Champion of Mount Carroll, Ill; Laurie Scott helps turn a little town around

''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.

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?''

The demise of Shimer College, which provided 100 jobs and at its peak was putting about $1.5 million into the community every year, has hurt. Its enrollment declined by about 100 students a year over a 10-year period, so the loss wasn't even perceived as the emergency it was.And though Campbell Center may well replace the jobs and the special feeling a college gives a town, that will take some time. Until the heating system can be redone - a project that will have to wait for funds - Campbell Center runs only from May to November. Now it is still a quiet spot on the hill.

Buying the college was an act of bravura few small towns could pull off. Ralph Kennedy loves the craft of furniture restoration and is so in touch with the area's history that he knows where the bricks were made that built the lovely old farmhouse he lives in with his wife (also a restorer) and children. He was overwhelmed by the local support he got when it occurred to him to do something with the college.

Conversations with local businessmen, however, make it clear that the spirit of preservation is not unanimous. One merchant, when asked if he expects to take part in the program by restoring his storefront, says sure, he'd like ''to participate in some of the money I've been paying the state all these years.'' But the Main Street program budget of $25,000 a year only pays Miss Scott's salary plus a few extras, such as flyers and the services of a business consultant who gave a seminar for the merchants.

Community involvement, in this age of government cutbacks, means involvement in the struggle to turn Mount Carroll around, not participation in a sudden flow of federal or state funds. The latter was what the town expected, says Miss Scott, ''as if because you were in the Main Street program there was this big tunnel from the US Treasury into your town and you just flipped it on and the vaccuum sucked it in. That's just not true.'' And she's right. Instead of money, the town got Laurie Scott.

It also got status. Mount Carroll might end up as the national center for restoration education. Its downtown area has already been listed as a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places. It was probably Campbell Center and the historic downtown that helped the town beat out 76 other small Illinois communities in the competition to become a Main Street town in 1980. The ease with which this happened is a mixed blessing. It means that Mount Carroll will get the attention it deserves, and that its historical storefronts probably won't rust off the buildings. But it also means that the town won the program almost without knowing it. If being a Main Street town is not the fulfillment of many people's hopes and dreams, getting them to support the program will be that much harder.

Theodore Robb, mayor of Mount Carroll when Campbell Center started up and the downtown area made the National Register, says all this acknowledgment of the town's history was ''sort of a 'no effort' situation as far as the community was concerned. And they never attached any significance to it, because they did not work for it. So they think there really is no value'' in the town's status.

He also points out that whether the community wants it or not, being a Main Street town is a challenge. It's a competitive situation regardless of whether or not the community competed for it, he says. ''And of course you're going to be graded, because it is a competitive thing. And you're going to recieve marks that are going to be on your deportment, so to speak. . . . When that comes home to (the residents), then they're probably going to realize . . . this is a lot more serious than they thought.''

''Straighten your bow tie,'' cracks Miss Scott, who is sitting at her desk listening to this exchange.

There is a lot of tie-straightening to do, and the job of pointing this out is not easy, or terribly popular. Dick Noble says, ''She's got a real hard job, because some of us have been here for a long, long time and are probably really skeptical of this.''

For example, it is rumored that the shoes in Kraft's have been in the same place for 50 years. Arnold Lyon, the proprietor, remembers when horses and buggies lined up there on Saturday nights and the store had to stay open till midnight to accommodate all the farmers. He doesn't expect Laurie Scott to have much to teach him.

''You and Laurie both being young,'' he told this reporter with a grandfatherly smile, ''you haven't seen what has gone on in the past in the way of business. . . . I'm sure she doesn't understand all the aspects of a small business.'' In his store, which was quiet enough for a leisurely half-hour interview in front of the allegedly historical shoe arrangement, he admitted business wasn't what it had been. He blamed shopping malls, which ''don't cater to people, they cater to mobs,'' causing distributors to lose interest in smaller outlets like his. There are two malls nearby: in Freeport, Ill., and in Clinton, Iowa. And since Mr. Lyon specializes in work clothes, he lost an important blue jeans trade when the Shimer students stopped coming.

''The Main Street program could and possibly will turn things around,'' he says. ''Laurie, in my book, she's no dumbbell, but she hasn't been educated to know what small business is all about. She's going to be a lot smarter before she's through.''

Mr. Lyon may be, too. Miss Scott has helped him get a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to have the Kraft and next-door Kenney Buildings repaired and restored, and she thinks the attention he will get for improving the looks of the corner will change his ways. Meanwhile, she has her own ideas of what merchants could do to sell more, but she also knows there are certain merchants whose business practices will stay the same no matter what she does. So she works with the ones in the middle ground - ''middly for or middly opposed'' to the program.

''I've worked in a retail store, and I think, really, they don't need someone that's been in business completely,'' says Miss Scott. ''They need a customer that's honest with them. That's who they're not hearing from, and that's who they're not as concerned with as they should be.'' Customers, she says, should speak up and complain if something is wrong. ''Maybe this product was saying it lasts for 10 years, and it's foolproof, blah-blah-blah, and so the merchandiser thinks, 'Great!' sells it to the customer, and it's a complete dud. Well, how else is he going to learn unless he buys it himself. . . ? It's good when customers complain. They should also say, 'Hey, that was a really good product,' too.''

But in Mount Carroll, there is little of that. With one drugstore, one food store, two small cafes, and a population of only 1,936, people either take what they get or drive to the next town. Far from the stereotypes purveyed by Norman Rockwell and others of the jolly merchants who know their customers by their first names, business in Mount Carroll is done in tight-lipped silence with an occasional nod. It looks like the equally stereotyped impersonality of life in the big cities. ''People are growing apart; they're becoming more impersonal,'' Miss Scott says. ''You need a rapport. You need to express your feelings, and people are afraid of that. But it's not quite urban-quality alienation: ''They (merchants) may be your neighbors. I think there's a lot of conversation, but . . . you're afraid to say what's wrong or you get defensive; it's your neighbor and you don't want to hurt his feelings.''

Life would have gone quietly on in Mount Carroll, more and more quietly until , perhaps, business shut down altogether. But the old buildings, with their hint of a more gracious past, snagged the attention of several people.

Ralph Kennedy came here to set up his shop because he liked being out in the country and he liked the town. Robert Richardson arrived to teach history in Shimer College. He left in disgust at how badly it was run, but returned for its last years because teaching the social misfits it catered to in the '60s was one of the best experiences he had ever had, and stayed in honor of the feeling of home it gave him. James Douglas and his wife moved here from Santa Cruz, Calif. , because it was a nice Midwestern town with a college. And Theodore Robb grew up here. They are all involved in Campbell Center. Some are interested in history; others are just desperate for something to be going on in the old buildings.

James Douglas, chairman of the board of directors, says that he's not a preservation expert, but ''unbeknownst to myself (I've) been involved in a lot of preservation over the years because I don't like to see things going down.'' If the college were simply boarded up and left, or split up into little packages , Mount Carroll would have lost something that had been a part of it since 1853, when a doughty New York schoolteacher, Frances Ann Wood, came out to stay seeking a remedy for frail health and ended up first teaching at the academy and then taking it over from its inept trustees. According to Robert Richardson, now director of curriculum development at the center, she wallpapered 40 rooms, did the cooking, and ended up marrying the stonemason who built it.

The college burned down in the early part of this century but was quickly rebuilt - this time in its present uniformly Georgian Colonial style. Until 1958 it was a girls' academy, but then it became a coeducational accredited college. In the '60s, it gained notoriety for the misfits and radicals it attracted, especially when, even though there were never more than 750 students there, it was listed along with schools like Harvard, Berkeley, and Princeton as one of the 10 drug centers among college campuses in an article in The Saturday Evening Post.

These antics did nothing to enhance the town's relationship with the college, and there is some lingering resentment in town over Shimer's behavior and also over the lost income. Now, Campbell Center is starting up slowly, with three- to five-day workshops during the seven months of the year it is open. Richardson estimates it will be three to six years before the restoration college is running full-time.

Some people think Campbell Center will save Mount Carroll. Others still don't feel it needs to be saved. ''This is just my own perspective,'' Richardson says. ''In a way, the town is not made by the people that are living here. It was made by their grandfathers and fathers and they don't realize the extent to which they're living on the capital of the past, and it needs a new influx of energy and ideas and effort on their part to keep something else going.'' Dick Noble, the grocer, sees the need, but isn't banking on the Campbell Center. ''What you bank on today is very likely to be gone tomorrow. I would hope the Campbell Center maybe is our salvation,'' he says. ''Anything is a good idea that's going to change things and get everybody worked up a bit and do something.''

Meanwhile, Laurie Scott is doing her best to get Mount Carroll to save itself. ''Maybe the Main Street Project is being a little pretentious in saying they can solve these things, but I think on the other hand they are saying, 'Well, we've gotta start someplace and we might as well give it a try.' And it's only when you look at yourself or try to redo things that you realize that you need to do something else.''

She doesn't just mean everyone should straighten his tie, either. ''A lot of it is there; it's just sort of buried. . . .'' Sitting at her desk with her plans and notes in her tall, skinny architecture-student handwriting taped to the walls around her, her box of Mount Carroll buttons at her feet, she begins an imaginary pep talk: ''Yes, you like it, but why do you like it? You like it because it's beautiful, because the buildings are nice, because you've got trees and everything. . . . So they say, 'Oh, yes, that's why, I want to keep this.' Or (you say), 'Why do you like to shop in a small town?' 'Well, personal service , it's close to home. My gosh, look at this guy, he sends birthday cards to all his customers. It's only five minutes away. This is the store you want to be at!' . . . And it's not brainwashing, really, it's an education. . . .''

She has setbacks, starting the first week when one person wrote in a questionnaire that her job should be eliminated. But recently a group of businessmen bought an old antique store and funeral parlor, and there are plans for a ''mini-mall'' which would attract more specialty shops. ''People are starting to commit money,'' she says. ''That's not the only thing, but at some point they have to invest.'' She also has people say to her, ''We're going to make it.'' ''Not necessarily, 'Boy, we're rolling now,' '' she adds, ''but more, 'I have patience, too.' It's real important because they do have to have patience. Everyone has to have patience. I would say that's encouraging.''

And she agrees with the Main Street program's goal. ''You go back to that: What are we trying to do? Set your sights again. Just look at it.'' She says the list of things Mount Carroll needs has grown in her mind, but when she really thinks about it, the goal is ''New life. Just new life.''

Which is probably why they call her ''this little girl.'' She just looks little next to her ambitions.

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