Illinois State was founded on February 18, 1857. The annual commemoration of the milestone is a long-standing tradition. While the first Founders Day was held in 1909, the tradition really got going in 1913 with a full slate of events to honor Charles Hovey. He served as the University’s president from 1857 to 1861, when he resigned to organize and lead the 33rd Illinois Infantry to fight in the Civil War. That year, ISNU New York alumni gifted a painting of Hovey to the campus. His widow donated his Civil War uniform and regalia.
Founders Day ceremonies merged with convocation during the Depression and World War II. The celebration returned in the 1950s, first as a dinner celebration and then as a program of speeches. The day was restored as a full-fledged birthday celebration in 1955.
Old Main was the first building constructed on campus. Envisioned as a majestic building that would last for ages, Old Main’s construction fell victim to economic circumstance. Materials were purchased, but the financial panic of 1857 dried up the money needed for labor. Wood sat outside for nearly two years before the building was constructed and opened in 1860.
By the 1930s, rotting wooden supports couldn’t handle the weight of the building’s dome and bell. Old Main was briefly evacuated. In the 1940s, the dome and bell were removed, and eventually the third floor was stripped away in an effort to reduce the burden on the lower floors. Despite efforts to save the building, Old Main was deemed unsalvageable and torn down in 1958. The bell was preserved and still stands on the Quad at the site of the building.
The ringing of the historic Old Main Bell was introduced as part of Founders Day in 2002. When a massive snowstorm made that outdoor event next to impossible for the University’s 150th birthday in 2007, the McLean County Historical Society provided a bell for an indoor ceremony.
A replica of the Old Main bell funded by Illinois State Professors Carson and Iris Varner and cast by Illinois State Professor Randy Reid ('87, M.S. '91, M.F.A. '96) became part of the ceremony in 2010. The bell-ringing ceremony continues today, with individuals chosen for every year the University has been in existence.
Learn about this year's Founders Day ceremony at IllinoisState.edu/FoundersDay.