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Ivory Tower

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Few people have tried so hard to build an ivory tower as Reverend George Gale. None has failed so completely.

As a young Presbyterian minister in New York in the early 19th century, Gale had visions of a college to train poor young men for the ministry. There would be no tuition. Students would earn their way by manual labor as they studied religion and literature. Such a college would have to be isolated from the evils of civilization: from wealth, from the divisive slavery issue, and from all the isms— Unitarianism and others—which could entice young men from the true path. Gale even planned to include a Female Seminary alongside the college to supply proper young wives for his seminarians.

Several thousand acres in Knox County, on the Illinois prairie, turned out to both isolated and available. Here, in the spring of 1836, Reverend Gale led a group of religious farmers to found Galesburg and build Prairie College. Galesburg's farms made the town self-sufficient, and city ordinances prohibiting the sale of liquor or the establishment of gambling dens or houses of ill fame kept it pure. Required daily prayer and church on Sunday kept the students purer still.

The College shortly changed its name to Knox. Unfortunately, Reverend Gale had located his town in an area of earlier settlers from the South; their pro-slavery sentiments, and the fact that Galesburg lay on one of the routes north for escaped slaves, forced the town and college out of their ivory tower. By 1858, when Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln held their famous debate on the slavery question on the steps of Knox's Old Main, both the college and the town had become one of the most important stations on the Underground Railroad, hiding slaves who came up by wagon from Cairo, Illinois, and sending them along to Canada.

Often under threat of arrest, or even harm from slave owners who came looking for their slaves, Knox College and its professors were forced to practice what they preached, even, on occasion, using their ivory towers to hide slaves.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.