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Once Upon a Time, Plainfield Had a College ... Until Naperville Lured It Away

North Central College marks 150 years Friday, but for the first nine, the school was based in Plainfield.

The Inquiry

North Central College in Naperville is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. But didn’t the school begin at Plainfield?

The Facts

Although North Central College is officially 150 years old this week, the school has been a Naperville institution for a mere 141 years. 

Indeed, the school traces its establishment to , where the doors were opened 150 years ago at 10 a.m. Nov. 11, 1861. 

However, the founding of the institution at Plainfield has an even longer history. 

In 1809, Conrad and Elizabeth Dillman were living at Potters Mills, Centre County, Pa., where they became associated with the German Evangelical church. 

Four years later, they and their children moved west to Greensburg, Ohio, a small hamlet exactly halfway between the burgeoning village of Canton and a yet-to-be-platted Akron. There, Conrad Dillman, a wealthy farmer, urged his neighbors to maintain their ties to God on the Ohio frontier.

By 1816, the Greensburg home of the devout Dillman family became a regular preaching stop on the Canton circuit of the Evangelical Association. 

Following in his father’s footsteps, Michael Dillman increased the family fortune while raising his own family in the 1830s and 1840s. 

Michael Dillman’s eldest son, Joel, married Lydia Aultman of the industrious and exceptionally wealthy Aultman-Miller family of Canton, Ohio. 

Fortuitously, Michael Dillman’s third son, Andrew, traveled to Illinois in 1847, selling some of the first grain reapers in this region. Andrew reported of the great opportunities that were possible in Illinois.  

So, in 1849, members of the Dillman, Aultman, and Miller families moved from Ohio to Plainfield, establishing the successful Dillman Foundry, where Dillman Reapers and other agricultural implements were first manufactured.

Back at Greensburg, Ohio, discussions regarding the building of a college there began in August 1855. Under the auspices of the Evangelical Association, a stock company was formed, and the Greensburg Seminary was opened with 19 students that same year.

In those days, a seminary was not always a theological institution, but often a reference to any higher learning institute. In 1856, a dormitory was constructed to house the growing student body of 56 men and 40 women. The president of Greensburg Seminary was Augustine A. Smith. 

In April 1859, the Illinois Conference of the Evangelical Association voted to establish an institution of higher learning.   

To entice the institution to Plainfield, local residents offered an unfinished, community high school building and $5,000 to the Evangelical Conference. In 1860, the foundation of the incomplete school stuck out of the ground on the north side of the Lockport Road … across from the local, German-speaking Evangelical church.

After much consideration—and likely due to the influence of the extended Dillman family—Plainfield was selected in January 1861. Like the Greensburg Seminary model, a local stock company was formed at Plainfield to finance and oversee the establishment of the college.   

One month later, Michael Dillman died at Plainfield. Four months later, the Civil War erupted. 

At the urging of the Dillman and Miller families, Augustine A. Smith was called from Greensburg Seminary to serve as the first president of Plainfield College. Commitments at Greensburg delayed Smith’s arrival at Plainfield until 1862. 

However, Smith “played a key role in the developmental stages” of Plainfield College. Smith was fervent in his convictions about Christian principles, temperance, the abolition of slavery, and a woman’s right to equal education.

Opening with 243 students, Plainfield College offered coursework in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, astronomy, philosophy, German, French, Latin, and English. In an era when many institutions instructed only men or only women, Plainfield College was co-educational in its faculty and its student body from the beginning.

The original faculty included several members of the extended Dillman-Miller family. John E. Miller, a half-brother of Lydia (Aultman) Dillman, taught Greek and Latin.  His wife, Emily (Huntington) Miller, was an original instructor as well. Michael Dillman’s son-in-law, John E. Rhodes, was a professor of mathematics, modern language and natural science.

In February 1864, Plainfield College was re-named North-Western College. John and Emily Miller resigned at the end of the 1864 term. The first class graduated from North-Western College in 1866.  

With an offer of $25,000, eight acres of land and better access by railroad, the citizens of successfully enticed the college to relocate to their community in 1869. The first classes at Naperville were held in 1870. 

Conrad Dillman’s great granddaughter, Amanda, graduated in 1871. A. A. Smith continued as president of North-Western College until 1883.

Three years later, the former college building at Plainfield burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances, leaving little but memories amid the smoldering ashes.

Do you have a column idea for Michael Lambert? We'd love to hear it. Send it to karen@patch.com.

Sheila Raddatz November 10, 2011 at 04:49 AM
Luv the story. If we could only get a university back into Plainfield......
Ryan November 10, 2011 at 05:21 AM
As a current North Central student and a Plainfield resident, It's great to see Plainfield's pride in this story and I assure you, North Central has not forgotten it's roots!
Lori Janiec November 10, 2011 at 06:18 PM
Naperville probably needed to pick on this after they lost the county seat to Wheaton. Figures...
artistbob January 19, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Wow. Didn't know that. *shakes fist at Naperville* :)


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