Millikin University: The Cattle King Goes to College

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When I die, I want my tombstone to say that I was the First Cattle King of the Prairie State. Unfortunately for me, that title is already taken . . . and I’ve never actually interacted with living cattle . . . and also I’m allergic to prairies.

Alright, I suppose I’ll have to rethink my epitaph. In the meantime, allow me to introduce you to the man who actually earned the coveted title. James Millikin was born in 1827 in a town called Clarkstown, Pennsylvania (today, Ten Mile, PA). Though he would become livestock royalty, he was born into a family of only modestly successful farmers. The first chapter of Millikin’s life is largely obscured by the passage of time but history does show that college was among his defining experiences.

James attended Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, PA (which means he shares his alma mater with another of our great campus legends, Francis Julius LeMoyne). During his studies, James observed that many of his classmates struggled with their college expenses. Millikin pledged that if he ever amassed a personal fortune, he would dedicate some portion of it to helping those in need finance their education.

That fortune would not be far off. Upon graduation, James partnered with his father Abel and the two spent the summer of 1849 herding sheep to Indiana, ultimately to be sold at market. The next year, James transported a second flock to Danville, Illinois, once again making a sale and turning a profit. Though he briefly ventured a return to his formal education, the intoxicating lure of the livestock business was simply too powerful.

By the 1850s, James began using his shepherding profits to buy up government land tracts throughout both Illinois and Iowa. As he added cattle to his expanding enterprise, he made Danville his new base of operation. It was about this time that he earned his regal title as his state’s First Cattle King.

With the growth of his bovine and ovine empires, James found himself in a position to sell off some of his government land purchases. He consequently channeled the profits into an estate in nearby Decatur. Whatever his contributions to the herding racket, it was here that he would truly leave his mark on the world. First, in 1860, he took the advice of his fellow citizens — among whom he was quite popular — and purchased the failing Railroad Bank. Opening with a sign that humbly read “J. Millikin, banker,” the Cattle King found that the banking business was less readily lucrative than was herding.

Though his bank achieved stability, profitability was a much harder nut to crack. It was a matter of decades before, in 1897, the institution earned its national charter. But Millikin’s patience would pay off. By the turn of the century, his was among the most successful small city banks in the nation. But Millikin National Bank would not be the only successful Decatur institution to bear his name.

In 1901, James made good on his undergraduate vow, now half-century in the making. This was the year that he used his fortune to establish Millikin University, an institution founded with the twin imperatives of accessibility and practicality. The private, four-year college merged classical education with professional skills training, making it one of the first comprehensive small-scale universities in the nation.

In 1909, James passed away at eighty-two years of age. And by the way, I looked up his headstone. It doesn’t say First Cattle King of the Prairie State, which makes his final engraving the only wasted opportunity in a rich life, lived otherwise to its fullest.

Part of the Legends of College History Series

Learn more about the lesser-known heroes and legends
behind many of our most-loved educational institutions!

Campus Characters: Legends of College History

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