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How Normal Became NORMAL

Published April 23, 2006
Countries: USA
Age Levels: 9 and up

Before the Civil War, back in 1854, Bloomington, Illinois was a growing town.  Bloomington had been built earlier where the old Indian Trails crossed.  These old Indian Trails later became dirt roads, and then paved highways, including what we now call Highway 39 (51), Highway 55 (old Route 66), and Highway 74.   Bloomington became larger when the railroads were built alongside these same trails.  But the roads around Bloomington in 1857 were mostly made of dust that flew everywhere on dry days and mud on days when it rained.

Public education was important in Illinois, so important that one section of every county in the State had been set aside by law to be used for the purpose of public education.  Still, around 1840 there were about 100,000 Illinois children who were not in school and more than 28,000 adults who could not read or write.  Everyone knows it is hard to educate children or adults without good teachers.

Word went out that the Governor of Illinois wanted to build a school to train teachers.  Governor William Bissell signed a bill in 1857 to create a "normal" school.  The word "normal" came from the French.  In France, schools that prepared teachers were called "normal schools."  The bill written by the governor called for building a "normal school."  All the state had to do was find the best location for the school.  The bill stipulated that the permanent location of the first "normal" school would be the place that offered the most money to help pay for the costs of building the college. 

A Bloomington resident named Jesse Fell was one of the first people who acted on what he heard.  He loved the Bloomington area thought an area just north of the town would be perfect for a teachers' college.  The area was called "The Junction."  It was where the Illinois Central Railroad and the Chicago & Alton Railroad Crossed.  When Jesse Fell heard that the community that raised the most money for the normal school would be the home of the first teacher training school in Illinois, he started going door to door to families and businesses, asking for pledges of money and for donations of land that could be sold to raise money for the school.  Fell also traveled around to size up the competition.  Three other cities were trying to get the Governor to build the school in their town.  Fell heard that Peoria was trying the hardest to raise money so they could get the teachers' college.  He traveled by buggy to El Paso, IL and by railroad from there to Peoria.  Sitting quietly in the back of the room, Fell discovered that Peoria had raised $80,000 for the cost of building the normal school.  Back to Bloomington he went in a hurry.  Then, he increased his efforts to raise money.  In all, the city of Bloomington raised $141,000 to help the state build the normal school.

The people of Bloomington paid an attorney to draw up the bonds guaranteeing that the Bloomington citizens would fulfill their financial commitments.  The fellow that Jesse Fell hired was a well-known traveling lawyer.  He was a tall, thin man who wore a stovepipe hat most of the time - a fellow by the name of Abraham Lincoln.

The contracts were drawn up and signed.  The Governor set up a board to go to inspect the site where the new school would be built.  The story goes that it was a chilly day in the fall of 1857.  The weather had been wet and rainy all summer, and the fall days had been rainy as well.  The cornfields and prairie lands all around Bloomington were wet and swampy.

The men on the Board of Education had come to Bloomington the day before and were ready to see the land on which Jesse Fell planned to build the normal school.  Their wagon had gotten stuck in the mud, and they all had to get out and walk across a soggy field to get to dry land.  These men were not happy and were thinking about building the teachers' college in Peoria.

This is why Jesse Fell traveled to "The Junction" in north Bloomington without a carriage on the very morning these men were going to inspect the site for the new school.  Fell walked the entire route, planning the driest route for the men who he would bring to the site in buggies later in the day.  They took a path from downtown Bloomington past the one building that housed Illinois Wesleyan University and on to where Fell dreamed of building a great normal school - Illinois State Normal School!

The Board of Education Members were still not happy when they arrived at the site, but they fell in love with the beautiful flat prairie land and saw the vision that Fell had seen.  Fell described with words what the three-story building would look like and talked about the teachers who would one day walk through the doors of the school to teach the children of Illinois.

This was how the normal school came to be built next to Bloomington.  But, until the school was built, students attended classes in downtown Bloomington at the corner of what is now East Street and Front Street.

Students fresh out of high school came to the Normal School - Illinois State Normal Teachers' College in Bloomington if they wanted to be teachers.  The education majors took classes in a building called Major's Hall.

The building was the site of Abraham Lincoln's "Lost Speech," and it was believed to be the birthplace of the Republican Party in Illinois.  The building no longer stands, but a marker next to the Abraham Lincoln Parking Garage at East and Front streets marks the spot of ISNU's first home.

The university later moved to a campus that Jesse Fell laid out in North Bloomington, which was incorporated in 1865 as the town of Normal.  So, as strange as it may sound, Normal has not always been NORMAL.  Normal was in Bloomington.  But, now Normal is Normal.  And the school "Illinois State Normal Teachers' College" had its name changed to Illinois State Normal University and shortened more to Illinois State University.

The land around the university has been build up throughout the years.  Houses, businesses, stores and more until Normal came to look like almost every other town.  In other words, Normal became Normal!

And in the student union of that university, there is a special room called the 1857 Room.  It is called that to celebrate the year of 1857 when Jesse Fell took the first step of making Normal Normal!

Sources of information for this story were:

Marshall, Helen. Grandest of Enterprises Illinois State Normal

Uiversity 1857-1957, Normal, IL December, 1956.

Arney, Steve and Freimann, Michael, "Sesqui!  Bloomington's History

Celebrated on its 150th Anniversary, Pantagraph, Bloomington, IL

Dallinger, Barbara.  The First 100 years (1857-1957) Illinois State

University, Internet Article. 


Dr. Mike Lockett is an educator, storyteller and children's author from Normal, IL. Dr. Lockett has given more than 4000 programs across the USA and as far away as eastern Asia. Contact Mike by writing to in order to book him for a storytelling program or young authors program or to inquire about purchasing his books and CDs. More stories and information about storytelling can be found at