot. And the tuck-pointing on several buildings is in bad shape. Although that might be the worst of it. Rumor has it that the buildings, most all but a set of dorms built in the 1960s, are full of their share of asbestos.

While I couldn’t confirm any of this next part, I was told that a Chinese company was looking at buying the campus recently, but news of deal in this small town of 1,600 has gone cold for now.

The Campbell Memorial Library on the Shimer College campus. Part of the Lost Americana series. 
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Hathaway Hall on the abandoned campus of Shimer College, Mt. Carroll, Illinois. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Abandoned, but maybe not by the locals. The campus grounds of the old Shimer College are still mowed and the dog waste bag station is till stocked. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Interesting factoids:

•One of the two original teachers recruited to run the school when it first opened in 1852 was named Cinderella Gregory. The other was Frances Wood, who would later go onto marry a man named Henry Shimer.

•Robert Conrad, of TV’s Black Sheep Squadron fame, filmed a made for TV comedy here in 1984 call “Hard Knox“, about a retired fighter pilot who becomes the head of a military high school.

•Also, as of this posting, Robert Conrad (born 1935) is still alive. His birth name was Conrad Robert Falk. And he’s originally from Chicago. Who knew? Besides him of course.

•I had to drive to Mt. Carroll to find a college right down the street from me. I live on Chicago’s south side and coincidentally not far from the University of Chicago, or from Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), where Shimer College relocated to after it left Waukegan 2006. Ironically, Shimer once again relocated in 2017 and became part of North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

The gymnasium at Shimer. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
A peak inside the gym doors. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
You can’t miss this place when you’re driving down Illinois Route 78 through Mt. Carroll. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
McKee Hall. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Walking around the abandoned campus of Shimer College in the fall is absolutely breath taking. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Did I ever mention I have a collection of photos of Historical Markers. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

 

Mt. Carroll, like many other rural towns is seeing the effects of a changing economic landscape as well as a declining population. While most of Market Street seems to be fairing better than most towns of 1,600 people these buildings at the tail end may be a sign of things to come. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Mt. Carroll, like many other rural towns is seeing the effects of a changing economic landscape as well as a declining population. While most of Market Street seems to be fairing better than most towns of 1,600 people these buildings at the tail end may be a sign of things to come. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Market Street, the main business strip in Mt. Carroll, seems to be doing a little better than other towns its size. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Carroll County Court House, Mt. Carroll, Illinois. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
The Bridgewater Inn on Market Street in Mt. Carroll, looks to have been renovated and is open for reservations. Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

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