Champion of Mount Carroll, Ill; Laurie Scott helps turn a little town around
Mount Carroll, Ill.
''This little girl over here'' is how Dick Noble, the grocer, refers to Main Street program director Laurie Scott. He gestures across the town square to her office from his own outpost, a desk in the back of Noble Foods. ''This little girl,'' he is saying, came into a lot of work when she came to town.Skip to next paragraph
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So much work, in fact, that Miss Scott, who graduated last year with a degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois, with a year of study in Newcastle, England, under her belt, doesn't seem to bat an eye over epithets like ''this little girl.'' It's not nearly as troubling as the state of affairs here in Mount Carroll.
''Little girl'' is not a good description of her. She is tall, thin, and thoughtful, with short, ginger-colored hair and a long, intelligent face. She talks slowly and knits her pale eyebrows together while she stops to think. She probably frowns more since she got the job for Illinois's state ''Main Street'' program and concerned herself with ''commercial revitalization through historic preservation'' - both the federal and state Main Street programs' professed goal.
The goal presents a conundrum of sorts here. As far as historic preservation is concerned, the town is something of a success story. When Shimer College, an institution that grew up with the town, folded in 1978, the campus was put up for auction. Townspeople, led by Ralph Kennedy, a furniture restorer, got together and bought it for $170,000. They have set it up as Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies, a school where the latest methods in restoration of everything from old lace to cracked masonry can be taught by world-renowned experts. No less leading lights than Wallace Gusler, furniture curator of Colonial Williamsburg, and Sara Chase of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities have already taught workshops at the center, named after Samuel J. Campbell, the philanthropist who put up $100,000 toward buying the campus. The rest of it came from residents, 14 of whom put up their own money to secure a loan, each guaranteeing they could pay for one of the 14 parcels of property the college had been divided into for auction.
The college, ivy-covered and only slightly overgrown, with walks, quads, and big trees, looks like just the sort of haven to settle into and ponder the shoring up of national treasures. Mount Carroll is a beautiful town. It sits on a hill surrounded by cornfields in a rare, rolling part of northern Illinois near the Iowa border. You can see it from a distance, glinting in the slanting light of afternoon, with its steepled courthouse rising amid the tufted oak treetops and peaked roofs along the bluff. Built in the 1840s around a flour mill, it has the look of a prosperous, old-time farm town. There is a square lined with old storefronts with ornately decorated pressed-iron facades, delivered prefabricated in the 1870s by train from St. Louis. There are beautiful brick houses with little sophisticated touches in the white trim - a round, small-paned window here, a few pillars there, a curlicued pediment somewhere else - as if to single them out as town, rather than farm, houses. Lamps go on in the evenings; smoke comes out the chimneys; children fling footballs; and walking the streets, you hear someone begin to practice the piano.
Downtown, several of the ornate facades are rusted. But those will be much easier to fix than the dusty shop windows in many of those storefronts displaying only old ''For Rent'' signs. The town square is empty much of the time except for the occasional figure crossing the street slantwise (no need to look both ways) and the cars parked in front of Dot's Cafe. A loudspeaker perched outside Kraft's, the work-clothes store, plays cheery Muzak into the wind. Obviously, historic preservation has outpaced commercial revitalization here. Mount Carroll needs help.
''People have said it's a farmer's retirement community,'' says Laurie Scott. Family farms around Mount Carroll are being sold and combined into big conglomerates. Not only are there more retired farmers here than before, there is also less for working farmers to do. The town has lost its farm-implement businesses, and even the local Farm Bureau has moved from downton Mount Carroll out to the highway. ''It's a picture-perfect place to bring up your kids,'' says Miss Scott. ''The catch is, where are Mommy and Daddy going to work?''