Millikin University began just over a century ago
in an area of the city that was nothing more than forest and open
fields. The city of Decatur was officially platted in 1829 but the
land along West Eldorado and West Main Streets (where Millikin
University is now located) remained open prairie for many years. The
original owner of this tract was Amos Robinson, who also owned
property and orchards to the east of present-day Millikin. Robinson
sold the land to Edward Keys in June 1835 but he later forfeited on
the deal and it fell back into the hands of the Robinson family.
They retained ownership of it until James Millikin finally purchased
|The growth of Decatur to the west was slow in the
early years and it would not be until the 1860's that
the future site of Millikin University would become
important to the growth of the city. Near the beginning
of the Civil War, the area was turned into a camping
ground and a drill field for soldiers. Wooden barracks
were constructed and drills were conducted near where
the Schilling Building is now located. The camp would be
occupied throughout the entire length of the war as
Decatur saw constant recruiting and training of Illinois
The land where the university would someday stand
changed again after the war. At that time, the Catholic Church
purchased a small section of land along the northern edge of the
future college. The land was cleared, which included the demolition
of an old schoolhouse, and Calvary Cemetery was started in its
Then in 1868, a local businessman named James Millikin purchased 16
acres of ground that spread eastward from a point approximately
where Fairview Avenue currently runs to the Wabash Railroad tracks.
The land also extended between West Main Street (then called
Springfield Road, a dirt stagecoach track and horse trail) and the
current site of Millikin's athletic field.
At that time, the land to the west of Millikin's parcel had become
known as "Fairview Park". As the oldest park in Decatur, it was
originally used as a county fairground between 1856 and 1884. During
the 1860's, several Illinois State Fairs were also held here. During
its heyday, the park boasted a tourist camp, an amusement park,
Dreamland Lake and of course, the famous "Fairview Park Bears", who
entertained onlookers until the 1970's.
It was not until 1900 that work actually began on the new
university. During the construction of the first buildings, a spur
of railway track was run from the main line of the Wabash line and
along William Street to a convenient unloading point at the back of
the campus. It was removed when the Women's Hall was built in 1907.
Unfortunately for the college, the construction got off to a rocky
start. The original work was set to begin in the spring of 1902,
with hopes that it would open in September of that year. Thanks to
numerous delays, mostly caused by a shortage of materials and bad
construction, the opening had to be put off for an entire year. In
fact, when the cornerstone was laid with full Masonic rites in June
1902, the walls had only been built as high as the first floor.
Another problem was caused by West End Lake. The lake posed major
difficulties as far as construction and an expansion of the campus
went, so in October 1902, when the Millikin Power House and the
Machinery Hall were started, the lake was drained through Fairview
Park. It was emptied, save for a small stream. Then in 1911, when
the gymnasium was erected the stream was forced underground,
although it still remains beneath the campus.
Also in 1911, the Conservatory of Music was built and construction
on campus was completed until 20 years later, when the Gorin Library
was erected in 1931. Since that time, growth has continued with the
construction of the Griswold Center, the Kirkland Fine Arts
building, new housing and halls, and renovations to older buildings.
|The founder of Millikin University, James Millikin,
was born at Clarkstown, Pennsylvania on August 2, 1827.
While growing up, he attended the local school at Ten
Mile Creek that was taught by his brother Samuel and
later attended Washington College (now Washington &
Jefferson College) in Washington, Pennsylvania.
During his university days, Millikin found that he was
moved by the struggle of some of the other boys to
obtain funds to attend the college. He vowed that should
he ever make his fortune, he would create his own
university that all classes of people could attend.
he neared the end of his schooling, Millikin found that
his family was pushing him toward the medical
profession. However, he desired a career in business.
This desire, along with a taste for adventure, drew him
to the western states. He persuaded his father, who was
a farmer of moderate means, to head west with him in the
summer of 1849.
The two men drove a flock of sheep across
Pennsylvania and Ohio and into Indiana. Here, the animals were sold
for a healthy profit. The following spring, Millikin drove another
herd east, this time as far as Danville, Illinois. He pastured the
animals there for some time and when he took them to market, he sold
them at an even greater profit.
At that time, James was only 22 years-old and he spent the winter of
1850 attending Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana but did not
settle down. For the next several years, he went back to
Pennsylvania each winter and returned in the spring with larger and
larger herds of sheep. The largest was over 2,000 animals and he
invested the money wisely until he was able to afford to lease
pasture land in Illinois. He then bought cattle and became well
known for his excellent beef herds. He was later dubbed the "first
Cattle King of the Prairie State".
In 1856, Millikin moved further west to Decatur, bringing with him a
sizable fortune of more than $75,000. He came to the city prepared
to go into business. At that time, Decatur had a booming economy,
thanks to the arrival of the railroad and Millikin quickly realized
that he could turn his fortune into a much larger one. He quickly
bought several parcels of land, including a tract that ran between
Pine Street and Oakland Avenue on the west side of Decatur. It would
be here that he would later build the large mansion that still
stands on the site today.
On January 1, 1857, Millikin married Anna M. Aston, a native of
Washington, Pennsylvania. She had moved west with her family and her
father, a minister and evangelist, had become the pastor of the
Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Mt. Zion in 1855. Anna was a
graduate of the Washington Female Seminary and she was teaching
school in the community when she met James Millikin. The couple
remained married for 52 years, until James passed away in 1909.
|After their marriage, the Millikin's lived at the
Revere House for almost a year. This hotel was one of
the leading establishments in the city and was located
at the southeast corner of Franklin and Prairie Streets.
It boasted 12 bedrooms, a saloon and a restaurant within
two stories and a basement. It flourished until 1871,
when it burned down. The fire was believed to have
started when a guest, unfamiliar with the new gas
lights, left a gas jet burning and set the window
curtains on fire. Fortunately for the Millikin's, they
had moved to a cottage at the corner of William and
Edward Streets in 1858.
Homestead on Pine Street
But the couple would not remain contented in
their small home. A number of years before, after first arriving in
Decatur, Millikin had purchased the tract of land along Pine Street
for around $2,000. In the early 1870's, he drew up plans for he and
his wife's magnificent home and it was built for a cost of nearly
The Millikin's remained in the house until the death of James in
1909. After that, Anna moved to Florida and she passed away in 1913.
The house was vacant during this time and when Anna died, she willed
it "for the purposes of art".
In 1920, the house was leased to the Decatur Institute of Civic Arts
and in 1927; they began refurbishing the home and the furniture that
remained with it. In 1944, the house became officially linked to
Millikin University but was vacant again in 1969. Finally, in the
middle 1970's, the house was renovated and in June 1974, was placed
on the National Register of Historic Places.
James Millikin & His University
James Millikin's arrival in Decatur came at a time of rapid growth
and change for the city. He became involved in local business and
politics soon after coming here. He was a close friend of Abraham
Lincoln and firmly backed him as a Republican candidate for
president in 1860. Millikin also served as a Macon County supervisor
for several years, but never ran for office himself.
His wisest business decision came in 1860, after the failure of the
Railroad Bank. Several friends urged Millikin to go into the banking
business, even though he had no experience with it. He decided to
give it a try and moved into the former Railroad Bank building on
Merchant Street. He hung out a sign that simply read "J. Millikin,
The bank was soon recognized as being both safe and stable, but it
made little or no profit for the first 20 years that it was in
business. As it turned out, Millikin's most valuable assets were the
men that he surrounded himself with as officers of the bank. Among
them were Orville B. Gorin, Parke Hammer, William Hammer, Smith
Walker, Guy Lewis and Joseph Brownback.
Many readers may remember the "Millikin Building", located at 100
North Water Street. It was the fifth location of the bank and was
one of the finest examples of terra cotta architecture in the state.
It was called "the most pretentious office building in downstate
Illinois." It was completed in 1896, with seven stories, a basement
and 125 rooms. The offices boasted polished hardwood floors,
hallways of white tile and marble staircases with copper and bronze
After Millikin died in 1909, several changes were made to the
building but the most glaring changes came in 1952 when the bank
removed the ornate decorations on the building for "safety reasons".
Eventually, the bank moved out of the building, but it remains today
by its original name and still stands as a dignified and historic
structure in downtown Decatur.
Millikin's accumulation of wealth never slowed his donations to
charitable causes. During his lifetime, it is estimated that he gave
away more than $500,000 of his fortune and a trust fund that he
created still benefits the community. Perhaps the greatest gift that
he gave to Decatur was Millikin University, which fulfilled his own
ambitions from his college days.
|In April 1901, Millikin received a charter to begin
a new university in Decatur. He was prepared to supply
the land and a large portion of the funds needed to
start the construction of the school. He only asked that
local business leaders and the governing bodies of the
Presbyterian Church match his own donation. The new
college was to be an offshoot of Lincoln College in
Lincoln, Illinois, which was also under the auspices of
the church. Millikin believed that this would eliminate
much of the paperwork and provide some tax benefits. The
money was quickly matched by the city and soon plans for
the "Decatur College and Industrial School" were under
The arrangement with Lincoln College lasted until 1953
and the tenuous and ill-defined connection with the
Presbyterian Church eventually faded away. Millikin
always planned to offer an education at the school that
would be "secular, but moral" and this lack of adherence
to religious teachings gradually ended the association.
Millikin's first president, Dr. Albert Reynolds Taylor,
was hired in 1901, and arrived to temporary offices in
the Millikin Bank building. Taylor had been the
president of the State Normal School of Kansas at
Emporia before accepting the position that was offered
to him by Millikin in 1901. In the early years of the
college, he would serve as president; dean; registrar;
business manager; teaching chair in philosophy;
pedagogy; and education; and often taught several
classes each week. His annual salary was $5,000.
Postcards from the early days of Millikin University
In September 1901, Taylor outlined nine "schools"
for the new college, including Engineering; Commerce and Finance;
Fine Arts; Domestic Sciences; Horticulture and Landscaping;
Economics and Sociology; Pedagog; Library Training; and Liberal Arts
and Sciences. He also traveled east to determine an architectural
style for the campus and chose a modified Elizabethan style with
rough-faced brown and red brick and terra cotta ornamentation. The
buildings would be fitted with bay and circular windows and would
have red tile roofs. A brickyard to the west of the campus would
provide the materials.
Millikin University was officially dedicated on June 4, 1903. At a
few minutes past 3:00 in the afternoon, President Theodore Roosevelt
stepped from the rear platform of a Wabash train that had stopped
near the southeast edge of the new campus. At this time, Roosevelt
was at the height of his popularity and Decatur was near the end of
a 65-day, 14,000-mile western trip. He had graciously agreed to
speak at the dedication ceremony for the new college.
James Millikin, Dr. Albert Taylor and a number of other prominent
Decatur citizens, greeted Roosevelt. He was led directly to a
platform and here, he spoke at some length, praising Millikin for
his generous gift to the city. Following the speech, the president
was taken by carriage to the Wabash Station, where he spoke to
another large crowd. He left Decatur at 4:35 and returned to
Washington just two days later.
The celebration for the new college continued on into the evening. A
picnic and fireworks were held at the Decatur Trotting Association
Park, located at the end of Broadway. The party included a
collection of specially designed fireworks pieces that were made in
the shape of President Roosevelt, the late President McKinley and
even the new university. Trains crowded with people from other
communities flooded into the city for the event.
On September 15, 1903, the school opened with the Assembly Hall
decked out in the blue and white colors of Stephen Decatur's naval
flagship during the Barbary Wars. These were to become the chosen
colors for the new college. Despite a current of enthusiasm at the
university, James Millikin himself was very nervous. He remarked
that he hoped enrollment at the school might reach 500 in a few
years. He even suggested that it might be wise to close off the
Engineering Hall for the first year. He simply did not believe they
would need the space.
Millikin was seated in the rear of the faculty box during the
opening exercises and Dr. Taylor, following his address, asked that
all of those assembled who expected to enroll to please stand. The
sound of applause seemed to shake the building as 562 enrolling
students stood up. Millikin faced the audience and bowed, unable to
keep from crying. His greatest expectations for the new college had
already been fulfilled.
In 1909, James Millikin passed away. Funeral services were held at
the college's Assembly Hall and a horse-drawn carriage bore his
remains to a temporary vault in Greenwood Cemetery until the
Millikin-Aston tomb could be completed. A long line of solemn
students led the procession to the gravesite. Although he virtually
created the university, most of the students only knew him as a kind
and quiet man, who mingled with the crowd during university events
rather than take his place at the podium. And although nearly every
one of the mourners could recall speaking personally to the man,
James Millikin was never known to speak a public word at his own
The Ghosts of Millikin
The earliest tales of ghosts in the area that is now Millikin
University date back to the days when the settlers of Decatur were
still living in log cabins. There were stories told about the woods
to the west of the struggling village and concerned ghosts and
Indian spirits. These stories were usually told around the fire at
night and were designed to keep children at home after the sun went
Despite these shadowy tales, most believe that the stories of ghosts
at Millikin University began in more modern times. Today, there are
so many ghost stories attached to Millikin University that we only
have space for a sampling of them here. Below is a chronicle of the
"best of the best" of Millikin's hauntings......
Three Pieces of Candy….
The Ghost of the Albert Taylor Theater
It has been said that every good theater has a ghost and the Albert
Taylor Theater on Millikin's campus is no exception. In fact, I
would say that perhaps the most famous of the college's ghosts is
that of the "Rail Girl", who haunts this theater. She takes her name
from the fact that she normally appears, when she chooses to appear
at all, along a rail in the upper part of the theater. However, she
often makes her presence known in other ways ---- and nearly every
Millikin theater student can tell you at least one story about the
spirit's handiwork or the problems she has caused in the theater
during one show or another.
The theater was originally the school's auditorium and it can be
found inside of Schilling Hall, the main building on the Millikin
campus. The former Assembly Hall was the place where men like Dr.
Albert Reynolds Taylor, James Millikin and others met and addressed
both the students and the people of Decatur from the stage. When the
theater was originally built, a private seating box was designed for
Mr. and Mrs. Millikin on the east side of the auditorium and another
was reserved for the college's president on the west side. The boxes
were eventually removed during renovations in 1952-53. The hall was
named for Dr. Taylor in 1939.
A Vintage view
of the Albert Taylor Theater
|No one knows for sure when the story of the ghost
who haunts this theater got started, but it seems to
have been around for a number of years. It also shows no
signs of going away either, as you can ask just about
any theater student on campus about her and they can
tell you some first or second hand story about an
alleged happening that has occurred. I have even talked
to Millikin theater alumni who have their own stories to
The legends say that the little girl who haunts the
theater will do anything to get the attention of the
actors and stage crew here. No one seems to know why
this phantom child has chosen to make the theater her
home. Regardless of why she remains here, there have
been literally dozens of reports of strange sounds and
noises in the theater, eerie footsteps, the sound of
weeping and items that disappear and then show up later
in different places. And that isn't all....
The most famous tradition of the theater is the
long-standing ritual of leaving three pieces of candy for the ghost
prior to any performance. This is said to insure the approval of the
ghost and to make certain that she does nothing to ruin the show. In
the past, those who have scoffed at the tradition have suffered for
it with botched performances, lighting problems, sound equipment
failures, rigging and prop damage and even actual injuries. Anything
that could possibly disrupt the show can and does happen under these
Several years ago, I was approached by an alumnus of the Millikin
theater department who was eager to tell me about a very frightening
experience that she had with the "Rail Girl" in the early 1990's.
She told me about a night when she was involved in a play at the
theater and recalled hearing the stories about the resident ghost
but she refused to accept the validity of any of them. "I didn't
believe in any of that stuff", she remembered "and I laughed at one
of my friends who had brought candy for the ghost on the night of
the show's opening."
She was already in costume for the performance and she started down
a flight of steps toward the stage. Suddenly, she felt what appeared
to be two small hands take hold of her ankles. They felt as if they
were coming from beneath the stairs but the staircase was solid and
there was no way that anyone could reach through!
"I distinctly felt someone's hands and fingers and I immediately
looked down," she told me. "I assumed that it was someone's idea of
a bad joke... but there was no one there!"
The fingers tightened around her and she stumbled as she tried to
get free of them. Her mind refused to accept that something
invisible was holding onto her, but she had no other explanation for
what was going on. Before she could even cry out, her feet were
pulled out from under her and she plunged forward. As she tumbled
forward, her hands clawed out for the support of a handrail, the
wall or anything. She was unable to brace herself though and she
pitched down the steps. Her head and the floor connected with a
solid crack and she told me she believed that she blacked out for
several minutes. The resulting bruise lasted for more than two
weeks. Needless to say, she missed her performance that night.
"I don't know if the ghost had anything to do with what happened
that night or not," she later said, "but I decided not to take any
chances. Every time that I was supposed to perform after that, I
made sure that we had candy for the ghost!"
While none of the other stories that I have heard are nearly as
frightening (or as dangerous) as the one told by this former
student, a great many other students who perform here, and who have
performed here in the past, can tell you at least one anecdote
related to failure to leave candy for the "Rail Girl". Some of these
stories are humorous while others are simply chilling.….
One evening, after having spoken to a crowd of Millikin students
about ghosts and hauntings, I was approached by a small group of
theater majors who recalled a strange incident during a show that
semester. The actors were on stage during the performance and the
show proceeded for some time without incident. One of the props
being used for the play was an old rotary dial telephone that was
placed on a table near the center of the stage. During a particular
scene, one of the actors was supposed to go to the telephone, lift
the receiver and then make a call, during which he was supposed to
be addressing another character to his right. He would then hang up
the phone, turn around, say his lines and then pick up the receiver
Everything with the scene went fine until the actor turned around to
pick up the telephone for the second time. He reached for it, but
grabbed nothing but air --- the telephone had vanished! The
actor, who was present in the group of students, recalled his
reaction: "I know that I must have blinked a couple of times and
wondered where the phone had gone! It had been there just a second
before, so I looked around to see if it had fallen but it was just
gone!" Luckily, he was able to adlib his lines and after a moment or
two of fumbling around, the show continued with the audience
completely unaware of what had happened. But that wasn't the end of
After the performance was over, the actor told his friends and
fellow actors what had occurred. While no one claimed that he was
lying, several of them scoffed at his report. One of them had been
on stage at the time and while he had noticed the telephone was
gone, had seen nothing out of the ordinary take place. With that,
the actor led them back onto the stage and amazingly; the telephone
was right back where it was supposed to be! When questioned, the
props people claimed to have no knowledge of its odd disappearance.
Stagehands and set designers at the Albert Taylor Theater often deal
with disappearances of their own. The items that most commonly go
missing are tools. Even though most of the sets themselves are
actually constructed at the scene shop in the old gymnasium (which
is haunted in its own right!), a lot of the finish work is completed
in the theater itself. I spoke to two set builders in 1996 about a
time when they were working late one evening, trying to finish
preparing for an upcoming show.
The two students had been working for several hours when they
decided to take a break and get something to drink. Neither of them
had brought a cooler or anything with them, so they decided to walk
over to a nearby dorm room and get something. When they left, they
thought nothing of leaving their tools behind on the stage.
The door was locked when they left and they returned in about 20
minutes with their cold drinks. In moments, they realized that all
of their tools were gone!
"At first, I honestly thought that someone was playing a trick on
us. I can't say that I didn't believe the theater was haunted, but I
really didn't blame this on a ghost," one of them explained. He went
on to add that he and his co-worker searched the theater and then
looked around the building. The place was deserted. Later that
evening, they checked with their friends also but it seemed that the
tools were simply gone.
His friend continued with the story. "At that point, I was ready to
admit that they had been stolen. I didn't know how anyone could have
gotten in there, but I was sure that someone must have," he told me.
After angrily talking things over, the two students decided to call
it a night. It was now well after midnight and they thought they
would take a fresh look at things in the morning.
The following day (Saturday), they returned to the theater. They had
been talking about what to do about the stolen items and had brought
along some additional tools so that they could continue their work.
One of them was in mid-sentence, mentioning that they should inform
security of the loss, when he suddenly looked down at the stage and
gasped in surprise. All of the tools had mysteriously reappeared and
had been left in the exact same places from which they had vanished!
Perhaps the whole thing had been a prank after all and it had been
one played on them by a ghost!
Nate Claus, a theater student during the 2000 - 2001 school year,
began to believe that the "Rail Girl" might not be appeased by just
three pieces of candy anymore. He based this on a strange encounter
that he and several others had during one show when he was acting as
the Assistant Stage Manager for the performance.
"Our Stage Manager didn't believe in the ghost, so I was forced to
take care of the candy," he said. "During the dress rehearsal, I
gave her the obligatory three pieces, but this was apparently not
The rehearsal went on as scheduled, but within about 15 minutes, a
fog machine that was being used for the play somehow switched itself
on and began filling the auditorium with artificial fog. Nate swore
that he had just checked the machine a few minutes earlier and it
had been off. As machines of this type usually take several minutes
to heat up enough to produce fog, it makes it all the more
mysterious as to how it could have suddenly started "fogging up" the
theater. To make matters worse, when Nate was told about the
problem, he ran down the stairs and fell, scraping his wrist against
the wall. It later became badly infected. "After that night, I
brought an entire bag of candy to the ghost every night," he said.
"My shows in there have been running smoothly ever since."
While something strange seems to be going on at the Albert Taylor
Theater, the question remains as to whether or not the "Rail Girl"
is real. Many have suggested that she is merely a figment of the
imagination, a clever legend that was invented by the theater
students to explain away their own superstitions. Perhaps this is
the case, but then again, perhaps not....
In 1998, I met a former Millikin theater student who came to believe
that the "Rail Girl" was quite real. She told me of a night when she
was in the theater alone and rehearsing for an upcoming show. It was
very late when the back door of the theater swung open and a little
girl stuck her head into the auditorium and looked around.
"I was tired but I saw her very clearly. She was a small girl, with
brown hair and she was wearing a white dress with a pink tie around
it," she recalled quite clearly. "I couldn't begin to say how old
she was, but I would guess somewhere around 7 or 8 years old."
Then, as quickly as she had come into the room, she disappeared back
outside into the hallway again. The student, wondering what a little
girl was doing inside of the campus building at such a late hour,
went to the door and looked out. She looked in every direction but
the corridor was completely empty. Only a few seconds had passed,
but the mysterious little girl was nowhere to be found!
"I still believe there is nowhere that an ordinary little girl could
have gone so quickly," she said. "She simply vanished and ever since
then I have been convinced that I came face-to-face with the 'Rail
And she's not the only one. According to another account from 2000,
a student was working in the balcony control room, when, during the
middle of a show, she heard a knock at the door. Assuming that it
was some sort of emergency, she opened the door and found a small
girl in a white, old-fashioned dress standing outside. When she
asked, "Can I help you?" the girl answered, "No" and ran away.
So, what do you think? Does the ghost of the Albert Taylor Theater
really exist? You can doubt it all that you like, but there are a
number of Millikin theater students of the past and present who will
tell you, with certain conviction, that this particular phantom is
more real than most of us would care to imagine!
Hauntings at the Old Gymnasium
The college's old gymnasium was added to the campus in 1911, about
eight years after the school was opened to students. Initially, both
James Millikin and Dr. Albert Taylor were skeptical about the
presence of sports on the campus. Later, both men relented and
Millikin had its first football team in the fall of 1903. A
basketball team was added for the 1911 season, hosting their home
games in the old gymnasium, and they managed to win the state
championship that year.
Prior to the construction of the new building in
1911, there had only been a small gymnasium located beneath the
Assembly Hall in the Schilling Building. There was a small
basketball court that was set up on the upper floor of the Mueller
building but it was strictly for general exercise and not for
organized play. Regulations of the university stated that female
students were not allowed to cross the campus dressed in gym
|When construction was started on the building, the
designers still had to contend with some of the problems
of the past. One major issue was the small stream that
still ran across the back part of the campus. The
students had dubbed it the "River Sticks" and it was all
that remained of the lake that was the centerpiece of
Oakland Park. It was learned that the stream was fed by
a natural spring and that a water table existed beneath
the entire campus. In spite of this, the builders
managed to force the water underground, where it still
remains. The water table also once fed a spring in
Fairview Park and the icehouse that was located down
West Eldorado Street from the campus.
The gymnasium was used constantly for quite some
time but as the years passed, the Griswold Physical Education Center
replaced the old Gym. Today, only a weight room and a dance studio
are left to remind us that the building was once the sports center
for the college. Since the departure of most sports activities, the
upstairs portion of the gym, with its high ceilings and elevated
running track, has been abandoned. It has been used by the theater
department for many years as an area for both prop storage and as
space to build sets for upcoming performances.
It is in this part of the building where ghostly sounds from the
past echo into the present.
Countless students claim to have had strange encounters in the
building and most of these encounters seem to tell of events from
the past repeating in the present day. These events, strangely
enough, are repeating in the form of sounds. Visitors, staff members
and students who come to the upstairs portion of the building tell
of hearing voices, laughter, cheers, applause, whistles blowing and
even the sound of a basketball bouncing across the floor when no one
else is present.
One student told me of coming to the old gym one night and having an
encounter of his own. "It was my freshman year," he said, "and we
were loading a show downtown at the Lincoln Theater. It was about
midnight; we had forgotten a prop, and they sent me back to get it."
He walked into the dark, upstairs gymnasium and was surprised to
hear the sound of someone loudly bouncing a basketball across the
floor. Curious, he quickly reached for a light switch but when the
lights came up, he found the room was deserted. A quick search of
the building revealed not only that no one else was there, but that
no basketballs were there either!
Another student, who was alone in the dance studio (located in a
small section of the gymnasium next to the scene shop), had a
similar unnerving encounter.
"I was in the dance studio alone one night and I was just finishing
choreographing a dance piece when, from about five feet behind me, I
heard this slow, rhythmical clapping," she recalled. " I turned
around but there was no one there."
She quickly searched through the entire building but found that she
was alone. Whoever had been clapping had simply vanished! She
quickly followed suit and left the building for the evening!
A photo of the
Millikin Gymnasium during its heyday as a sports center.
The basketball court and bleachers are evident, as is
the elevated running track that plays a part of today’s
ghost stories. Little of this original area can still be
seen today, thanks to sets are partitions that have been
erected by the theater department. In its heyday, the
gym was the original home of the IHSA Basketball
Tournament as well as Millikin’s home court. In
addition, dances are parties were often held here.
A Millikin theater alumnus had an eerie
story to tell me that occurred during her tenure at the
university in the middle 1970's. At that time, she had
been a costume designer for the theater department and
was working late one evening in the gym. Although she
was sure that she was alone in the building, she began
to hear the sounds of a young woman crying from
The office she was using was up on the highest floor
(level with the elevated running track) and she stepped
out into the foyer at the top of the stairs. She could
hear the cries drifting up from the shadows below. The
staircase and the lower floors were dimly lit and she
was chilled by the mournful and eerie sound. "It sounded
as though this girl's heart was broken," she told me.
She decided to go downstairs and check on the
crying girl. She felt badly for her and stated that she felt
something was terribly wrong. With each descending step, the crying
grew louder until it became almost a warbling scream. Determined,
she quickened her pace and reached the bottom of the steps. The
cries were coming from the gymnasium itself and she tried to see
where the other girl might be, but it was just too dark. Just around
the corner, she found the electrical box and she switched on a
light. Just as she did so, the crying immediately stopped!
A thorough search of the building revealed that there was no one
else inside and that all of the doors had been locked. She never
solved the mystery of the "crying girl" but she had never forgotten
A former Millikin security guard told me of an event he experienced
here during the holiday season of 1994. At that time of the year,
the campus is mostly deserted and because most of the buildings are
empty, the security staff has to make sure that everything is locked
up tight. The watchman entered the old gym and from upstairs, he
could hear the sound of someone running around the elevated track
that circles the gym and overlooks the basketball court from the
"I honestly thought that someone had gotten into the building and
was running around upstairs," he explained. "I hadn't been on the
job very long and I really didn't know anything about the building.
I just knew there was a weight room downstairs, so I figured that
the gym was still actually a gym and that students might work out
here. I certainly didn't know the place was supposed to be haunted!"
He cautiously climbed the stairs to the highest floor and stepped
through a doorway and onto the track. He looked around with his
flashlight, peering first from the dizzying heights to the floor
below and then around the track itself. The echo of the pounding
footsteps circled quickly away from him, rounding the track to the
far side of the gymnasium. He turned his flashlight in that
direction, sure that he would be able to see someone in the glare.
However, he quickly discovered that no one was there --- and not
only that, he realized the track was completely blocked with stored
props and set pieces! There was no way that anyone could be running
around the track, and yet, he could distinctly hear the sound of the
running feet! Unnerved, he scrambled for the lights and flipped them
on and the sound abruptly stopped. A search of the building revealed
that no living person was present.
"I just got out of there fast!" he told me later. "And I didn't go
back to the gym over that entire holiday season. All that I did was
check the door outside because I never went in!"
I had my own encounter with the "phantom sounds" of the old gym in
1997 (and this would not be the only strange thing I experienced
here.. but more on that later). After hearing all of the stories
from both students and staff members about the strange sounds that
"haunted" the place, I was able to get permission to spend an
evening in the building. I brought two friends along with me and we
were determined to record anything odd that occurred, or at least to
experience it for ourselves.
For me to say that serious boredom set in would be an
understatement. We sat in the dark gymnasium for more than two
hours, listening for anything out of the ordinary --- then we heard
it! It seemed to be someone walking across the wooden floor and the
sound was so real that I could literally hear the floorboards
creaking under the weight of each step this person took. The
footsteps crossed from one side of the room and were heading quickly
toward the other.
The first thing that I did was to make sure of where my friends
were. The gym was dark, but not so dark that I couldn't see them
sitting just a few feet away. I saw that they were also peering in
my direction, making sure that I was not a prankster, taking on the
role of the "walking ghost". Once we were assured that no one from
our small group was the culprit, we decided to try and find out if
the "extra" person in the room was solid or spectral. The only way
to do this (short of running across the room and attempting to
tackle the phantom) was to try and spot the person using one of our
flashlights. I followed the sound of the footsteps and then shined
the bright light over in that direction.
As soon as I did, the footsteps immediately halted! And not only was
the gym now silent, but it was empty as well. I had half expected to
find some befuddled student standing there in the glare of my light,
having wandered into the middle of our "ghost hunt", but there was
no one there.
As the subjects from the previous stories did, we then searched the
building. I confess that I still expected to find a student or staff
member who had been playing a trick on us, but the place was totally
Was it a ghost? Perhaps, but then again, perhaps it was something
This type of experience has been repeated many times in the building
with inexplicable sounds being heard and then ceasing when the
lights are turned on. Could this be the connection to the haunting?
There are many places on the Millikin campus where electrical
disturbances are common. In many locations, these anomalies cause
cameras and stereos to stop working, televisions to shut off and
lights to turn on and off at will.
There is a theory that the reason for this strange activity at
Millikin may be the lake that was once located where the campus is
today. When the water was forced underground, the water table
remained beneath the campus. This could be why Millikin seems to act
like a giant battery, storing up energy to replay over and over
again. On the other hand, this water source may also be responsible
for the resident ghosts as well. Spirits and supernatural energy are
often generated and attracted to water in much the same way that an
electrical current is.
As for the gymnasium itself, it is located directly over the site of
the old lake and the underground water table is certainly present at
this location. Thanks to the years of sporting events, parties and
dances, there has certainly been a lot of people through the
building over the years and perhaps a sort of "recording" would
explain the reports of phantom clapping, cheering, whistles,
basketballs and footsteps that have come from the place over the
years. Further credence is given to the water / electrical theory in
that in most cases where the witnesses have reported anomalous
sounds and have turned on a light (or another electrical appliance),
the noises have suddenly stopped. Could the change in one electrical
current somehow affect the other one?
Obviously, there are no clear answers as to why strange things
continue to happen at the old Gym. Paranormal electrical
interference or ghostly Millikin alumni from years gone by? It's
impossible to say but regardless of why the weird happenings take
place, the old gym remains a strange and haunted building. It is an
odd sort of "mystery spot" where the past is still present in a way
that we don't yet understand.
The Haunting of Aston Hall
Aston Hall is the oldest building on campus devoted to women's
housing. It was originally called simply the "Women's Hall" and that
name was later changed in honor of Reverend Samuel Aston, the father
of Anna Aston Millikin. The hall was completed in September 1907 but
is barely recognizable from older photographs as two separate halls
have been added to the structure in a line running south. Before the
hall opened, Mrs. Millikin presented Dr. Albert Taylor with a list
of suggested rules for female behavior in the hall, based on her own
collegiate experiences years before. Dr. Taylor had to gently remind
her that practices from her seminary days were a bit outdated for a
university in the modern 1900's.
|The Women's Hall was a greatly admired piece of
architecture on the Millikin campus and it was described
in an excerpt from a 1908 yearbook as: "The Women's Hall
is five stories high, including the basement and the
attic floors. The basement accommodates the splendid
dining room, the kitchen, storage and other necessary
adjuncts. The first floor provides the handsome parlors
and Dean's rooms and eight student's rooms. The second
and third floors have a dozen student's rooms each. The
attic floor has eight rooms for students and the
necessary help. At the opposite ends of each corridor on
the three main floors is a cozy alcove with a writing
table and accessories.... the living room is tastefully
furnished; the mantle being especially worthy of mention
because of its simplicity and neatness...."
A photo of
Aston Hall that was taken shortly after it was completed
in 1907. The building housed female students, as well as
the dining hall and provided rooms for the kitchen
help and the domestic staff.
Originally, the Women's Hall was also the
location of the university dining hall, where lunch cost the
students seven cents. While much of the aspects of the past, like
seven cent lunches and maid services, have vanished from Aston, one
thing about the old hall remains the same --- the resident ghost.
This building boasts the oldest reported spirit on the Millikin
campus. The stories of this phantom have been around for a long time
and for years, many students believed the legend that she was the
spirit of a young woman who committed suicide after her fiancée was
killed during World War II. After her death in the early 1940's, she
began haunting Aston Hall. While this World War II-era death never
occurred, there was a tragic suicide that occurred in the building
that not only explains the appearance of the ghost but also explains
the rumors that the third floor of the hall was actually closed down
for a time in the middle 1930's because of frequent sightings of the
According to Millikin records, an Aston Hall resident named Bernice
Richardson committed suicide in the building on February 1, 1927.
Despondent over the fact that her poor grades prohibited her from
accepting an invitation to her first rushing party, Bernice drank
carbolic acid and died horribly in her room. The accounts state that
she actually joked to a friend the night before about taking poison
if her grades were bad. "I'll never be able to go back home and face
my parents," she reportedly said.
Not only has Bernice never gone home --- she has never left Aston
Those who have seen her say that she is quite solid-looking but
frightening in that she is only visible from the waist up. Bernice's
ghost is famous for her journeys through the Aston Hall dorm rooms
on the third floor. The accounts say that she appears out of the
wall of one room and crosses the room to the opposite wall. She then
vanishes into this wall and enters the next room, passing from one
room to the next as if the walls did not even exist.
In addition, residents of this floor also speak of poltergeist-like
events where items move about, disappear and appear at will. Most
believe that these events and the restless ghost are somehow linked
together. They often hear knocking and rapping sounds coming from
inside of the walls. Lights turn on and off, doors open and close
and items often vanish and then re-appear in other places.
Bernice continues to be active, and put in appearances, today. I
spoke to a student who claimed to see the ghost as recently as the
fall of 2005. It's possible that she has also been spotted even more
recently than that.
"I only got a glimpse of her," the young woman told me. "There was
just this flash of white that went around a corner. It wasn't clear
but I am sure that it was a woman. When I looked around the corner,
there was no one there."
Millikin's Haunted Greek Houses
In the early days of the college, both James Millikin and Dr. Albert
Taylor were reluctant to allow two things on campus: organized
sports and the presence of Greek letter societies. The two men later
relented and since that time, both sports and Greek societies have
become an integral part of the university. The first Millikin
football team came along in 1903 and the earliest chapter of a
national fraternity at Millikin was the Beta chapter of Tau Kappa
Epsilon, chartered in April 1909. Since that time, the Greek
chapters have had a long tradition with the college and that
tradition includes their resident ghosts! In fact, one of the
chapter houses even held their spirit in such tradition that a
portion of the house was named after her!
The former Zeta Tau Alpha house (now the Alumni House) on West Main
Street was haunted for many years by a ghost that had been dubbed
"Louise". According to the legend, Louise was a maid who had once
worked for members of the Mueller family, who had owned the house
before it became a part of the university. For some reason, she had
stayed behind after her death, still making her presence known in
the house. The stories stated that she lived in the dormer upstairs.
Louise became best known over the past decades for her dramatic
entrances into the house. Students who lived in the building would
report the sound of the front door opening, then closing, and then
the tapping of footsteps as they crossed the foyer and started up
the stairs. Other residents claimed to often feel the presence of
someone pass by them on the staircase and enter the dormer. Thanks
to the actions of the ghost, the members of ZTA named the foyer of
the house "Louise's Lounge", a name that stuck around until the
chapter left the house a number of years ago.
And Louise is not alone among the haunted Greek houses, as you will
soon see. While Millikin University can certainly boast a number of
ghosts, the local Greek chapters just may have more than their
The Kappa Sigma house has long been believed to
be haunted by the ghost of a young man named "Nathan", who allegedly
committed suicide in the building back when it was a boarding house.
The most famous of the haunted Greek houses on campus is the Delta
Delta Delta sorority house, which is also located just west of the
campus and down the street from the Kappa Sigma house. The ladies
who live in this house are used to the fact that they have one of
the best-known ghosts of Millikin. Stories of the haunting here have
been told for many years and reaction to the tales runs the gamut
from belief to outright skepticism.
Some of the residents are not quite sure what to think. "I can't
believe there is a ghost in the Tri-Delta house," one resident who
was living there in 1996 told me, "because I would be very afraid of
it if there was."
house is home to one of the most famous ghosts on the
Millikin campus. Several generations of independent
witnesses have claimed to encounter this spirit.
I have spoken to large numbers of
former residents of the house who have had encounters
with this phantom and the sightings go back through
several generations of students. Most of the witnesses,
being completely unconnected to each other, had
strikingly eerie stories to tell. Besides seeing the
ghost, many of them also spoke of hearing her and
feeling her presence. It seems that chilling whispers
are sometimes heard in the upper dormers and residents
tell of walking into small patches of extremely cold
air, which defy explanation and then vanish moments
later. It is in the same area of the house where these
encounters take place that the ghost is normally seen.
This area of the house is near the place where
one side of the dorm connects with the other. The house was added
onto at some point years ago and it is around this junction where
the ghost is reported most frequently.
The apparition is described as being a young woman who is faded, or
very pale in coloring. Her clothing appears to be homespun, like
that of the early settlers to the area. Her skin is transparent and
she is sometimes hard to see, as if she is a reflection in a pool of
murky water. Some have told me that the apparition is off-white or
gray in color. Residents of the house have been encountering this
ghost for many years and some students say that she visits the dorm
rooms in the night, as if checking in on the sleeping residents.
Others say that she is also seen occasionally in the daytime as
One former student told me that she encountered the ghost after
class one afternoon. She was walking down a hallway and the phantom
suddenly appeared from nowhere and passed right by her. "Other girls
have told me that she seems to know we're there," the young woman
said, "but she didn't seem to notice me. It was like I walked into a
refrigerator or something when she passed by me. It was just ice
There seems to be little question that the presence is a benevolent
one, although some are frightened of her anyway. Of course, this may
be because of the way that the ghost makes her frequent nighttime
Several different sorority sisters claim to have been awakened at
night to find the ghost standing directly over their beds. In fact,
one young woman even recalled waking up at night to see the ghost
standing over her roommate. After that, she started sleeping with
the covers pulled over her head at night, convinced that she would
be the one who was visited next. She took the blankets down on only
one other occasion and when she opened her eyes, she saw the face of
the ghost, looking down directly above her own! She stopped sleeping
in the house for quite some time after that!
"When I first moved into this house, I didn't know anything about
the ghost," another student said. "But not long after that, I saw
her in my friend's room at night! One year I saw her like six
She paused for a moment in our interview and she smiled faintly. "I
guess you could say that I know all about her now!"
So, who is the ghost who haunts this building?
And why would a phantom in pioneer clothing be haunting a place that
was not built until the early 1900's. The discovery of an old
Decatur map has recently shed some light on this mystery. According
to the map, the location of the Tri-Delta House was once the site of
the John Miller Cemetery, a private family graveyard that "vanished"
from local maps in 1874. The cemetery was not re-discovered until
1913 --- at the time the Tri-Delta House was constructed. It's now
believed that perhaps the disturbance of the graves in the cemetery
(or perhaps some of them being left behind) has caused the haunting
in the house.
So, what of the Ghosts of Millikin? Are they real
or simply imaginary? I believe there is something present on the
Millikin campus that defies explanation, whether the place is some
sort of weird energy spot or merely a place that seems to attract
more ghosts than most other places do.
For this reason, I realize that there exist many more ghost stories
about Millikin University that remain untold and certainly many more
which are still waiting to be born. In a place such as this, new
ghost stories are created everyday!
back to Haunted Decatur!
Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.