The History & Hauntings of Millikin University
By Troy Taylor
Millikin University began just over a century ago in an area of the city that was nothing more than forest and open fields. The city of Decatur was officially platted in 1829 but the land along West Eldorado and West Main Streets (where Millikin University is now located) remained open prairie for many years. The original owner of this tract was Amos Robinson, who also owned property and orchards to the east of present-day Millikin. Robinson sold the land to Edward Keys in June 1835 but he later forfeited on the deal and it fell back into the hands of the Robinson family. They retained ownership of it until James Millikin finally purchased it.
The growth of Decatur to the west was slow in the early years and it would not be until the 1860's that the future site of Millikin University would become important to the growth of the city. Near the beginning of the Civil War, the area was turned into a camping ground and a drill field for soldiers. Wooden barracks were constructed and drills were conducted near where the Schilling Building is now located. The camp would be occupied throughout the entire length of the war as Decatur saw constant recruiting and training of Illinois soldiers.
The land where the university would someday stand changed again after the war. At that time, the Catholic Church purchased a small section of land along the northern edge of the future college. The land was cleared, which included the demolition of an old schoolhouse, and Calvary Cemetery was started in its place.
Then in 1868, a local businessman named James Millikin purchased 16 acres of ground that spread eastward from a point approximately where Fairview Avenue currently runs to the Wabash Railroad tracks. The land also extended between West Main Street (then called Springfield Road, a dirt stagecoach track and horse trail) and the current site of Millikin's athletic field.
At that time, the land to the west of Millikin's parcel had become known as "Fairview Park". As the oldest park in Decatur, it was originally used as a county fairground between 1856 and 1884. During the 1860's, several Illinois State Fairs were also held here. During its heyday, the park boasted a tourist camp, an amusement park, Dreamland Lake and of course, the famous "Fairview Park Bears", who entertained onlookers until the 1970's.
It was not until 1900 that work actually began on the new university. During the construction of the first buildings, a spur of railway track was run from the main line of the Wabash line and along William Street to a convenient unloading point at the back of the campus. It was removed when the Women's Hall was built in 1907.
Unfortunately for the college, the construction got off to a rocky start. The original work was set to begin in the spring of 1902, with hopes that it would open in September of that year. Thanks to numerous delays, mostly caused by a shortage of materials and bad construction, the opening had to be put off for an entire year. In fact, when the cornerstone was laid with full Masonic rites in June 1902, the walls had only been built as high as the first floor.
Another problem was caused by West End Lake. The lake posed major difficulties as far as construction and an expansion of the campus went, so in October 1902, when the Millikin Power House and the Machinery Hall were started, the lake was drained through Fairview Park. It was emptied, save for a small stream. Then in 1911, when the gymnasium was erected the stream was forced underground, although it still remains beneath the campus.
Also in 1911, the Conservatory of Music was built and construction on campus was completed until 20 years later, when the Gorin Library was erected in 1931. Since that time, growth has continued with the construction of the Griswold Center, the Kirkland Fine Arts building, new housing and halls, and renovations to older buildings.
The founder of Millikin University, James Millikin, was born at Clarkstown, Pennsylvania on August 2, 1827. While growing up, he attended the local school at Ten Mile Creek that was taught by his brother Samuel and later attended Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College) in Washington, Pennsylvania.
During his university days, Millikin found that he was moved by the struggle of some of the other boys to obtain funds to attend the college. He vowed that should he ever make his fortune, he would create his own university that all classes of people could attend.
As he neared the end of his schooling, Millikin found that his family was pushing him toward the medical profession. However, he desired a career in business. This desire, along with a taste for adventure, drew him to the western states. He persuaded his father, who was a farmer of moderate means, to head west with him in the summer of 1849.
The two men drove a flock of sheep across Pennsylvania and Ohio and into Indiana. Here, the animals were sold for a healthy profit. The following spring, Millikin drove another herd east, this time as far as Danville, Illinois. He pastured the animals there for some time and when he took them to market, he sold them at an even greater profit.
At that time, James was only 22 years-old and he spent the winter of 1850 attending Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana but did not settle down. For the next several years, he went back to Pennsylvania each winter and returned in the spring with larger and larger herds of sheep. The largest was over 2,000 animals and he invested the money wisely until he was able to afford to lease pasture land in Illinois. He then bought cattle and became well known for his excellent beef herds. He was later dubbed the "first Cattle King of the Prairie State".
In 1856, Millikin moved further west to Decatur, bringing with him a sizable fortune of more than $75,000. He came to the city prepared to go into business. At that time, Decatur had a booming economy, thanks to the arrival of the railroad and Millikin quickly realized that he could turn his fortune into a much larger one. He quickly bought several parcels of land, including a tract that ran between Pine Street and Oakland Avenue on the west side of Decatur. It would be here that he would later build the large mansion that still stands on the site today.
On January 1, 1857, Millikin married Anna M. Aston, a native of Washington, Pennsylvania. She had moved west with her family and her father, a minister and evangelist, had become the pastor of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Mt. Zion in 1855. Anna was a graduate of the Washington Female Seminary and she was teaching school in the community when she met James Millikin. The couple remained married for 52 years, until James passed away in 1909.
After their marriage, the Millikin's lived at the Revere House for almost a year. This hotel was one of the leading establishments in the city and was located at the southeast corner of Franklin and Prairie Streets. It boasted 12 bedrooms, a saloon and a restaurant within two stories and a basement. It flourished until 1871, when it burned down. The fire was believed to have started when a guest, unfamiliar with the new gas lights, left a gas jet burning and set the window curtains on fire. Fortunately for the Millikin's, they had moved to a cottage at the corner of William and Edward Streets in 1858.
The Millikin Homestead on Pine Street
But the couple would not remain contented in their small home. A number of years before, after first arriving in Decatur, Millikin had purchased the tract of land along Pine Street for around $2,000. In the early 1870's, he drew up plans for he and his wife's magnificent home and it was built for a cost of nearly $18,000.
The Millikin's remained in the house until the death of James in 1909. After that, Anna moved to Florida and she passed away in 1913. The house was vacant during this time and when Anna died, she willed it "for the purposes of art".
In 1920, the house was leased to the Decatur Institute of Civic Arts and in 1927; they began refurbishing the home and the furniture that remained with it. In 1944, the house became officially linked to Millikin University but was vacant again in 1969. Finally, in the middle 1970's, the house was renovated and in June 1974, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
James Millikin & His University
James Millikin's arrival in Decatur came at a time of rapid growth and change for the city. He became involved in local business and politics soon after coming here. He was a close friend of Abraham Lincoln and firmly backed him as a Republican candidate for president in 1860. Millikin also served as a Macon County supervisor for several years, but never ran for office himself.
His wisest business decision came in 1860, after the failure of the Railroad Bank. Several friends urged Millikin to go into the banking business, even though he had no experience with it. He decided to give it a try and moved into the former Railroad Bank building on Merchant Street. He hung out a sign that simply read "J. Millikin, Banker".
The bank was soon recognized as being both safe and stable, but it made little or no profit for the first 20 years that it was in business. As it turned out, Millikin's most valuable assets were the men that he surrounded himself with as officers of the bank. Among them were Orville B. Gorin, Parke Hammer, William Hammer, Smith Walker, Guy Lewis and Joseph Brownback.
Many readers may remember the "Millikin Building", located at 100 North Water Street. It was the fifth location of the bank and was one of the finest examples of terra cotta architecture in the state. It was called "the most pretentious office building in downstate Illinois." It was completed in 1896, with seven stories, a basement and 125 rooms. The offices boasted polished hardwood floors, hallways of white tile and marble staircases with copper and bronze accents.
After Millikin died in 1909, several changes were made to the building but the most glaring changes came in 1952 when the bank removed the ornate decorations on the building for "safety reasons". Eventually, the bank moved out of the building, but it remains today by its original name and still stands as a dignified and historic structure in downtown Decatur.
Millikin's accumulation of wealth never slowed his donations to charitable causes. During his lifetime, it is estimated that he gave away more than $500,000 of his fortune and a trust fund that he created still benefits the community. Perhaps the greatest gift that he gave to Decatur was Millikin University, which fulfilled his own ambitions from his college days.
In April 1901, Millikin received a charter to begin a new university in Decatur. He was prepared to supply the land and a large portion of the funds needed to start the construction of the school. He only asked that local business leaders and the governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church match his own donation. The new college was to be an offshoot of Lincoln College in Lincoln, Illinois, which was also under the auspices of the church. Millikin believed that this would eliminate much of the paperwork and provide some tax benefits. The money was quickly matched by the city and soon plans for the "Decatur College and Industrial School" were under way.
The arrangement with Lincoln College lasted until 1953 and the tenuous and ill-defined connection with the Presbyterian Church eventually faded away. Millikin always planned to offer an education at the school that would be "secular, but moral" and this lack of adherence to religious teachings gradually ended the association.
Millikin's first president, Dr. Albert Reynolds Taylor, was hired in 1901, and arrived to temporary offices in the Millikin Bank building. Taylor had been the president of the State Normal School of Kansas at Emporia before accepting the position that was offered to him by Millikin in 1901. In the early years of the college, he would serve as president; dean; registrar; business manager; teaching chair in philosophy; pedagogy; and education; and often taught several classes each week. His annual salary was $5,000.
Vintage Postcard from the early days of Millikin University
Vintage Postcard from the early days of Millikin University
In September 1901, Taylor outlined nine "schools" for the new college, including Engineering; Commerce and Finance; Fine Arts; Domestic Sciences; Horticulture and Landscaping; Economics and Sociology; Pedagog; Library Training; and Liberal Arts and Sciences. He also traveled east to determine an architectural style for the campus and chose a modified Elizabethan style with rough-faced brown and red brick and terra cotta ornamentation. The buildings would be fitted with bay and circular windows and would have red tile roofs. A brickyard to the west of the campus would provide the materials.
Millikin University was officially dedicated on June 4, 1903. At a few minutes past 3:00 in the afternoon, President Theodore Roosevelt stepped from the rear platform of a Wabash train that had stopped near the southeast edge of the new campus. At this time, Roosevelt was at the height of his popularity and Decatur was near the end of a 65-day, 14,000-mile western trip. He had graciously agreed to speak at the dedication ceremony for the new college.
James Millikin, Dr. Albert Taylor and a number of other prominent Decatur citizens, greeted Roosevelt. He was led directly to a platform and here, he spoke at some length, praising Millikin for his generous gift to the city. Following the speech, the president was taken by carriage to the Wabash Station, where he spoke to another large crowd. He left Decatur at 4:35 and returned to Washington just two days later.
The celebration for the new college continued on into the evening. A picnic and fireworks were held at the Decatur Trotting Association Park, located at the end of Broadway. The party included a collection of specially designed fireworks pieces that were made in the shape of President Roosevelt, the late President McKinley and even the new university. Trains crowded with people from other communities flooded into the city for the event.
On September 15, 1903, the school opened with the Assembly Hall decked out in the blue and white colors of Stephen Decatur's naval flagship during the Barbary Wars. These were to become the chosen colors for the new college. Despite a current of enthusiasm at the university, James Millikin himself was very nervous. He remarked that he hoped enrollment at the school might reach 500 in a few years. He even suggested that it might be wise to close off the Engineering Hall for the first year. He simply did not believe they would need the space.
Millikin was seated in the rear of the faculty box during the opening exercises and Dr. Taylor, following his address, asked that all of those assembled who expected to enroll to please stand. The sound of applause seemed to shake the building as 562 enrolling students stood up. Millikin faced the audience and bowed, unable to keep from crying. His greatest expectations for the new college had already been fulfilled.
In 1909, James Millikin passed away. Funeral services were held at the college's Assembly Hall and a horse-drawn carriage bore his remains to a temporary vault in Greenwood Cemetery until the Millikin-Aston tomb could be completed. A long line of solemn students led the procession to the gravesite. Although he virtually created the university, most of the students only knew him as a kind and quiet man, who mingled with the crowd during university events rather than take his place at the podium. And although nearly every one of the mourners could recall speaking personally to the man, James Millikin was never known to speak a public word at his own university.
The Ghosts of Millikin
The earliest tales of ghosts in the area that is now Millikin University date back to the days when the settlers of Decatur were still living in log cabins. There were stories told about the woods to the west of the struggling village and concerned ghosts and Indian spirits. These stories were usually told around the fire at night and were designed to keep children at home after the sun went down.
Despite these shadowy tales, most believe that the stories of ghosts at Millikin University began in more modern times. Today, there are so many ghost stories attached to Millikin University that we only have space for a sampling of them here. Below is a chronicle of the "best of the best" of Millikin's hauntings......
Three Pieces of Candy....
The Ghost of the Albert Taylor Theater
It has been said that every good theater has a ghost and the Albert Taylor Theater on Millikin's campus is no exception. In fact, I would say that perhaps the most famous of the college's ghosts is that of the "Rail Girl", who haunts this theater. She takes her name from the fact that she normally appears, when she chooses to appear at all, along a rail in the upper part of the theater. However, she often makes her presence known in other ways ---- and nearly every Millikin theater student can tell you at least one story about the spirit's handiwork or the problems she has caused in the theater during one show or another.
The theater was originally the school's auditorium and it can be found inside of Schilling Hall, the main building on the Millikin campus. The former Assembly Hall was the place where men like Dr. Albert Reynolds Taylor, James Millikin and others met and addressed both the students and the people of Decatur from the stage. When the theater was originally built, a private seating box was designed for Mr. and Mrs. Millikin on the east side of the auditorium and another was reserved for the college's president on the west side. The boxes were eventually removed during renovations in 1952-53. The hall was named for Dr. Taylor in 1939.
A Vintage view of the Albert Taylor Theater
No one knows for sure when the story of the ghost who haunts this theater got started, but it seems to have been around for a number of years. It also shows no signs of going away either, as you can ask just about any theater student on campus about her and they can tell you some first or second hand story about an alleged happening that has occurred. I have even talked to Millikin theater alumni who have their own stories to tell.
The legends say that the little girl who haunts the theater will do anything to get the attention of the actors and stage crew here. No one seems to know why this phantom child has chosen to make the theater her home. Regardless of why she remains here, there have been literally dozens of reports of strange sounds and noises in the theater, eerie footsteps, the sound of weeping and items that disappear and then show up later in different places. And that isn't all....
The most famous tradition of the theater is the long-standing ritual of leaving three pieces of candy for the ghost prior to any performance. This is said to insure the approval of the ghost and to make certain that she does nothing to ruin the show. In the past, those who have scoffed at the tradition have suffered for it with botched performances, lighting problems, sound equipment failures, rigging and prop damage and even actual injuries. Anything that could possibly disrupt the show can and does happen under these circumstances.
Several years ago, I was approached by an alumnus of the Millikin theater department who was eager to tell me about a very frightening experience that she had with the "Rail Girl" in the early 1990's. She told me about a night when she was involved in a play at the theater and recalled hearing the stories about the resident ghost but she refused to accept the validity of any of them. "I didn't believe in any of that stuff", she remembered "and I laughed at one of my friends who had brought candy for the ghost on the night of the show's opening."
She was already in costume for the performance and she started down a flight of steps toward the stage. Suddenly, she felt what appeared to be two small hands take hold of her ankles. They felt as if they were coming from beneath the stairs but the staircase was solid and there was no way that anyone could reach through!
"I distinctly felt someone's hands and fingers and I immediately looked down," she told me. "I assumed that it was someone's idea of a bad joke... but there was no one there!"
The fingers tightened around her and she stumbled as she tried to get free of them. Her mind refused to accept that something invisible was holding onto her, but she had no other explanation for what was going on. Before she could even cry out, her feet were pulled out from under her and she plunged forward. As she tumbled forward, her hands clawed out for the support of a handrail, the wall or anything. She was unable to brace herself though and she pitched down the steps. Her head and the floor connected with a solid crack and she told me she believed that she blacked out for several minutes. The resulting bruise lasted for more than two weeks. Needless to say, she missed her performance that night.
"I don't know if the ghost had anything to do with what happened that night or not," she later said, "but I decided not to take any chances. Every time that I was supposed to perform after that, I made sure that we had candy for the ghost!"
While none of the other stories that I have heard are nearly as frightening (or as dangerous) as the one told by this former student, a great many other students who perform here, and who have performed here in the past, can tell you at least one anecdote related to failure to leave candy for the "Rail Girl". Some of these stories are humorous while others are simply chilling.....
One evening, after having spoken to a crowd of Millikin students about ghosts and hauntings, I was approached by a small group of theater majors who recalled a strange incident during a show that semester. The actors were on stage during the performance and the show proceeded for some time without incident. One of the props being used for the play was an old rotary dial telephone that was placed on a table near the center of the stage. During a particular scene, one of the actors was supposed to go to the telephone, lift the receiver and then make a call, during which he was supposed to be addressing another character to his right. He would then hang up the phone, turn around, say his lines and then pick up the receiver again.
Everything with the scene went fine until the actor turned around to pick up the telephone for the second time. He reached for it, but grabbed nothing but air --- the telephone had vanished! The actor, who was present in the group of students, recalled his reaction: "I know that I must have blinked a couple of times and wondered where the phone had gone! It had been there just a second before, so I looked around to see if it had fallen but it was just gone!" Luckily, he was able to adlib his lines and after a moment or two of fumbling around, the show continued with the audience completely unaware of what had happened. But that wasn't the end of the story...
After the performance was over, the actor told his friends and fellow actors what had occurred. While no one claimed that he was lying, several of them scoffed at his report. One of them had been on stage at the time and while he had noticed the telephone was gone, had seen nothing out of the ordinary take place. With that, the actor led them back onto the stage and amazingly; the telephone was right back where it was supposed to be! When questioned, the props people claimed to have no knowledge of its odd disappearance.
Stagehands and set designers at the Albert Taylor Theater often deal with disappearances of their own. The items that most commonly go missing are tools. Even though most of the sets themselves are actually constructed at the scene shop in the old gymnasium (which is haunted in its own right!), a lot of the finish work is completed in the theater itself. I spoke to two set builders in 1996 about a time when they were working late one evening, trying to finish preparing for an upcoming show.
The two students had been working for several hours when they decided to take a break and get something to drink. Neither of them had brought a cooler or anything with them, so they decided to walk over to a nearby dorm room and get something. When they left, they thought nothing of leaving their tools behind on the stage. The door was locked when they left and they returned in about 20 minutes with their cold drinks. In moments, they realized that all of their tools were gone!
"At first, I honestly thought that someone was playing a trick on us. I can't say that I didn't believe the theater was haunted, but I really didn't blame this on a ghost," one of them explained. He went on to add that he and his co-worker searched the theater and then looked around the building. The place was deserted. Later that evening, they checked with their friends also but it seemed that the tools were simply gone.
His friend continued with the story. "At that point, I was ready to admit that they had been stolen. I didn't know how anyone could have gotten in there, but I was sure that someone must have," he told me. After angrily talking things over, the two students decided to call it a night. It was now well after midnight and they thought they would take a fresh look at things in the morning.
The following day (Saturday), they returned to the theater. They had been talking about what to do about the stolen items and had brought along some additional tools so that they could continue their work. One of them was in mid-sentence, mentioning that they should inform security of the loss, when he suddenly looked down at the stage and gasped in surprise. All of the tools had mysteriously reappeared and had been left in the exact same places from which they had vanished! Perhaps the whole thing had been a prank after all and it had been one played on them by a ghost!
Nate Claus, a theater student during the 2000 - 2001 school year, began to believe that the "Rail Girl" might not be appeased by just three pieces of candy anymore. He based this on a strange encounter that he and several others had during one show when he was acting as the Assistant Stage Manager for the performance. "Our Stage Manager didn't believe in the ghost, so I was forced to take care of the candy," he said. "During the dress rehearsal, I gave her the obligatory three pieces, but this was apparently not enough."
The rehearsal went on as scheduled, but within about 15 minutes, a fog machine that was being used for the play somehow switched itself on and began filling the auditorium with artificial fog. Nate swore that he had just checked the machine a few minutes earlier and it had been off. As machines of this type usually take several minutes to heat up enough to produce fog, it makes it all the more mysterious as to how it could have suddenly started "fogging up" the theater. To make matters worse, when Nate was told about the problem, he ran down the stairs and fell, scraping his wrist against the wall. It later became badly infected. "After that night, I brought an entire bag of candy to the ghost every night," he said. "My shows in there have been running smoothly ever since."
While something strange seems to be going on at the Albert Taylor Theater, the question remains as to whether or not the "Rail Girl" is real. Many have suggested that she is merely a figment of the imagination, a clever legend that was invented by the theater students to explain away their own superstitions. Perhaps this is the case, but then again, perhaps not....
In 1998, I met a former Millikin theater student who came to believe that the "Rail Girl" was quite real. She told me of a night when she was in the theater alone and rehearsing for an upcoming show. It was very late when the back door of the theater swung open and a little girl stuck her head into the auditorium and looked around.
"I was tired but I saw her very clearly. She was a small girl, with brown hair and she was wearing a white dress with a pink tie around it," she recalled quite clearly. "I couldn't begin to say how old she was, but I would guess somewhere around 7 or 8 years old."
Then, as quickly as she had come into the room, she disappeared back outside into the hallway again. The student, wondering what a little girl was doing inside of the campus building at such a late hour, went to the door and looked out. She looked in every direction but the corridor was completely empty. Only a few seconds had passed, but the mysterious little girl was nowhere to be found!
"I still believe there is nowhere that an ordinary little girl could have gone so quickly," she said. "She simply vanished and ever since then I have been convinced that I came face-to-face with the 'Rail Girl'."
And she's not the only one. According to another account from 2000, a student was working in the balcony control room, when, during the middle of a show, she heard a knock at the door. Assuming that it was some sort of emergency, she opened the door and found a small girl in a white, old-fashioned dress standing outside. When she asked, "Can I help you?" the girl answered, "No" and ran away.
So, what do you think? Does the ghost of the Albert Taylor Theater really exist? You can doubt it all that you like, but there are a number of Millikin theater students of the past and present who will tell you, with certain conviction, that this particular phantom is more real than most of us would care to imagine!
Hauntings at the Old Gymnasium
The college's old gymnasium was added to the campus in 1911, about eight years after the school was opened to students. Initially, both James Millikin and Dr. Albert Taylor were skeptical about the presence of sports on the campus. Later, both men relented and Millikin had its first football team in the fall of 1903. A basketball team was added for the 1911 season, hosting their home games in the old gymnasium, and they managed to win the state championship that year.
Prior to the construction of the new building in 1911, there had only been a small gymnasium located beneath the Assembly Hall in the Schilling Building. There was a small basketball court that was set up on the upper floor of the Mueller building but it was strictly for general exercise and not for organized play. Regulations of the university stated that female students were not allowed to cross the campus dressed in gym clothing.
When construction was started on the building, the designers still had to contend with some of the problems of the past. One major issue was the small stream that still ran across the back part of the campus. The students had dubbed it the "River Sticks" and it was all that remained of the lake that was the centerpiece of Oakland Park. It was learned that the stream was fed by a natural spring and that a water table existed beneath the entire campus. In spite of this, the builders managed to force the water underground, where it still remains. The water table also once fed a spring in Fairview Park and the icehouse that was located down West Eldorado Street from the campus.
The gymnasium was used constantly for quite some time but as the years passed, the Griswold Physical Education Center replaced the old Gym. Today, only a weight room and a dance studio are left to remind us that the building was once the sports center for the college. Since the departure of most sports activities, the upstairs portion of the gym, with its high ceilings and elevated running track, has been abandoned. It has been used by the theater department for many years as an area for both prop storage and as space to build sets for upcoming performances. It is in this part of the building where ghostly sounds from the past echo into the present.
Countless students claim to have had strange encounters in the building and most of these encounters seem to tell of events from the past repeating in the present day. These events, strangely enough, are repeating in the form of sounds. Visitors, staff members and students who come to the upstairs portion of the building tell of hearing voices, laughter, cheers, applause, whistles blowing and even the sound of a basketball bouncing across the floor when no one else is present.
One student told me of coming to the old gym one night and having an encounter of his own. "It was my freshman year," he said, "and we were loading a show downtown at the Lincoln Theater. It was about midnight; we had forgotten a prop, and they sent me back to get it." He walked into the dark, upstairs gymnasium and was surprised to hear the sound of someone loudly bouncing a basketball across the floor. Curious, he quickly reached for a light switch but when the lights came up, he found the room was deserted. A quick search of the building revealed not only that no one else was there, but that no basketballs were there either!
Another student, who was alone in the dance studio (located in a small section of the gymnasium next to the scene shop), had a similar unnerving encounter. "I was in the dance studio alone one night and I was just finishing choreographing a dance piece when, from about five feet behind me, I heard this slow, rhythmical clapping," she recalled. " I turned around but there was no one there." She quickly searched through the entire building but found that she was alone. Whoever had been clapping had simply vanished! She quickly followed suit and left the building for the evening!
A Millikin theater alumnus had an eerie story to tell me that occurred during her tenure at the university in the middle 1970's. At that time, she had been a costume designer for the theater department and was working late one evening in the gym. Although she was sure that she was alone in the building, she began to hear the sounds of a young woman crying from somewhere downstairs.
The office she was using was up on the highest floor (level with the elevated running track) and she stepped out into the foyer at the top of the stairs. She could hear the cries drifting up from the shadows below. The staircase and the lower floors were dimly lit and she was chilled by the mournful and eerie sound. "It sounded as though this girl's heart was broken," she told me.
A photo of the Millikin Gymnasium during its heyday as a sports center. The basketball court and bleachers are evident, as is the elevated running track that plays a part of today's ghost stories. Little of this original area can still be seen today, thanks to sets are partitions that have been erected by the theater department. In its heyday, the gym was the original home of the IHSA Basketball Tournament as well as Millikin's home court. In addition, dances are parties were often held here.
She decided to go downstairs and check on the crying girl. She felt badly for her and stated that she felt something was terribly wrong. With each descending step, the crying grew louder until it became almost a warbling scream. Determined, she quickened her pace and reached the bottom of the steps. The cries were coming from the gymnasium itself and she tried to see where the other girl might be, but it was just too dark. Just around the corner, she found the electrical box and she switched on a light. Just as she did so, the crying immediately stopped! A thorough search of the building revealed that there was no one else inside and that all of the doors had been locked. She never solved the mystery of the "crying girl" but she had never forgotten it either.
A former Millikin security guard told me of an event he experienced here during the holiday season of 1994. At that time of the year, the campus is mostly deserted and because most of the buildings are empty, the security staff has to make sure that everything is locked up tight. The watchman entered the old gym and from upstairs, he could hear the sound of someone running around the elevated track that circles the gym and overlooks the basketball court from the third floor. "I honestly thought that someone had gotten into the building and was running around upstairs," he explained. "I hadn't been on the job very long and I really didn't know anything about the building. I just knew there was a weight room downstairs, so I figured that the gym was still actually a gym and that students might work out here. I certainly didn't know the place was supposed to be haunted!"
He cautiously climbed the stairs to the highest floor and stepped through a doorway and onto the track. He looked around with his flashlight, peering first from the dizzying heights to the floor below and then around the track itself. The echo of the pounding footsteps circled quickly away from him, rounding the track to the far side of the gymnasium. He turned his flashlight in that direction, sure that he would be able to see someone in the glare. However, he quickly discovered that no one was there --- and not only that, he realized the track was completely blocked with stored props and set pieces! There was no way that anyone could be running around the track, and yet, he could distinctly hear the sound of the running feet! Unnerved, he scrambled for the lights and flipped them on and the sound abruptly stopped. A search of the building revealed that no living person was present. "I just got out of there fast!" he told me later. "And I didn't go back to the gym over that entire holiday season. All that I did was check the door outside because I never went in!"
I had my own encounter with the "phantom sounds" of the old gym in 1997 (and this would not be the only strange thing I experienced here.. but more on that later). After hearing all of the stories from both students and staff members about the strange sounds that "haunted" the place, I was able to get permission to spend an evening in the building. I brought two friends along with me and we were determined to record anything odd that occurred, or at least to experience it for ourselves.
For me to say that serious boredom set in would be an understatement. We sat in the dark gymnasium for more than two hours, listening for anything out of the ordinary --- then we heard it! It seemed to be someone walking across the wooden floor and the sound was so real that I could literally hear the floorboards creaking under the weight of each step this person took. The footsteps crossed from one side of the room and were heading quickly toward the other.
The first thing that I did was to make sure of where my friends were. The gym was dark, but not so dark that I couldn't see them sitting just a few feet away. I saw that they were also peering in my direction, making sure that I was not a prankster, taking on the role of the "walking ghost". Once we were assured that no one from our small group was the culprit, we decided to try and find out if the "extra" person in the room was solid or spectral. The only way to do this (short of running across the room and attempting to tackle the phantom) was to try and spot the person using one of our flashlights. I followed the sound of the footsteps and then shined the bright light over in that direction.
As soon as I did, the footsteps immediately halted! And not only was the gym now silent, but it was empty as well. I had half expected to find some befuddled student standing there in the glare of my light, having wandered into the middle of our "ghost hunt", but there was no one there. As the subjects from the previous stories did, we then searched the building. I confess that I still expected to find a student or staff member who had been playing a trick on us, but the place was totally empty. Was it a ghost? Perhaps, but then again, perhaps it was something else entirely!
This type of experience has been repeated many times in the building with inexplicable sounds being heard and then ceasing when the lights are turned on. Could this be the connection to the haunting? There are many places on the Millikin campus where electrical disturbances are common. In many locations, these anomalies cause cameras and stereos to stop working, televisions to shut off and lights to turn on and off at will.
There is a theory that the reason for this strange activity at Millikin may be the lake that was once located where the campus is today. When the water was forced underground, the water table remained beneath the campus. This could be why Millikin seems to act like a giant battery, storing up energy to replay over and over again. On the other hand, this water source may also be responsible for the resident ghosts as well. Spirits and supernatural energy are often generated and attracted to water in much the same way that an electrical current is.
As for the gymnasium itself, it is located directly over the site of the old lake and the underground water table is certainly present at this location. Thanks to the years of sporting events, parties and dances, there has certainly been a lot of people through the building over the years and perhaps a sort of "recording" would explain the reports of phantom clapping, cheering, whistles, basketballs and footsteps that have come from the place over the years. Further credence is given to the water / electrical theory in that in most cases where the witnesses have reported anomalous sounds and have turned on a light (or another electrical appliance), the noises have suddenly stopped. Could the change in one electrical current somehow affect the other one?
Obviously, there are no clear answers as to why strange things continue to happen at the old Gym. Paranormal electrical interference or ghostly Millikin alumni from years gone by? It's impossible to say but regardless of why the weird happenings take place, the old gym remains a strange and haunted building. It is an odd sort of "mystery spot" where the past is still present in a way that we don't yet understand.
The Haunting of Aston Hall
Aston Hall is the oldest building on campus devoted to women's housing. It was originally called simply the "Women's Hall" and that name was later changed in honor of Reverend Samuel Aston, the father of Anna Aston Millikin. The hall was completed in September 1907 but is barely recognizable from older photographs as two separate halls have been added to the structure in a line running south. Before the hall opened, Mrs. Millikin presented Dr. Albert Taylor with a list of suggested rules for female behavior in the hall, based on her own collegiate experiences years before. Dr. Taylor had to gently remind her that practices from her seminary days were a bit outdated for a university in the modern 1900's.
The Women's Hall was a greatly admired piece of architecture on the Millikin campus and it was described in an excerpt from a 1908 yearbook as: "The Women's Hall is five stories high, including the basement and the attic floors. The basement accommodates the splendid dining room, the kitchen, storage and other necessary adjuncts. The first floor provides the handsome parlors and Dean's rooms and eight student's rooms. The second and third floors have a dozen student's rooms each. The attic floor has eight rooms for students and the necessary help. At the opposite ends of each corridor on the three main floors is a cozy alcove with a writing table and accessories.... the living room is tastefully furnished; the mantle being especially worthy of mention because of its simplicity and neatness...."
A photo of Aston Hall that was taken shortly after it was completed in 1907. The building housed female students, as well as the dining hall and provided rooms for the kitchen help and the domestic staff.
Originally, the Women's Hall was also the location of the university dining hall, where lunch cost the students seven cents. While much of the aspects of the past, like seven cent lunches and maid services, have vanished from Aston, one thing about the old hall remains the same --- the resident ghost.
This building boasts the oldest reported spirit on the Millikin campus. The stories of this phantom have been around for a long time and for years, many students believed the legend that she was the spirit of a young woman who committed suicide after her fiancee was killed during World War II. After her death in the early 1940's, she began haunting Aston Hall. While this World War II-era death never occurred, there was a tragic suicide that occurred in the building that not only explains the appearance of the ghost but also explains the rumors that the third floor of the hall was actually closed down for a time in the middle 1930's because of frequent sightings of the spirit.
According to Millikin records, an Aston Hall resident named Bernice Richardson committed suicide in the building on February 1, 1927. Despondent over the fact that her poor grades prohibited her from accepting an invitation to her first rushing party, Bernice drank carbolic acid and died horribly in her room. The accounts state that she actually joked to a friend the night before about taking poison if her grades were bad. "I'll never be able to go back home and face my parents," she reportedly said. Not only has Bernice never gone home --- she has never left Aston Hall.
Those who have seen her say that she is quite solid-looking but frightening in that she is only visible from the waist up. Bernice's ghost is famous for her journeys through the Aston Hall dorm rooms on the third floor. The accounts say that she appears out of the wall of one room and crosses the room to the opposite wall. She then vanishes into this wall and enters the next room, passing from one room to the next as if the walls did not even exist.
In addition, residents of this floor also speak of poltergeist-like events where items move about, disappear and appear at will. Most believe that these events and the restless ghost are somehow linked together. They often hear knocking and rapping sounds coming from inside of the walls. Lights turn on and off, doors open and close and items often vanish and then re-appear in other places.
Bernice continues to be active, and put in appearances, today. I spoke to a student who claimed to see the ghost as recently as the fall of 2005. It's possible that she has also been spotted even more recently than that. "I only got a glimpse of her," the young woman told me. "There was just this flash of white that went around a corner. It wasn't clear but I am sure that it was a woman. When I looked around the corner, there was no one there."
Millikin's Haunted Greek Houses
In the early days of the college, both James Millikin and Dr. Albert Taylor were reluctant to allow two things on campus: organized sports and the presence of Greek letter societies. The two men later relented and since that time, both sports and Greek societies have become an integral part of the university. The first Millikin football team came along in 1903 and the earliest chapter of a national fraternity at Millikin was the Beta chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon, chartered in April 1909. Since that time, the Greek chapters have had a long tradition with the college and that tradition includes their resident ghosts! In fact, one of the chapter houses even held their spirit in such tradition that a portion of the house was named after her!
The former Zeta Tau Alpha house (now the Alumni House) on West Main Street was haunted for many years by a ghost that had been dubbed "Louise". According to the legend, Louise was a maid who had once worked for members of the Mueller family, who had owned the house before it became a part of the university. For some reason, she had stayed behind after her death, still making her presence known in the house. The stories stated that she lived in the dormer upstairs. Louise became best known over the past decades for her dramatic entrances into the house. Students who lived in the building would report the sound of the front door opening, then closing, and then the tapping of footsteps as they crossed the foyer and started up the stairs. Other residents claimed to often feel the presence of someone pass by them on the staircase and enter the dormer. Thanks to the actions of the ghost, the members of ZTA named the foyer of the house "Louise's Lounge", a name that stuck around until the chapter left the house a number of years ago. And Louise is not alone among the haunted Greek houses, as you will soon see. While Millikin University can certainly boast a number of ghosts, the local Greek chapters just may have more than their share.
The Kappa Sigma house has long been believed to be haunted by the ghost of a young man named "Nathan", who allegedly committed suicide in the building back when it was a boarding house. The most famous of the haunted Greek houses on campus is the Delta Delta Delta sorority house, which is also located just west of the campus and down the street from the Kappa Sigma house. The ladies who live in this house are used to the fact that they have one of the best-known ghosts of Millikin. Stories of the haunting here have been told for many years and reaction to the tales runs the gamut from belief to outright skepticism. Some of the residents are not quite sure what to think. "I can't believe there is a ghost in the Tri-Delta house," one resident who was living there in 1996 told me, "because I would be very afraid of it if there was."
I have spoken to large numbers of former residents of the house who have had encounters with this phantom and the sightings go back through several generations of students. Most of the witnesses, being completely unconnected to each other, had strikingly eerie stories to tell. Besides seeing the ghost, many of them also spoke of hearing her and feeling her presence. It seems that chilling whispers are sometimes heard in the upper dormers and residents tell of walking into small patches of extremely cold air, which defy explanation and then vanish moments later. It is in the same area of the house where these encounters take place that the ghost is normally seen.
The Tri-Delta house is home to one of the most famous ghosts on the Millikin campus. Several generations of independent witnesses have claimed to encounter this spirit.
This area of the house is near the place where one side of the dorm connects with the other. The house was added onto at some point years ago and it is around this junction where the ghost is reported most frequently.
The apparition is described as being a young woman who is faded, or very pale in coloring. Her clothing appears to be homespun, like that of the early settlers to the area. Her skin is transparent and she is sometimes hard to see, as if she is a reflection in a pool of murky water. Some have told me that the apparition is off-white or gray in color. Residents of the house have been encountering this ghost for many years and some students say that she visits the dorm rooms in the night, as if checking in on the sleeping residents. Others say that she is also seen occasionally in the daytime as well.
One former student told me that she encountered the ghost after class one afternoon. She was walking down a hallway and the phantom suddenly appeared from nowhere and passed right by her. "Other girls have told me that she seems to know we're there," the young woman said, "but she didn't seem to notice me. It was like I walked into a refrigerator or something when she passed by me. It was just ice cold."
There seems to be little question that the presence is a benevolent one, although some are frightened of her anyway. Of course, this may be because of the way that the ghost makes her frequent nighttime appearances!
Several different sorority sisters claim to have been awakened at night to find the ghost standing directly over their beds. In fact, one young woman even recalled waking up at night to see the ghost standing over her roommate. After that, she started sleeping with the covers pulled over her head at night, convinced that she would be the one who was visited next. She took the blankets down on only one other occasion and when she opened her eyes, she saw the face of the ghost, looking down directly above her own! She stopped sleeping in the house for quite some time after that! "When I first moved into this house, I didn't know anything about the ghost," another student said. "But not long after that, I saw her in my friend's room at night! One year I saw her like six different times!" She paused for a moment in our interview and she smiled faintly. "I guess you could say that I know all about her now!"
So, who is the ghost who haunts this building? And why would a phantom in pioneer clothing be haunting a place that was not built until the early 1900's. The discovery of an old Decatur map has recently shed some light on this mystery. According to the map, the location of the Tri-Delta House was once the site of the John Miller Cemetery, a private family graveyard that "vanished" from local maps in 1874. The cemetery was not re-discovered until 1913 --- at the time the Tri-Delta House was constructed. It's now believed that perhaps the disturbance of the graves in the cemetery (or perhaps some of them being left behind) has caused the haunting in the house.
So, what of the Ghosts of Millikin? Are they real or simply imaginary? I believe there is something present on the Millikin campus that defies explanation, whether the place is some sort of weird energy spot or merely a place that seems to attract more ghosts than most other places do.
For this reason, I realize that there exist many more ghost stories about Millikin University that remain untold and certainly many more which are still waiting to be born. In a place such as this, new ghost stories are created everyday!
© Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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