Serving as an unofficial campus historian for Monmouth College presents both challenges and rewards. When inquiries about ancestors who may have attended MC come in by phone or email, for example, they are often forwarded to me. That can present a challenge—taking time from my regular duties to look through the available records for a satisfactory answer.
On the other hand, I am sometimes pleasantly surprised by a campus visitor who appears out of the blue, often with an unexpected treasure for the archives. Such was the case one summer when the great-grandson of David Wallace (Monmouth’s first president) passed through town during his vacation and offered to present the college with a previously unknown oil portrait of his distinguished ancestor. The portrait, as well as a Bible and walking stick belonging to Wallace, are now part of our Special Collections.
For many years, the archives were under the watch of history professor Stacy Cordery, who encouraged several of her students to gain curatorial experience by working in the archives and cataloging its ever-growing list of holdings. Some of these students have gone on to pursue graduate study and professional positions in museum work. Now that Stacy has her hands full as both a best-selling biographer and professor, the archival duties have been placed in the capable hands of technical services librarian Lynn Daw, who is not only technically capable but also as passionate as Stacy about the collection and preservation of original source documents.
Located on the second floor of Hewes Library in the Beveridge Rooms, the college archives have come a long way since 1937 when librarian Mary McCoy established the “Monmouthiana Collection,” by culling old documents and photos from dusty files throughout campus. Today, that memorabilia resides in hundreds of archival boxes in a spacious, air-conditioned room. Scattered throughout its cupboards and shelves are a remarkable array of objects and documents: a lithographic stone once used to print diplomas, the clapper from the old college bell, the hand-written lecture notes of President Wallace, a dinner plate from Hawcock’s Cafe, the elevating screw from the college cannon, and the 1835 diary of Presbyterian missionary Alexander Blaikie, to name a few.
Many of the choicest treasures are not readily noticed but are tucked away anonymously on a shelf, waiting to be discovered. One such gem is a little hardbound essay book containing the handwritten poetry of Jennie Morrison Robb, a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., who graduated from Monmouth College in 1859. Its entries begin in 1857 and end in 1867, two years before her death. One of the most poignant is this poem, penned on April 16, 1865, two days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:
Father in heaven! In this hour
Of sore affliction, we draw near
And at thy footstool humbly bow
In prayer for strength our grief to bear.
O God! Thy ways seem dark to us.
We cannot see why wicked ones
Should be allowed to vent their hate
Upon our country’s noblest sons.
The nation mourns her fallen chief
With grief that scarce can comfort find.
Oh! May the Healer, from whose hand
The stroke is tenderly upbind.
To Thee our wounded hearts we bring.
Wilt Thou, O great Physician heal!
Cause us to know that this great ill
Thou hast ordained but for our weal.
We know that mortal men are but
The instruments in Thy great hand,
Accomplishing Thy work on Earth;
And acting but at Thy command.
We put our trust in Thee, O God!
For help in all our times of need.
Raise up one to complete the work
Unfinished by our honored dead.
And may the nation feel, the stroke
Is for Thy glory; and our good.
So may we humbly bow to Thee
And in submission, kiss the rod.
Inserted in the back of the book are 19 loose pages, comprising a salutory address delivered by Miss Robb upon her graduation, July 7, 1859. Written in her own hand, what a priceless document it is, as it may well be the only surviving record from one of the college’s earliest commencements.
After her graduation, Jennie married the Rev. William Turner Moffet, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Somonauk, Illinois. Their son, Hugh Robb Moffet, was born in 1863, and he would later attend Monmouth College before embarking on a highly successful newspaper career, editing and publishing the Monmouth Review Atlas for many decades, and serving on the college’s board of trustees.
Jennie’s enthusiasm for writing was likely the inspiration for her son’s lifelong devotion to journalism. Sadly, she died when Hugh was only six, and it’s easy to imagine why he treasured and saved her college journal for many decades, finally donating it to her alma mater sometime before his own death in 1957.
How fortunate we are that Moffet, along with so many other alumni and friends over the years, have been thoughtful enough to present their personal and family memorabilia to the college archives for safekeeping. Without them, large chunks of our colorful history would be lost.
If you have old letters, scrapbooks, photos or objects associated with Monmouth College, please consider donating them to the archives. Or, if you spot an interesting MC item on eBay, as some of our alumni have done recently, we appreciate those gifts as well. What you may consider to be an ordinary, uninteresting document could just be another “Jennie’s Journal” for a future historian.