Competition for location of the new normal school was fierce, and a dozen or more small- to medium-sized towns initially expressed interest. Once the requirements were announced – at least 40 acres of donated land, paved roads, sidewalks, sewers, waterlines, telephones, electricity, housing for students and faculty, railway connections, and enough local children to fill the practice school – the number of serious candidates shrunk to seven. Dixon, Rockford, Polo, Oregon, Fulton, Freeport and DeKalb were the main competitors, but over time it came down to a contest between DeKalb and Rockford.
The people of DeKalb rallied around their town’s candidacy, led by barbed-wire baron Isaac Ellwood and journalist Clinton Rosette, the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Fellow industrialist Joseph Glidden offered 63 acres of prime land and $10,000, while Ellwood pledged $20,000 in cash and a no-interest $50,000 loan, as well as an additional four acres that abutted Glidden’s land. Businessman Jacob Haish donated another $10,000, while the DeKalb City Council obligated itself to the required infrastructure improvements (sewers, sidewalks, etc.) as well as $20,000 to bring electricity to the campus and a steam heat system to the main building. In short, the DeKalb application eclipsed that of every other competitor.
The only shortcoming in DeKalb’s application was that it could not compete on the point of a large, picturesque body of water, as could Rockford, Oregon and Freeport with their claims to the roaring Rock River. On the day the selection committee visited DeKalb, townspeople dammed the Kishwaukee River so the narrow stream would swell, and planted a fisherman in a rowboat near the bridge the inspection party would pass over. The overall picture was one of a bucolic meadow bordered on its east by a major waterway.
The Mighty Kish notwithstanding, in the end it was the political connections of Isaac Ellwood and the large financial and land donations of Ellwood, Haish and Glidden that swayed the selection committee. On July 15, 1895, the decision was announced and all of DeKalb celebrated with fireworks, flags, and a fifteen-minute salute from every factory whistle in town.