Monday, April 16, 2012

The Legacy of Lorado Taft in Oregon, Illinois

John Phelps was the first European settler to visit the area that later became the city of Oregon, Illinois. He was very impressed with the forests and river valley and built a cabin in 1833. The Potawatomi and Winnebago Native Americans had roamed the area for generations. The Illinois General Assembly chose Oregon as the county seat of Ogle County by 1836. Although Oregon existed as a community for a number of years, it was not recognized as a city until April 1, 1869, when it was organized under an act of the General Assembly of the State of Illinois. The Ogle County Courthouse was built on the corner of Fourth and Washington Streets in 1891.

Lorado Taft first became acquainted with the area in 1898 when he and several colleagues founded the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony on a Rock River bluff north of Oregon. The members of the group, all Chicago artists and staff members at the University of Chicago art department or the Art Institute of Chicago, built the colony on land owned by Chicago attorney Wallace Heckman. The colony flourished as a source of scholarship, natural beauty, and continual visitations until 1942 when Ralph Clarkson, the last living member of the colony, passed away. Acquired by Northern Illinois University of 1951, the site was converted into the Lorado Taft Field Campus and now serves as the university’s outdoor education and conference center.

The Oregon Public Library was established in 1872 and moved into a newly constructed Andrew Carnegie library building in 1908. The library was designed by Chicago architects Allen B. Pond and Irving K. Pond, original members of the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony. A second floor gallery was included in the architect’s plans, and the colony artists used the space for art exhibitions and speeches. Lorado Taft persuaded his colleagues to donate more than fifty works of art to the library collection, and they continue to be on display. The Oregon Public Library was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 9, 2003.

Aware of its rich cultural history and the presence of many artistic creations, Oregon city leaders recently developed a Sculpture Trail featuring many sculptures. Lorado Taft is well represented along the trail. Taft’s The Eternal Indian statue stands 125 feet tall above the Rock River in Lowden State Park overlooking the city. Located on the lawn of the Ogle County Courthouse, Taft created The Soldier’s Monument, which honored the county’s war veterans from the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and World War I. The Lorado Taft Fountain is located in Mix Park and features two kneeling boys holding fish by a shallow pool.

For further reading:

Call, Keith. Oregon, Illinois. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Mongen, Charles, ed. The Story of Oregon, Illinois Sesquicentennial 1836-1986.
Oregon, Illinois: The Book Committee, 1986.

Stilson, Jan. Art and Beauty in the Heartland: The Story of the Eagle’s Nest Art Camp at Oregon, Illinois, 1898-1942. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2006.

Thomas, Stephen P. “Lorado Taft and Chicago’s Oregon Trail.” (Paper presented at the meeting of The Chicago Literary Club, November 16, 2009).

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