The Illinois College of Photography in Effingham was started by Lewis H. Bissell. He owned and operated Bissell photographic studio on the southwest corner of the courthouse square. Lewis published many cabinet cards which are real photos of people mounted on heavy card stock. The college began in that location and later moved to the Calvin Austin home that Bissell purchased from Austin in the late 1890s. In 1900, the ICP opened its new facility for photographic students from across the nation and the world.
The cornerstone of Rembrandt Hall next door was laid on May 30, 1900, by the Grand Lodge of Masons of Illinois. With Garnet Hall and Rembrandt Hall now available to students, Lewis and his instructional staff started teaching the art and science of photography. It was one of a few such colleges in the world. The buildings and grounds of the college had a well-kept lawn, tennis courts, swings, building halls, and porches with beautiful vistas. Lewis Bissell provided the students with all the comforts of a well-ordered home. There were even city and private phones in the buildings. Students sometimes stayed in private homes like that of Phil Crooker, builder of Rembrandt Hall.
ICP students had rules and regulations for proper decorum, and class hours and work were strictly enforced. Garnet Hall is now known as the Austin Mansion. It is the Queen Anne style and was constructed of Virginia brownstone, pressed brick, and had a New York red slate roof. Along with Rembrandt Hall next door, Bissell had invested over $100,000 in the grounds and equipment. The buildings were heated with steam and lighted by both gas jets and electricity. The finest plate-glass windows, transom lights that were prismatic, and chandeliers made with cut glass decorated Garnet Hall named after Bissell’s departed son. The buildings used four kinds of water — city, well, soft, and distilled used in the process of photo development. The interior woodwork of Garnet Hall was constructed from quarter-sawn red oak, cherry, and had painted wall frescoes on the first floor.
Rembrandt Hall was where the various photographic processes were performed by students. The first floor was constructed with the bottom 4 feet being below ground. This allowed the temperature to remain a constant 70 degrees, which was necessary for quality picture production. The second through fourth floor rooms were for lectures, demonstrations, and copying and enlarging prints. Bissell was always vigilant for any new processes to use in the college. These many processes enticed photography students from around the world. Domestic and foreign students arrived in Effingham via a well-developed train system in the United States. ICP graduate students went on to eventually work in some of the best photographic studios in America and Europe. The college’s motto was “The sun never sets on an ICP student.” I have a postcard of a Japanese student studying in his room.
There is a local urban legend that a General Yamamoto studied at the ICP. There was a student named Isoroku Yamamoto who studied at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1919-1921. The Time-Life series “World War II: The Rising Sun” has an eight-page write-up on Admiral Yamamoto with numerous pictures. He was described as gregarious, outgoing, funny, and well-liked by many people at the university. Yamamoto was introduced to the game of poker at the university and became a fanatical player. He used his winnings to travel around America during the summer of 1921. He also served as a naval attaché in the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. While there, he played poker with members of the U.S. naval military and developed contempt for their lack of mental agility at the poker table. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff did not have the imagination of what the Japanese were capable of doing. They thought Admiral Yamamoto would attack the Philippines first. Instead, he attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. This act plunged America into the Second World War after sitting out of the war 1939-1941. Yamamoto may be a common Japanese name, but the famous one was never in Effingham at the ICP.
While working and learning many aspects of photography, students would take their camera equipment around Effingham to photograph buildings, street scenes, railroad trains and depots, and the ICP instructors. Their study lasted about one year after which they would seek gainful employment locally or in states as far away as California. Students had to turn in photography projects at the end of their studies usually numbering about 20 photos on thick card stock. I have one such student project.
Sometimes the students enjoyed taking pictures of themselves and each other around Effingham. Many of their images were made into real photo postcard scenes for the ICP to sell. The postcards sold for one penny and cost one penny to send them through the mail. The cards became known as “penny postcards”. It was in the heart of the “Golden Age of Postcards” and the divided back (1907-1915).
Some ICP students went to extraordinary means for taking their pictures. Students by the names of Stine and Draper hired pilots and airplanes to take them and their equipment up to take two aerial views of the ICP and vicinity. The postcard views show a sparsely settled area of Effingham east of the facility. Another student named Robert Sauden didn’t have the money to hire a balloon pilot or a plane, so he created a mock bi-wing plane supported by wooden saw horses. This was 1914 and Garnet Hall is in the background.
Other students photographed the waterworks dam west of Effingham. They took pictures of the dam from ground level and from the railroad bridge above the dam. Other students took pictures of the old iron bridge across Salt Creek between Effingham and Teutopolis.
Members of the faculty at the ICP were frequent subjects of student photographers. Percy “Dad” Raymer was one such subject. Another 1908 ICP postcard featured a collage of 10 faculty members, Garnet Hall, and a pennant with 1908 on it and gives a glimpse of the dedicated men who made the college world renowned.
Another great view of early Effingham shows a 1907 aerial view of downtown showing the courthouse, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Austin Block, including the Austin Opera House, and a variety of businesses. The view looks from southwest to northeast. It would appear that the ICP student climbed something like the water tower to take the unique picture. Two former ICP students, Gilmore and Harlan, started their own local postcard business, climbed on the roof of the courthouse, and took a picture of downtown Effingham looking southwest. Landmarks like the old Methodist Church, standpipe water tower, and Central High School were in the picture.
Englishman Ed Mitchell was perhaps the best photographer I’ve discovered. He knew the right angles and composition for his photographs of the ICP — farming techniques in the fields around Effingham, Lake Kanagge, Oak Ridge Cemetery, the Effingham County Courthouse, Bliss Park, street scenes, etc. He and his wife, Clara, were in Effingham 1906-07 before returning to England. They even traveled by rail to St. Louis to take pictures in Forest Park.
Other ICP students took the train and their equipment to places like St. Elmo to take their pictures. Views there included various residences, entrance to the cemetery, churches, Main Street, Hotel Elmo, rural scenes, etc. I have several such views from St. Elmo in my collections.
Two advanced ICP students used their talents to photograph notable Effingham residents, buildings, events, etc. for the publication of the Effingham, Illinois, 50th Anniversary 1853-1903 booklet published by the Effingham Democrat. They were D.A. Walker and Aaron Becker. That booklet and its pictures has been a source of inspiration for several of my articles.
Resources: Effingham, Illinois Fiftieth Anniversary 1853-1903: Effingham Democrat newspaper
Smithsonian Institution archives
Phil Lewis collections
Historical Postcards of Effingham County, Illinois. 2004. Historical Collectors Association.