EFFINGHAM — Community members were recently invited to experience the history of the former Illinois College of Photography within the walls that once housed the school in the early 1900s.
A crowd of just under 50 people gathered in the foyer of the Austin Mansion to hear a presentation from the Effingham County Museum on Effingham’s specialized college. Local historian and retired teacher Phil Lewis told the audience the college, started by Lewis H. Bissell in what is now the Austin Mansion, provided an education for 4,000 to 5,000 students from across the United States and 52 foreign countries until it closed in 1932.
The presentation specifically focused on photographers Ray and Faye Graves, a couple from Nebraska who shared a love for photography. Museum Vice President Jane Reis said the couple decided Faye should attend the Illinois College of Photography in 1909 and again in 1914 because of Bissell’s ideal that women belonged in the world of photography in a time when women were limited in careers they could pursue.
“They weren’t just married. They worked together. They were equal partners,” Reis said of the Graves. “(It) was at a time when it was what I call the three ‘Ms’ for women. Your choices were pretty much marriage, maid or milliner. Those were some of the few opportunities that were available for women, and Lewis Bissell believed firmly that women had a place in (photography).”
Reis said the Graves owned five or six photo studios in their lifetime, all which included a skylight to allow more natural light, something Faye learned to add while at the college. The couple is perhaps most famous for their portrait of Chief Red Cloud of the Ogala Lakota Sioux.
The women of the Illinois College of Photography had a more local connection, too. Myrtle Bates, aunt of local veterinarian Sam Walton, attended the school in its first year and continued to take photos that were left behind for her family.
Reis said Bates was one of several students who paid $75 for a lifetime tuition to the school. She said a lifetime tuition meant a student could return to the school and take courses at any time while the college remained in operation.
The college not only brought many cultures to Effingham but also an economic boost through housing students and tuition costs, Reis said.
“I find people that came from China, Japan, Russia, England, Hawaii … Nome, Alaska. They were coming from all of the states. They were coming from Costa Rica and South America,” Reis said of the college’s students. “A lot of these older homes you see around here boarded students. The economy that was brought in by this college is unbelievable.”
Lewis said students created postcards using their photographs as a main source of revenue. He said the students often sent these postcards to friends and family back home, and sometimes, the photos were used in advertisements for the college. The photos would often include lakes, bridges and other sites found in or near Effingham.
Lewis said since the college was forced to close due to low enrollment during the Great Depression, it has changed ownership at least six times before being sold to Walnut Street Weddings in 2013. The wedding business currently hosts weddings and other events at the Austin Mansion, located on the corner of Fourth Street and Wabash Avenue.
Despite the college being long gone, Lewis said the college’s motto still rings true today.
“The sun never sets on Illinois College of Photography students,” Lewis said.
Kaitlin Cordes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-347-7151 ext. 132.