Two years ago, Director of Government and Community Relations Karrie Heartlein waited in the Amtrak station with cookies, water bottles and a brass band made of Galesburg community members.
Heartlein was welcoming and seeing off visitors to Galesburg, as part of her work through the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
Attracting visitors, including prospective students, is one way Knox and Galesburg remain tied. Heartlein’s office and other centers and offices around campus serve as resources for the Galesburg community,connecting the college and the city to their shared history.
“We do have a very welcoming community,” Heartlein said. “And we learned that … more deeply through the Galesburg on Track Heart&Soul process.”
In 2017, the Heart&Soul project asked community members to define the values they thought Galesburg best represented. Taking pride in the history of the city and welcoming others to the community took the top two places on the list.
Every year, Heartlein prepares a report on Knox’s economic impact on Galesburg. Benefits include the staff and faculty the college brings to Galesburg, students who work on and off campus and the goods and services Knox buys from the local economy.
Heartlein’s 2017-2018 report cited the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities as saying Knox has an impact of 934 jobs and over $90,000,000 in Illinois. But for Heartlein, Knox’s impact goes far deeper than economics.
“I think the intangibles are probably the thing that most interest me …” Heartlein said. “It’s the things that we value here in our community, why we live here, why we don’t live in Chicago, why we don’t live wherever else around the world, we don’t live in a big city, we live here in the heartland.”
One special connection to Galesburg and the town’s history Heartlein pointed to was the Gale house, once owned by the town’s founder George Washington Gale. The house was privately owned until 2006 but now serves as guest accomodation for the college.
Heartlein, Director of the Library Jeff Douglas, Director of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center Owen Muelder and Co-Director of the Lincoln Studies Center Douglas Wilson have all met with tour groups who visited Galesburg and wanted to learn more about the town and Knox, specifically their connection to Lincoln and abolitionism.
Muelder has worked with students and classes from Galesburg’s public schools who are doing projects or units on the Underground Railroad. He has also given speeches to adult groups including church groups and service clubs like Rotary.
“I think that there is a real sense, for not everybody of course but for many people who live in Galesburg, there is a very real sense of pride that they live in a community that has this rich abolitionist history,” Muelder said.
According to Muelder, much of the interest in the Underground Railroad has been focused in the eastern states, but Galesburg was an important western hub. He has helped broaden research into the Underground Railroad in the Upper Mississippi Valley, spreading the word about Galesburg and Knox in the process.
Galesburg’s involvement in abolitionist activities goes back to the founders of the college and town, who, Muelder emphasized, were the same people.
Wilson noted Lincoln’s connection to Knox history as well. Beyond the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln also voted for Knox’s charter when he was an Illinois congressman. One of the projects Wilson and his Co-Director Rodney Davis worked on was a critical edition of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, explaining context and references for modern readers.
“That’s what we wanted to do, to call attention to the need for sources,” Wilson said. “Everybody thinks that Lincoln scholarship has already been done, well that doesn’t mean it’s ending.”
Senior Archives Assistant Mary McAndrew said that the archives in Seymour Library are often visited by genealogical researchers looking into family who lived in Galesburg or went to Knox. There is also interest in the history of Galesburg itself or the railroad that goes through town.
“We’ve had people do research on different businesses that used to operate here in Galesburg …” McAndrew said. “[One man] was trying to figure out if there was any kind of farm implement stores in a specific spot in Galesburg. He was doing some research on tractors.”
McAndrew has also helped Galesburg teachers.
“We’ve had teachers who were doing some research on the schools and how they got their names. So like Gale School, Gale, but it’s named after Mrs. Gale,” she said.
Douglas explained that the library is open to anyone but that they do not automatically issue cards to those who apply. Those under 18 cannot apply for a card but can use the library’s resources in the library, something Douglas said some high schoolers take advantage of for research. Recently, the Anything is Possible Foundation has been using the library to provide tutoring for high school students to prepare for standardized tests.
The future of the Lincoln Studies Center and the Underground Railroad Freedom Center are not clear to their directors, but they hope that the centers will continue to have a place on campus. Both Muelder and Wilson noted that the future of the centers is for the college to decide, especially given the difficult financial situation many small colleges currently find themselves in.
“I’d like to think that somebody else, who might step into this position in the future, is able to also contribute … to this field of study not only in what it means locally but what it means to the scholarship more broadly,” Muelder said.
Wilson noted that the college’s connection to Lincoln and Galesburg could never go away because of the close ties formed when the town and school were founded.
“There’s no question that the connection between Knox and Lincoln and Galesburg is there and it’s always going to be there, it isn’t going to go away,” Wilson said.