Milton College: Still standing after all these years
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Main Hall at the former Milton College, has been saved and serves as a historical museum and archives. Terry Mayer photo.
An undated photo of the former Milton College campus.
An undated photo of a woman's sports team at Milton College.
MILTON — Thirty years after Milton College closed its doors, it lives on as an educational facility. Only now it educates with historical exhibits and tours instead of classes on campus.
Main Hall, which once housed classrooms, is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The building is owned by the Milton College Preservation Society, a nonprofit group that hosts programs and annual homecoming events, maintains a museum of the college’s 138-year history, even rents out facilities for special events.
When a college closes, it’s usually relegated to a historical footnote. But Milton College is a survivor, becoming instead a keeper of history, while remaining part of its small-town community.
Judy Scheehle, administrator/curator for the society, grew up in Milton. She remembers exploring the campus as a child, coming across a stuffed, two-headed calf in the biology department. Now, that calf is displayed inside a classroom that’s part of the tour she leads in Main Hall.
“If you lived in the community, Milton College was part of your life whether you went to school there or not,” she said.
For many longtime Milton residents, the campus has been a fixture. The school got its start in 1844, when native New Yorker Joseph Goodrich built the first academy of higher education in the then-territory of Wisconsin. For 34 years, it was the state’s only high school.
The academy was chartered as a private college in 1867. It grew to 17 buildings on 45 acres. It was noted as a progressive school — it was one of the first colleges to accept women — with a reputation for academics.
“I got a job before I even graduated because of the school’s reputation,” said Joan Heinze, a Main Hall Preservation Society board member who attended the college from 1968 to 1972 as a music major.
During World War I, the campus became an Army training center. In the turbulent 1960s, Milton College saw its share of protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War.
Notables appeared on its small campus. Duke Ellington, a friend of one of the drama professors, not only wrote the scores for two college plays, but performed a concert here. Actor Paul Newman spoke at the college, once while stumping for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.
The Milwaukee Bucks basketball team once used the campus as a training center, and players ate with students. Heinze remembered one of her girlfriends cutting through the tall legs of Bucks’ center Kareem Abdul Jabbar — then Lew Alcindor — while trying to get through a cafeteria line.
Heinze once sat next to Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas when the singer made an impromptu stop to protest the Vietnam War.
“It seems there was always something going on,” Heinze said. “There was a good political action group on campus.”
The Vietnam War led to Milton’s peak enrollment of 859, because many young men became students to defer the draft. From 1965 through the 1970s, college administrators expanded the campus, building dormitories, a campus center, a new cafeteria and a library. But when the war ended, enrollment dropped, and the ambitious building projects put a strain on the budget. With debt mounting, the trustees decided to close the college in 1982.
Alumni say other factors were involved, including financial mismanagement and a lack of student recruitment. Still, they were shocked and saddened.
The banks that held Milton’s mortgage attempted to sell the campus as a whole, hoping to snag another school or a business as a buyer. When that failed, buildings were sold individually, though the three major buildings on College Street — Main Hall, Whitford Hall and Goodrich Hall — were deemed unsalvageable and slated to be razed.
The news galvanized the community. Three separate preservation groups formed. The three major buildings were saved; Scheehle and her husband bought Goodrich Hall and owned it for the next seven years.
Eventually the buildings were turned into private residences, apartments and commercial developments. The Milton School District’s central office found a home in the Daland Fine Arts Center, and the Shaw Memorial Library became a public library.
Main Hall is now a repository of history, its archives filled with thousands of photographs, files of correspondence and newspaper clippings. Student transcripts are stored at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, but Scheehle does research for people who need genealogical or historical information.
The former executive director for the Milton Historical Society, Scheehle became part-time administrator of Main Hall in 2003.
She noted only about 10 percent of the 4,000 Milton alumni still living are involved in the organization, leaving a big market to tap.
“Of course, we’re not making any more alumni, so there is that concern about the future,” she said.
She’s tried to make the college more inclusive: alumni weekends have become homecoming events for the community. The museum is geared more to the general public instead of just alumni. The preservation society even started a Facebook page.
Scheehle pointed to a sign near her desk: “Unless history lives in the present, it has no future.”
“You have to adapt, and that includes technology,” she said.
Skip Drew, the preservation society board’s president, said getting school groups in to work as volunteers exposes them to the connection the college shared with the city.
“Milton College was part of the Milton community in a lot of ways, more so probably than a bigger school in a bigger city could be,” he said.
The society meets its annual budget of $45,000 through a patchwork of revenue sources, from city funds to an endowment, society memberships, facilities rentals, staged events and donations.
Scheehle said when it comes to repairs on the building, they’ve also relied on the help of a network of volunteers — both area residents and alumni like Chuck Niles, who met his wife, Bea, on campus.
Niles started as a Milton freshman in 1948. The Korean War interrupted his education, but after his stint in the military, he returned, graduating in 1955 with a major in education. The school felt more like a family, he said.
Niles, who daily drove to school from Beloit, remembers getting stuck in a snowbank on campus one winter morning. A man who hustled over to help him push the car out of the drift turned out to be the college’s president.
“Can you imagine someone from a bigger school like UW-Madison doing that?” Niles said.
“If you skipped class, you were liable to run into your professor on the street, who would call you out by name,” Bea Niles said. “And the classrooms in Main Hall were not much bigger than my living room, with space for about 20 desks.”
The couple eventually bought Whitford Hall, running it as an antique store for 25 years before selling the building to new owners, who started a fitness center.
“Milton is in our hearts,” Bea Niles said.
Over the years, tenants have come and gone. An educational consultant in the Daland Center relocated to Whitewater. An antiques mall in the former gym closed in 2009. And the site has been a target in the past for vandalism, including broken windows and lights--prompting a neighborhood watch group.
Much of the vandalism happened when the buildings sat empty, said Terry Williamson, who for 15 years has owned Goodrich Hall Antiques with her husband.
Williamson once took a stenciling class in the basement of Goodrich Hall, but didn’t know much about the history of the college. That’s changed, thanks to college alumni who frequently come through her store, telling stories about the former dormitory.
“It seems like everyone on campus once lived in that dormitory,” she said, referring to the third floor living quarters of Goodrich Hall, where she and her husband reside. “I’ve learned over the years not to leave any dirty laundry out, because we often get requests from people asking to see where they used to live or teach.”
“The most important thing is for the city to embrace these buildings,” she said, “to see their importance to the city.”
For more information about The Milton College Preservation Society and its programs, see www.miltoncollege.org/mainhall.htm.