American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 4
December, 2005

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 AMN Article  

 Morris Dancing In 
Rural Illinois

James Stevenson & Andrew Bullen

1. Morris at Monmouth College, Monmouth, IL.

James Stevenson writes: The photographs below were among a collection of largely unidentified photos belonging to my mother's elder sister, my Aunt Ethel. She was born in St. Louis in 1897, and at the appropriate age went to college. My mother was unable to recall what college, but we are fairly certain it was in southern or central Illinois. The college has since been identified as Monmouth College

There were a group of photographs together in her photo album all relating to the same event, presumably a May Day festival. The photograph immediately below was taken against the backdrop of a college building, and depicts a group of young women processing in white dresses. The women appear to be in the middle of a dance. Recognizing the Morris probability of the picture, I saved it and several others (only this one seemed to be a real dance) after my aunt died. My own mother was born when my aunt, her eldest sister, was in her early 20s, so she did not really know any of her friends or the people in the photo album.  

The Processional


My Aunt Ethel never married; she went on to buy a small house and property in southern Illinois, and spent the rest of her life, after retiring from teaching, trying to live off the land by growing all of her own produce and canning or freezing everything to sustain herself over the coming winter. She was certainly an interesting and unusual person, certainly not fitting the norm for her time. She passed away some 15 years ago.

The May Queen and Her Court


In the picture below, my Aunt Ethel is the 5th from the left in the back row. After speaking with my mother, she thinks Ethel was at Monmouth College only 1 year immediately after high school, and she thinks it would have been about 1915, and not any later.

May Day participants



2. Morris In Galesburg, IL., and Knox College.

The following letter was collected from Esmerelda Thomson in 1988. Although what she describes does not seem to be a Morris dance per se, it is interesting to note that her teachers called it a "Morris dance." 

Text of Ms. Thomson's Letter:

Morris Dancing in Galesburg, Il. Schools - 1928

The elementary schools in Galesburg, Illinois promoted many activities for young students when I attended three of them as a child. Some of these have carried over into my adult interests (art and museum exhibits) and I consider myself fortunate to have been a part of the pupil group circa 1920s.

A very memorable event was a May Fete held in 1928 on the playing fields of the Knox College" campus. This was a coordinated effort of all of the city's grade schools, of which there were about ten, in a colorful, delightful event. It included games, songs and dancing as planned by the circulating teachers of music, art and physical education in the Galesburg School system. These roving teachers were favorites with the children; their teaching was woven into the schedule of regular studies. In my mind's eye, I can easily bring up the image of Miss Strong in Music or Miss Atherton in Art!

The May Fete idea was revealed to the students in early spring and practice started in the individual schools. Mothers in the P.T.A units became involved in costume planning and making. Our Home Room teachers told us stories of early May Fetes and the ideas of festivals. We knew that we would meet with other city schools "at Knox" and there was great excitement at our practice times. The thought of actually seeing and being a part of a May Pole event was a lovely daydream idea! I was to be one of the Morris Dancers. Dancing partners were matched for size and height. My partner was a boy named Cheates Gould, whose father had a barbershop in our neighborhood (I can still see the tall barber-pole which marked the shop). Boys were to wear white shirts and dark trousers. The girls were to have full-skirted dresses, over which would go the many-colored weskits, made by the mothers, and styled with black velvet ribbon lacing to close the fronts. In my mind, the costume was right out of storybooks!

As I recall, we practiced the dance in sets of four, with a coming together in a dual line at some point. We would count to glide in steps, and there was also a curtsy and bowing element which created fearsome giggling. Our Weston School probably provided eight to ten sets of Morris dancers to the large mix on the day of the Fete. As to the May Pole dancers, I believe they came from the college, as did the pole which were marvelously decorated with the many colored streamers and flowers at the top. Probably the Queen was chosen within the college.

When I think back to my fourth grade days, we would have been dismissed for the afternoon. This special Fete would have been held at a probable 1:30 p.m. with the participants arriving in costume, accompanied by parents (principally, mothers) and met at a designated gate by our teachers who escorted us to our pre-planned locations for the various activities; dancers in certain places, singles in others and grouped around the centered row of the May Pole. In general, the total assembly would have walked from our homes to the college campus! Knox is centrally located and the school bus concept had not come into focus.

Very likely, the name "Morris Dancing" is one of the reasons this event remains one of my favorite early school memories. It seemed special to have a part in these dances, and I loved the excitement of the many practices together with the May Fete Day which seemed to be a tremendous success even without a dress-rehearsal!

Esmerelda T. Thomson
Table Grove, Illinois
January 31, 1990 



3. Ferry Hall (part of Lake Forest Academy), Lake Forest, IL

Ferry Hall, the girls' secondary school, was part of Lake Forest Academy. The Academy itself was -- and is -- associated with Lake Forest College in the prosperous North Shore suburb of Lake Forest. The boys' and girls' schools eventually merged in 1947. In 1936, the Ferry Hall girls put on a pageant, prominently featuring Morris dancers.


 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 4, December 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689