By Greg Olson
Photo/Provided by Greg Olson
Former Illinois College Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner (1805-1899) as he appeared late in life.
Educator, minister and agriculturalist — Jonathan Baldwin Turner was all of those things and so much more.
Turner was born in Massachusetts in 1805, the seventh of Asa and Abigail Baldwin Turner’s nine children.
As a young man, Jonathan Turner had expressed interest in attending college, but his father wanted him to stay home and run the family farm. However, Jonathan Turner’s brother, Asa — a Yale College graduate — walked 120 miles to the family home to persuade their father to let Jonathan Turner attend Yale.
Asa Turner, Sr. was swayed, and Jonathan Turner went to Yale. In the spring of his senior year, a call came to Yale from Illinois College for an instructor of Greek and Latin. The president of Yale recommended Jonathan Turner for the job. Turner joined the IC (Illinois College) faculty in May of 1833, and a year later was appointed a professor of rhetoric.
During Turner’s early years in Illinois, he traveled extensively in the Midwest, both on foot and on horseback. In 1833, he watched Native Americans sell their land in Chicago to the government for three cents an acre. Turner and a colleague bought some land in what is now the Chicago Loop. Later, they sold the property for $10,000. Of course, today, that real estate is worth millions.
Early in his teaching career, Turner became a leader in the movement supporting public schools in Illinois and lectured on their behalf around the state. Also, he was one of the organizers of the Illinois State Teachers Association. Later, he was largely responsible for the establishment of the first “normal school” in Illinois. Normal schools were usually two-year schools for those wanting to become elementary school teachers.
Even though Turner was a successful professor at IC, he began alienating some students because of his antislavery stance. He carried his vigorous condemnation of slavery into a Jacksonville newspaper, The Statesman, which he edited, and this antagonized local residents with Southern roots. Finally, because of a disagreement with IC officials over his antislavery principles, Turner resigned his teaching position at IC in 1848.
Freed from teaching duties, Turner began focusing his attention on agriculture and education. He worked in his gardens and orchards, which he had developed since arriving in Illinois.
During this time, he invented various implements for planting and cultivating crops. He also conceived the popular idea of using Osage orange for farm hedges. Turner grew his Osage orange hedges on what is now the Illinois School for the Deaf campus.
“He planted every tree that would grow in this climate,” wrote Mary Turner Carriel in her biography of her father. “In 1862, he had a greater variety [of trees] than could be found in the Smithsonian Gardens. Evergreen seeds were sent him from Sierra Madre and Sierra Nevada, from the Rocky and White mountains, the Himalayas and from the cedars of Lebanon in Palestine.”
The preservation of wildlife and natural resources also captured Turner’s attention, and when the Illinois State Natural History Society was organized, he was elected its first president.
Despite no longer teaching, Turner still campaigned for the improvement of higher education. One of his dreams was for a state university in every state that would serve the children of farmers and industrial workers. Turner felt that this type of institution would meet the needs of an ever-increasing technological society.
He presented his plan for agricultural and technological universities at teachers’ and farmers’ conventions throughout Illinois — and later, with the cooperation of various interest groups, a petition was drawn up requesting that the state legislature ask Congress to appropriate lands for the establishment of industrial universities. Meanwhile, Turner’s idea was gaining strength in other parts of the country. In 1862, the Morrill Act was passed establishing land-grant colleges.
Under the Morrill Act, more than 11 and a half million acres of public land was donated to the states. The land grants were given on the condition that colleges would be established that would give scientific pursuit to agriculture and engineering.
In Illinois, the land-grant college was established at Urbana-Champaign in 1867. It was first known as Illinois Industrial University and is now the University of Illinois.
Because of his role in founding the U of I (University of Illinois), Turner would not accept the presidency of the school; he did not want anyone thinking that his efforts had been for personal gain.
In 1910, U of I President Edmund James praised Turner for his invaluable role in the establishment of land-grant colleges.
“There is no desire to detract one iota from the credit due Mr. Morrill,” declared James. “On the other hand, the credit for having first devised and formulated the original plan and of having worked up the public interest in the measure so that it could be passed belongs clearly to Professor Turner.”
Turner spent his last years studying the Bible and continuing to write on political, religious and educational topics.
He died in 1899, at his home in Jacksonville. He was 93.
In 2003, Dr. Iver Yeager, a longtime IC professor of religion and philosophy and an IC historian, said Turner led a remarkable life.
Turner, Yeager said, “was a fascinating person, and students greatly loved to hear him speak and sought him out. He was committed to improving life, both on the intellectual plane and on the level of subsistence. He was a student of nature, as well as of religion. And he applied his insights and his great energies to the betterment of humankind.”