The Man Who Brought the College to Town (and Built a Parlor)
Ask me where I live, and I won’t start with the address. Not that I dislike visitors. I just want to know your familiarity with the history of DeKalb, Illinois. “The Clinton Rosette home — know where that is?”
“No,” the usual answer.
“Do you know who Clinton Rosette was?”
“The middle school — named after him, right?”
“Yes. Do you know who he was?”
My persistent questioning may seem unfair. After all, we’re not talking about the Barbed Wire Barons who built this town — Isaac Ellwood, Joseph Glidden and Jacob Haish. These were rich men with powerful connections. Rosette was middle class but had his own network of sources. As the first editor of the Daily Chronicle, he read regular updates on plans to build a teacher’s college in northern Illinois. When the state announced the competition for the Northern Illinois State Normal School, Rosette knew how to help DeKalb win.
It’s fitting they named the middle school after him because Rosette was a teacher before becoming a journalist. He ran a private school with his wife, Alfaretta. Together, they dreamed of turning DeKalb into a center for higher education. And with help from the Barons, they did.
127 years later, their brainchild keeps thriving. The school, now Northern Illinois University, hosts students from around the world. Its arts, science, and athletic programs continue to engage a growing community. And NIU remains the largest employer in DeKalb County. Rosette couldn’t have predicted how his vision would play out, but he knew the school would have a profound effect on the surrounding area.
So how did it happen? Well, before history can be made, history-makers need a place to eat, sleep, drink and discuss. In 1884, the Rosettes bought a plot of land on North 2nd St. and began building their home, financed with a loan from Glidden. The four-bedroom house was completed in 1890. When I first stepped through the door in 2005, several modifications had been made including a now open porch and the addition of a downstairs bathroom. As a journalist, I liked the idea of living in an editor’s home and moved my books and writing desk into the parlor. This is where Rosette wrote letters and held meetings to gather support for…
I see you’re stuck on the word “parlor.” Real estate agents love to utter this Victorian synonym for a sitting room while noting other bygone features like nine-foot ceilings, distinctive gables, and wood from old forests. The home’s previous owners kept the parlor in good shape knowing it would be a key selling point, and I fell in love with it on first sight. These days I call it “my library” or “writing room” to avoid sounding antiquated, but the original name crosses my lips when I’m alone. It’s like a voice-activated time machine taking me back to when Rosette gathered local support for the college. Staring at these walls, I can almost see him lobbying his boss, Glidden, the Chronicle’s publisher. Then on to the big money — Ellwood — Rosette’s neighbor across North 1st St. Ellwood quickly realized the business such a college could bring and got state Senator D.D. Hunt to advocate for DeKalb in the capital, Springfield.
When visiting Rosette, the men would’ve discussed the matter in his (such a delicious word I’ll use it one more time) parlor. A fireplace made of brown marble and black slate dominates this space. My wife loves the ornate carving with gold paint. It’s easy to imagine Rosette putting another log in while Sen. Hunt shared news about competing bids for the college. These days I press a remote to light this fireplace before my wife and I discuss our future, including the day we relinquish this home to new owners. In recent months, we’ve agreed that time is inching closer.
Speaker and columnist Barbara Corcoran put it best when she said, “The most expensive hobby a rich man could have is a boat, and the second most expensive hobby he could have is a very old house.” My wife and I are not rich, although we spent a fortune replacing the foundation on one side. Recently, we tore off several layers of roof to install a new one. Now, it’s okay for you to think “money pit” but don’t say it because it’s a sore subject and I can’t predict my actions. If you keep our encounter friendly, I won’t spoil the mood by saying my house outlasted your grandparents, is certain to outlast us, and may exist longer than your children. I try to follow those guidelines that say it’s impolite to discuss mortality with strangers.
But an old house gets to say what it wants. It can’t help reminding us that we humans are passengers on a ride that rarely lasts more than eight decades. I’ve been riding for five and a half. Every morning, the floor creaks as I walk to the bathroom and some little ache or stiffness reminds me that Rosette only made it to 59. “Four more years to go,” I joke, stepping into the shower, determined to accomplish something half as important as he did.
I’ll never know if our stewardship will keep this home upright for another 130 years. Perhaps we’ll be the last private owners of this property. Two other historic properties, the Ellwood House and Glidden Homestead, belong to the community which pays for the upkeep. Perhaps one day The Rosette Home will join them on the National Register of Historic Places.
Meanwhile, I’ll just be happy if the next person inquiring about my address knows of Clinton Rosette. I might invite them over, point to a chair, and pour them a drink. If their eyes linger on the fireplace or oak floors, I might dangle the keys in front of them — just to see what they do.
If their hand reaches out, I might feel a need to warn them: “Money pi…”
But why ruin the moment, especially if they have their History goggles on? I’ll just give them time to absorb it all. And when they’ve drunk it all in, I’ll casually mention: “You know, the Rosettes used to call this room their parlor.”