Two Illinois Aprils
In a steely gray and cold April rain, Sarah Richardt, Executive Director of the Lombard Historical Society, invited Nicie and me into the Sheldon Peck Homestead in Lombard, Illinois. The heat was turned on in the small museum, just a little larger than a cottage. The Historical Society president Leslie Sulla and education coordinator Kim White joined us, along with historian Glennette Tilley Turner. Tilley Turner had been part of a commission advising the National Park Service on the Network to Freedom, a 1998 Federal initiative that would protect and interpret the Underground Railroad, the largest act of civil disobedience on U.S. soil since the Revolutionary War. The Sheldon Peck Homestead is a verified Underground Railroad site, and part of the Network to Freedom. We pulled chairs into a circle, and for three hours talked about abolitionists and the Illinois Underground Railroad.
A modest wooden building dating back to 1839, the homestead was home to the portrait painter and radical abolitionist Sheldon Peck, his wife Harriet, their thirteen children and the freedom seekers Peck regularly aided, sometimes as many as seven. We know this because Sheldon Peck’s youngest son, Frank, had kept a journal, now an important primary source for his father’s abolitionist activity. Frank described his parents’ home as headquarters for all in the area who opposed slavery.
On his journey west, Sheldon Peck and the family had lived for a while in the western part of New York State called the “Burned Over District,” a region central to the protestant religious movement the “Second Great Awakening,” but the area was also an important incubator for abolitionism and women’s rights. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass both had homes in the Burned Over District, as did the early women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
By the time Sheldon Peck arrived in Lombard, he was as much an abolitionist as he was a painter.
“Sheldon Peck was an 1839 hippie,” Richardt told us. “He was this radical thinker. He and his family thought on their own terms, and thought mostly about equality and freedom of education, freedom of gender, all of those things, including but not limited to antislavery. When he got here in 1839 he brought his east coast ideas with him.”
Peck traveled around Illinois for his portrait work, while, according to Richardt, Harriet did much of the farming, including raising Merino sheep, a deliberate decision to produce raw material for clothing that would not support the slave economy. Remarkably, Sheldon Peck’s homestead had remained in the family until his granddaughter, Alice Peck, died in 1991. That’s three generations of Pecks across approximately 170 years, again, a remarkably clear voice straight back to this dangerous and critical time in American history.
As you will hear in the podcast, most of the freedom seekers taking Illinois routes were coming from the slave state Missouri seeking refuge in the anti-slavery North. They followed the Missouri River to the Mississippi, where they needed to make the dangerous crossing. They sought the places where the river narrowed. Sometimes they tied each other together to cross.
Tilley Turner reminded us that the freedom seekers followed the North Star and plants like the Compass Plant, an Illinois wildflower whose leaves point north-south, and they knew to travel against the flow of the rivers. The rivers in Illinois flow south from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, Richardt told us, forming a diagonal across the state.
“And Chicago was the terminus of most Illinois underground railroad routes,” Tilley Turner said, “I used to say that that's an example of how the Lord works mysterious ways. The fact that so many of the waterways lead to Chicago.”
From Chicago they would get on a boat to Canada, or get on a boat to Michigan to enter Canada through Detroit.
Richardt said, “one person tells another person, this is how you get there.”
In Chicago people aiding the freedom seekers put gunny sacks on the horse’s hooves to muffle the sound of travel at night. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when it became a federal crime to not help return a fugitive slave even in a free state, the tension, the desperation, and the sense of injustice ascended. Secrecy was heightened; this was a time when wives reported waking up to find the family horses lathered with sweat, knowing someone had been riding them all night, but not knowing whom. As Frank Peck wrote in his journal, this was a time when you couldn’t know what was in your neighbor’s heart.
Tilley Turner quoted her mother, who said that she couldn’t think of any period like the time of the Underground Railroad where people stood up for one another and took great risks until the period of Dr. King and the civil rights movement.
Only now, as I am writing this, I am remembering how cruelly cold and dreary that Illinois April weather was, but there was a warm feeling in our tight circle of the urgency to retell the story of moral courage, the history of this homestead’s walls. And only now, writing about April in Illinois, do I check the date we were there: three days after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and three days before his funeral train would leave Washington, D.C. to bring his coffin home to Illinois.
This is from Walt Whitman’s poem on that subject, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
You can hear our podcast (dropping July 3rd, 2018) on the Underground Railroad, also, Episode # 38.
Author and historian Glennette Tilley Turner generously shared a recipe with us. Tilley Turner tells us this is her mother-in-law’s recipe. When she was first married, Tilley Turner says she had no idea how to cook, so her husband helped her. Together they recreated some of his favorite recipes from his mother. (He had to remind Tilley Turner to tell me about the raisins.) Sweet Potato Pone has come to be a favorite holiday dish for the Turner family. I served this as a side dish with braised chicken and as a dessert with small batch vanilla ice cream and a little dark rum poured over.
Turner Sweet Potato Pone
6 sweet potatoes
1 cup sugar
½ cup raisins
1 cup evaporated milk (more if needed)
Cinnamon to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake whole sweet potatoes on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. (Leave oven on.) Remove the skins, and add flesh to a bowl. Mash well. Add eggs, raisins, evaporated milk, sugar, butter, vanilla, and cinnamon (and other pumpkin-pie type spices if desired.) Blend well.
Put the mixture in butter-oiled casserole.
Add and blend chopped pecans if desired. Decorate top with pecan halves if you wish.
Bake until firm and lightly browned--approximately 45 minutes.
Serve as a side dish with chicken or pork, or even as a light dinner by itself with green salad. OR, serve it with ice cream, or just a drizzle of cold heavy cream poured over for dessert.