Underground Railroad

Abolitionists Pardoned!

In Plank Road Summer, Yorkville pioneer families debate whether citizens in the free state of Wisconsin should help runaway slaves. Today it is hard to believe that such actions could be considered criminal, but in the 1840s and ’50s, aiding fugitive slaves was against the law even in Northern states.  Nobody can ever know just how many unknown abolitionists risked their livelihoods and reputations by assisting runaways, but records exist of those who were caught and convicted of the crime.

How inspiring to read that Illinois governor Pat Quinn recently granted clemency to three 19th-century abolitionists. Back in 1842, Dr. Richard Eells of Quincy, Illinois, gave Charley, a runaway slave, a change of clothes and tried to transport him to a school for missionaries that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. When Charley and his conductor were caught, Dr. Eells was found guilty and fined $400. Today the Eells home serves as a museum recognized by the National Park Service, but until a few days ago, Dr. Eells was still a convicted criminal.

Two years ago, the Friends of the Dr. Richard Eells House began seeking a pardon for Eells. As Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon worked to assemble the case, the stories of two more Illinois abolitionists were uncovered. In 1843, Julius and Samuel Willard, a father and son from Jacksonville, were convicted of trying to help an escaped slave.  According to Lt. Gov. Simon, “It’s important for all of us to remember heroes who spoke up and acted at great risk to themselves for what was right, even when they knew it was not what the law would support.” After reviewing the cases, Governor Quinn issued pardons for all three abolitionists, calling them “early warriors for freedom.” (For full Chicago Tribune story, click here.)

Hattie’s War and the Plank Road books celebrate the lives of ordinary people who work together to do what is right, whether by assisting fugitive slaves, aiding families devastated by disaster, or supporting veterans and their families. In this New Year, may each of us remember the unsung heroes and do our part in our communities and our world.

Categories: Hattie's War, Plank Road Summer book, Underground Railroad | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Everybody Joined the Dance

I was asked to speak about Plank Road Summer at a couple adult and youth Sunday school classes. Since an author never turns down an invitation to talk about her book, and the church was close to my heart, I agreed.  Though we didn’t write our book as a moral tale, we don’t need to search very hard to see faith issues at work.

The 1850s Wisconsin community was facing a moral dilemma–what side would they take on the slavery issue?  When Hilda and I started writing our book, every character in the neighborhood was against slavery.  How could anyone have an opinion other than that?  But as we dug deeper into the issues and laws of the time, we realized that some people in that community would have believed that following the law of the land was the right thing to do.  The law stated that slaves were to be returned their masters in the South. 

This became a starting point for my Sunday morning conversations–what would you have done? Would you have helped the slaves? Would you follow the law? Would you risk a $1000 fine?  We came to understand that the people of the time would have faced an moral dilemma–when the right choice may not have seemed as obvious as it does to us today, 150 years later.

What issues do we have today that are dividing our communities?  Health care, illegal immigration, human rights, political divisions.  We face moral and ethical dilemmas every day, some close to home, and some at a national or international level.

My hope is that as we face the issues that divide us, we can remember one lesson from Plank Road Summer: In the end, everybody joined the dance. It didn’t matter who won the horse race or who was an abolitionist or who was part of the posse–everybody joined the dance.  As a country and as local communities, we need to take time to celebrate the unity we share, despite our differing opinions.  How would our world be better if we listened more, accused less, worked together, and invited everybody to the dance?

Categories: Plank Road Summer book, Plank Road Summer Teaching Ideas, Underground Railroad | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Graue Mill Changed our Story

When Hilda and I first began working on Plank Road Summer, we didn’t exactly know how to go about writing historical fiction. One weekend when Hilda was visiting me in Elmhurst, I suggested that we go to nearby Graue Mill to “soak up some atmosphere.” I had been to Graue Mill before and knew that it was built in 1852–the exact year our story was set–so I thought the place would be a good source of inspiration.

We watched the miller grind corn and examined all the household items and farm tools on the upper floors. As we were looking at the display in the basement, Hilda said to me, “You know, we should put the Underground Railroad in our book.” Graue Mill, of course, is a documented stop on the Underground Railroad in Illinois–a place where fugitive slaves were hidden on their way to freedom in Canada.

“We can’t just ‘put it in,'” I said. I’m the historical stickler. I told Hilda we would have to prove that fugitive slaves traveled through the Wisconsin neighborhood in which Plank Road Summer takes place before we could put that information in our story. But then Hilda reminded me of childhood stories of a neighbor’s house with a tunnel to the swamp in which slaves had supposedly hidden. And we remembered that a building in Rochester was supposed to have been used in helping slaves.

When we started to research the subject, we did indeed find the solid evidence we needed to prove that slaves could have made their way past the properties in our book. (Saying any more than that would be a spoiler) But yes, Hilda, we could (and did) put the Underground Railroad into our book. In fact, it became a large part of our story–and all because of a visit to Graue Mill.

On Sunday, Sept. 6, I’ll be at Graue Mill from 12:00-4:00. Come buy a book, make a wool butterfly, add a plank to my road. And soak up the atmosphere of Graue Mill and the Civil War encampment on the grounds. It’ll be a great day for inspiration!

Categories: Childhood Memories, On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Rochester Wisconsin, Underground Railroad, Why this story | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

“They wrestled for it”

“I think they wrestled for it.”  This was one Wisconsin student’s answer when we asked who had the right-of-way to the planks if two wagons were traveling toward one another on a one-lane plank road.

Since the book launch in May, Hilda and I  have spoken to various groups at schools and museums and bookstores.  Last week we were guest speakers at the Graham Public Library in Union Grove, Wisconsin, as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of our hometown library.  In  our historical presentation, we spoke about how the stories we’d heard as children had influenced our writing.  Several members of the audience also had stories to share that evening.

The biggest news is that we think we have found the old McEachron tollhouse.  A former neighbor from a mile or so east on the plank road (just past the Rise) said that she had been told that her house was once a tollhouse.  As Hilda and I drove by the the house in question, beyond the tree branches and building additions we saw the unmistakable lines of a tollhouse like the one on the cover of Plank Road Summer.  We suspect that this is indeed “our” tollhouse, moved to that location after the Plank Road era.

One woman recalled that when she taught at Waites Corners School, Edith McEachron would visit and tell stories of the early days in Yorkville.  Potawatomi Indians were present at the birth of one McEachron baby.  When the child was born, the Indians took the baby outside and tossed it to one another, leaving the McEachrons to wonder whether they would get their child back safely.  They did.

One man mentioned that his family home in New York State was on the national registry of Underground Railroad stations.  Every plank road, every community and crossroads, has stories to share–and some are better than fiction.

As to the question of the right-of-way, the more heavily laden wagon stayed on the planks, while the lighter wagon would pull onto the dirt lane.  But I bet that somewhere along those many miles of plank roads, there’s a story of how two men wrestled for the right-of-way.  Let us know, please, if you uncover such a tale.

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Underground Railroad, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cornishman’s “Key” Frees Fugitive Slave

One hundred fifty-five years ago this week, fugitive slave Joshua Glover was captured in Racine, Wisconsin, where he had been living for some time, working at a sawmill.  On the night of March 11, 1854, Glover’s former master and two United States marshals surprised Glover at his home.  Fearful of the strong anti-slavery sentiment in Racine, the captors rushed their prisoner to Milwaukee to await transportation to Missouri.

As news of the capture spread, angry Racinians boarded ship for Milwaukee, and Sherman M. Booth, editor of the Milwaukee Free Democrat, called for a mass meeting at the courthouse square, where St. John’s cathedral was under construction.

A crowd of 5,000 gathered around the Milwaukee courthouse, and the leaders demanded that the jailer hand over the keys.  When the jailer refused, James Angove, a Cornish bricklayer, picked up a six-inch beam from a pile of lumber and said, “Here’s a good enough key.”  Other men seized the beam and battered in the door.  According to Angove’s account, Glover was spirited away in the buggy of John A. Messenger, whose horse was the fastest in the Second Ward.

The Cornishman’s interview appears in a June 10, 1900, Milwaukee Sentinel article describing the Glover rescue as a “spectacular incident of anti-slavery education . . .which brought prominently to the notice of the liberty-loving people of Wisconsin the iniquity of the Fugitive Slave law.”

The Joshua Glover case is featured in the Underground Railroad exhibit at the Racine Heritage Museum.  The tale of Glover’s rescue is also told in Julia Pferdehirt’s Freedom Train North: Stories of the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin. In Finding Freedom: the Untold Story of Joshua Glover, Runaway Slave, authors Ruby West Jackson and William T. McDonald provide a detailed account of Glover’s life.  Wisconsin’s most famous fugitive slave spent the last thirty years of his life as a free man in Canada.

Categories: Racine County, Underground Railroad | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Way of the Road

In Plank Road Summer, Gran Mather tells Florence that the “Way of the Road” means that that everyone has a duty to reach out to ease the burdens of others. The Mathers put that idea into practice when they become involved in the Underground Railroad.

From fugitives hiding on the way north to a man standing center stage in Grant Park with the eyes of the world upon him–what an amazing journey for African-Americans and for the United States of America

Generation after generation, from Americans whose names are known to every schoolchild to ordinary people like the characters in Plank Road Summer, hands of every color have reached out to help friends and strangers further along on that journey. That’s the Way of the Road.

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