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History of a Reenactment

One hundred years ago on a series of cool fall nights, town elders and Northwestern students and faculty celebrated Illinois in a massive history pageant on a stage in a wooded campus grove.

On Oct. 7–9, 1909, the entire campus lit up with 20 huge bonfires and elaborate stage lighting. Decorations included 13 covered wagons. In the main pageant, beautifully costumed spectacles depicted scenes from the arrival of Father Jacques Marquette among the Illinois Indians to the presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln. Horse cavalry and a baby bear graced the stage, along with local ministers, businessmen, professors of the humanities, students and soldiers.

Offstage, there were covered wagons that represented each of the original colonies. At each wagon, girls costumed as American Indians, wooden-shoed Dutch settlers, Huguenots, Southern women or Puritan maids cooked and sold savories and candy.

The event, created as a fundraiser for the Northwestern University Settlement, attracted crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 every night. The fete made $4,000 for the beneficiary, the equivalent of nearly $100,000 today.

Founded in 1891 by Northwestern president Henry Rogers, his wife, Emma, and two faculty members, the settlement began as a community center in Chicago's West Town neighborhood. It was dedicated to caring for sick or underfed children and providing education and wholesome entertainment for the numerous children who had left school early to go to work.

— Kent Cubbage

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pageant program
The program from the 1909 historical pageantCourtesy of Northwestern University Archives