Posts Tagged With: 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

Generations Celebrate Wisconsin History Together

Grandparents' Day guides at St. John's Lutheran School

Grandparents’ Day guides at St. John’s Lutheran School

Mrs. Rehberger and her students assist visiting grandparents in building a plank road

Mrs. Rehberger and her students assist visiting grandparents in building a plank road

On March 14, sixth graders at St. John’s Lutheran School in Burlington, Wisconsin, celebrated Grandparents’ Day by hosting an interactive classroom fair inspired by Plank Road Summer.

A visiting grandmother colors a quilt block

A visiting grandmother colors a quilt block

The students in Mrs. Claire Rehberger’s class chose their own projects, which resulted in a fascinating variety of activities and exhibits for the older guests.  Visitors to the classroom were invited to build a plank road, make scones and lemonade, color quilt blocks, taste strawberry preserves, listen to a live reading of Plank Road Summer, experience an audiovisual presentation about the Underground Railroad, and play a memory game about technology “Then and Now.”

 

Two grandfathers make scones in the sixth grade classroom at St. John's

Two grandfathers make scones in the sixth grade classroom at St. John’s

Photo credits to Gretchen Hansen of Gigi’s Joy Photography

 

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Classroom Capers

Florence and Katie pick strawberries: "Look, there's more red than green!"

Watching performances of Plank Road Summer was the highlight of my recent trip to Wisconsin. At St. John’s Lutheran School in Burlington, Mrs. Susan Musgrave’s sixth graders completed a variety of final projects after reading the book. Some chose to build plank roads and tollhouses.  Others researched the Underground Railroad, designed paper ninepatch quilts, or wrote new chapters for Plank Road Summer.

Two groups of students chose to act out scenes from the book, and they gave delightful encore performances during my visit to their classroom.

Then the girls make strawberry jam: "Katie McEachron, 'ee don't know nails from oats!"

Strawberries seemed to be the theme of the day: in the first scene Katie and Florence picked berries and quarreled over making jam.  In the second scene, Katie and Grace Caswell began working on the strawberry patch quilt.

Grace to Katie: "I've a mind to exhibit this quilt at the fair."

I gave two presentations at St. John’s that afternoon; the teachers separated the classes that had read the book from the classes that had not.  At the end of the school day, I called a few old-time dances during a high-spirited and hilarious gathering in the gym.

Everybody joined the dance

Many thanks to the principal and teachers at St. John’s, especially Mrs. Musgrave and her students, for their warm welcome and the fine entertainment.

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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

Taking the Plank Road to the Classroom

Thanks in part to museum educator Victoria Duhamell, who expressed her eagerness for curriculum materials today at the Westchester Township History Museum, the Plank Road Summer teacher’s guide is up and running.  You can find the guide and other educational links at our Resources for Teachers.

The eight-page PDF includes an overview of the themes and values in the novel, discussion questions, suggested activities in various subject areas, and brief explanations of the history of plank roads and the Underground Railroad in the Great Lakes region.

Many thanks to Wisconsin teacher Gretchen Demuth Hansen and Indiana educator Sherri Nord for their help in developing these materials.

This guide is a work in progress, and we look forward to hearing from educators in classrooms, home schools, museums, historic sites–from all of those who enjoy putting new materials to the test in their eagerness to share the adventure of learning.

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Developing a Book Cover for Plank Road Summer

Greetings from the publisher of Crickhollow Books! (That’s me, Philip Martin.) I just wanted to give a shout-out to the Plank Road Summer cover artist, Kathleen Spale.

Plank Road Summer, by Hilda and Emily Demuth

We found Kathleen through the network of the Illinois chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The SCBWI is an amazing organization for writers and artists, with state chapters, newsletters, and workshops, and many services and programs at the national level for children’s book creators.

When I checked out Kathleen’s website, I saw both the professional skills and the artistic sensibility to interpret a story. She uses the dynamics of light and dark, with lots of moody nuances, perfect for this Plank Road Summer chapter book, a cheery, uplifting tale for young readers . . . but with a few dark secrets moving through it.

The secrets involve the dark history of the Fugitive Slave Law and the legal efforts of slave catchers to chase escaped slaves, even into the states of the north. What a tragedy for young men, women, and children to “follow the dipping gourd” right to the edge of freedom . . . only to be threatened with capture and a return to their terrible condition of slavery. Through the good services of keepers of Underground Railroad way-stations and other good-hearted individuals, practicing a 19th-century civil disobedience, many slaves made it safely to Canada across the Great Lakes.

Anyhow, I loved working with Kathleen on the cover. She offered multiple initial pencil sketches, refined my top choice, did color roughs, then several rounds of the final artwork.

Kudos! Books by new emerging authors like the Demuths – and coming from a small independent press like Crickhollow Books – need all the help they can get! We are thankful for everyone’s interest and support, and are very grateful to get to work with someone like Kathleen Spale.

You can, it turns out, judge a lot about a book by its cover. In this case, the cover promises a wonderful story, well told!

(By the way, check again the historic photo of a hay wagon on a plank road in the previous post on this blog . . . you’ll see the source for part of the cover image!)

Thanks, Kathleen! Let’s do another book together soon!

Categories: Plank Road Summer book | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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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