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Deconstructing Camp McDowell: The Barracks

Image © Jon Duerr
The barracks at Camp McDowell

Brian Failing, Community Services & Education

As we researched McDowell Grove Forest Preserve’s use as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, a radar school, and Office of Strategic Services training grounds, we became intrigued by the history of the nine barracks that once existed on the property.

In 1934 the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County applied for the creation of a CCC camp at McDowell Grove, the second such camp in the county. The camp had six barracks, which provided housing for 200 workers. The barracks were nothing special. Each was approximately 20-by-130 and could house about 40 men. They were sparse and resembled military barracks; aside from beds and a few trunks, there was little furniture.

After Camp McDowell became a radar school in 1941, three additional barracks were added. The camp eventually served as a training site for Office of Strategic Services until 1944, and in 1946 the land and building were sold.

In 1938 at nearby North Central College in Naperville, President Edward Everett Rall received the first of several recommendations to increase the number of dormitories. Eight years later the college was bursting at the seams as an influx of students began enrolling as part of the GI Bill. Nine barracks were set to open on campus in September 1946 but were not finished until March 1947. Three were near Goldspohn Hall, and six were in the Fort Hill Campus south of Chicago Avenue. Each housed 16 students and included a centrally located washroom with a toilet and shower.

Today we’re left with the burning question, “Did the barracks at North Central College originate from Camp McDowell?” Research is inconclusive, but there are a few small — albeit contradictory — clues.

• Chance Hill was involved with North Central College and the Forest Preserve District. He completed a landscape plan for the college in 1925 and served as the District’s landscape architect when the CCC camps were active.

• A 1946 Chicago Tribune article stated that 16 barracks were being moved from Wyandotte, Missouri, to Aurora, Illinois, to serve as 48 apartments, so it was possible to move the buildings. (And the same number that left Camp McDowell showed up at North Central College.)

• The College Chronicle stated the government spent over $75,000 to build the barracks, but it didn’t state if that was the college’s cost or if it was the cost when they were originally constructed at Camp McDowell.

• A report by C. H. Geiger, the president of North Central College in 1947, stated that the barracks were not completed until March because of a strike and a shortage of materials. This may suggest that the barracks were not moved but rather built from scratch.

In May 1951 the college announced it had sold two of the barracks. It removed the three by Goldspohn Hall in the summer of 1951 as well as one on the Fort Hill Campus. In the summer of 1952 it removed three more and took down the remaining two after the 1953 school year.

If you or someone you know has information that might solve the mystery of the Camp McDowell or North Central College barracks, please contact Chris Gingrich at cgingrich@dupageforest.org.

Image © North Central Now, North Central College, September 2011, p. 5

Three of the barracks on the lawn of Goldspohn Hall at North Central College

Image © U.S. National Archives and Records Association
Map of McDowell Grove radar school showing the nine barracks 
Image © North Central Chronicle, North Central College, May 9, 1952, p. 3.
The college sold the barracks when they were no longer needed on campus.
Image © North Central Chronicle, North Central College, May 9, 1952, p. 1.
Naperville and the college had an agreement regarding the barracks, but related documents are not part of either organization’s official records.
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