Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Hidden Floor and a Forgotten Window

The architects and researchers hired by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency have made some interesting finds in their two working trips down to the Old Slave House.

According to George Sisk the biggest surprises so far have been a second floor in the carriage way and a blocked-up window in the crawl space under the northeast bedroom.

The carriageway is the 19th Century "garage" on the rear side of the house that allowed horse-drawn vehicles halfway into the structure. From the picture you can tell it was as wide as the row of windows that are visible above the modern sliding-glass door.

In Crenshaw's day we have assumed that the "floor" of the carriageway was at ground level and just dirt.

George has long told of a story passed down in his family about his grandfather building the current floor in the family room that is now the former carriage way. His grandmother didn't like having to walk down down a few steps when entering the room and then walk back up in order to go to the room on the other side so his grandfather built the floor up to the same level as the rest of the house.

Apparently though, it was the second floor built across the carriageway. The researchers have discovered an earlier one about a foot or so lower than the rest of the floors on the first level.

While standing in the cellar beneath the northwest room of the house you can look through an opening in the inner foundation wall into the carriageway and can see the bottom of this floor above.

I had assumed it was the bottom of the floor I had walked across in George's family room. Apparently it is not, which from my memory would make sense because I had previously wondered about the lumber holding up the floor as it looked older and larger than typically used in early 20th Century carpentry.

Now the question is just how old is this floating mystery floor?

I don't think it's original. George's grandfather told of a story passed down in the area about how Crenshaw got a kick out of riding one of his horses into the carriageway because the horse liked to look at itself in the mirrors that hung on the walls.

Secondly, in 1942, a daughter of one of John Crenshaw's nieces who lived in the house in the 1840s, recalled the stories of her mother and aunt concerning the carriageway:

The second floor was a grand Ballroom. Mother and Aunt used to tell us about watching the beautifully dressed guests drive into the hall. They never got out of the carriage outside of the house and many do the same in California now.

[Source: Mrs. W. F. Brann. April 22, 1942. Letter to Mrs. A. J. Sisk. George Sisk Collection. Junction, Ill. (since transferred to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.)]

The ballroom in question consisted of the front half of the second floor as the interior walls between the front corner rooms and the front hall contained folding doors much like modern conference rooms.

Though not visible to the thousands of tourists who toured the house when it was open, the indentions of where the doors once stood can still be seen from inside the corner rooms. I don't know if the architects have yet tore into those walls to see if the doors might still be there.

George had actually ran into the second floor when he installed gas heat into living quarters but had forgot it was there. The other intriguing find so far was a surprise even for him.

In the picture above there is a small window at ground level on the far right side of the foundation. This allows light into the cellar under the northwest room.

A second window has been discovered now in the foundation crawl space of the northeast room which would presumably be about the same distance from the carriageway entrance as the window above is, except on far left side of the picture.

This window has been bricked up and covered with the cement stucco visible around the outer foundation wall.

Today, there is a cellar across the front half of the house that is accessable from the outside, and the smaller cellar under the northwest room accessible from the room above inside. As far as we know there has never been a cellar underneath the northeast room.

Assuming that the foundation walls under the northeast side of the house go as deep as the walls on the other sides and now that we know there was a window there, the question is now whether a cellar existed there or not?

If so, why did someone fill it in?

One intriguing possibility comes from a story passed down by a woman who moved into the house in 1851. In 1936, a local county historian interviewed her on behalf of a Springfield historian working with one of Crenshaw's descendants digging into the history of the house.

The elderly woman, whom we believe to be Mary (Leishtenberger) Ulmsnider, told the local historian the following:
One room had blood stain on the wall and the floor had been taken up and earth filled where the floor had been on account of the blood stains

[Myra Eddy Wiederhold. April 2, 1936. Letter to Frank E. Stevens. Charles C. Patton Collection. Springfield, Ill.]

Myra Wiederhold was the Lucille Lawler of Gallatin County in the mid-20th Century. She was the local county historian researchers used. She was the granddaughter of Henry Eddy who also was Crenshaw's attorney, and her sister married a grandson of Gen. Michael K. Lawler who was also a great-grandson of Crenshaw as well.

In her letter she most likely paraphrased what the old woman told her. If she paraphrased it in the order she heard it and if the speaker kept a logical order herself while telling the stories, then the reference to the blood stains likely is pointing to a room on the third floor since the sentences both before and after refer to items on that floor.

However, I've found it rare for people I'm interviewing to necessary keep a logical order when recalling events that happened decades earlier. Mostly it's just flashes and tidbits. If the blood stain reference was just a random thought, or if Myra simply misunderstood her source, then it could refer to a forgotten cellar under the northeast side of the house.

Of course, that leads to the next question of how was the cellar accessed? Was there another staircase from that room going down to it? If so, was there another staircase along the back wall of the northeast room going to the second floor like there is going to the northwest room?

Questions, questions, questions. The more researchers dig into the house, the more we find.

UPDATE! 12:47 pm November 1, 2006

The more I think about the floating floor in the carriageway the more I remember a conversation I've had with a Dempsey descendant sometime over the last few years.

The Dempseys never owned the house, but operated the coal mine at the bottom of Hickory Hill. According to their traditions the family lived in the Old Slave House at two different times, the first time in the early 1890s and again after the turn of the 20th Century.

I think someone once told me that it was their grandfather who had built the floor in the carriageway, but at the time I discarded the info because it didn't fit with what I already thought I knew (a problem that a lot of people have had with the Old Slave House).

As they operated the coal mine below the house that would explain the oversized timbers used to support the floor - they might be the same timbers used in the mine itself.

Just a thought and maybe a hypothesis.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Old Slave House Closed 10 Years Ago

Tuesday is the 10th Anniversary of the closing of the Old Slave House. Former owner George Sisk closed the site on Thursday, Oct. 31, 1996, after 70 years of operation.

This Saturday also marks the 10th Anniversary of Ron Nelson's discovery in the Illinois State Archives of the first solid proof that the stories were real.

I joined the research team of Ron and Gary DeNeal the following day.

Since then we've dug into attics and courthouse vaults in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, pulling out clues to what really happened in Southern Illinois atop Hickory Hill.

In December 1996, Vincent DeForest of the National Park Service toured the house and told us then, if we could prove the stories, the Old Slave House would make one of the best sites in the entire country to interpret slavery.

Two years ago, the National Park Service looked at part of the research and agreed, adding the Old Slave House to its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program in recognition of its kidnapping history as a station on the Reverse Underground Railroad.

Just after that I was able to publish our entire researching findings in a new book about the site, entitled, "Slaves, Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw".

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency purchased the house in December 2000. They acquired most of the antiques in 2003 and a few more items last year.

Yet the house remains closed.

People ask me all the time if the state plans to reopen the house.

Yes, that's what they intend to do, but no, they don't actually have any plans to do so. Good intentions are free. Plans requiring funding or authorization from above.

Since the Old Slave House closed 10 years ago, two of the three gas stations in Equality Township have closed as well. Tourism efforts by local leaders continue to be thwarted as the house and a number of other state-owned sites remained mothballed.

In the past four years IHPA has lost more than 40 percent of its staff in the Historic Sites Division. Even before they lost the staff they only had one employee in southeastern Illinois despite having five sites (Shawneetown Bank, Old Slave House, Rose Hotel, Buel House and Kinkaid Mounds).

The agency is now working on a historic structures report. Though announced this spring, the architects only started last month.

Progress is being made, but very slowly.

To be added to my notification list for updates on the site send me an e-mail with your contact information.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Preserving the Past Brick By Brick

Kudos to the Harrisburg City Council for considering a plan to save the city's remaining brick streets. Here's what The Daily Register said about it yesterday.
The proposed ordinance requires a permit before any work is done on a city brick street and the firm working on the street must carry a $1 million bond.

The street and alley commissioner is given the authority to issue rules for any excavation on a brick street and a “brick excavation license” is required.

The ordinance says the city will provide classes for contractors in the proper techniques for excavation of brick streets.

A "Brick Street Committee" of three to seven citizens would be appointed to handle affairs involving the future of the city’s brick streets.

The ordinance was developed by the city-appointed brick street study committee and the ordinance proposal was given council earlier this month by Dr. Ray Cummiskey, a member of the committee.
Don't know yet if it passed last night, but I'll along what I learn.

4th Annual Illinois Writers Fair

The Southern Illinois Artisans Shop up at Rend Lake is hosting the 4th Annual Illinois Writers Fair and booksigning Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

I'll be there with all my books. Come on up and enjoy the art.

Bring your checkbook or credit cards, there will be a lot of good books you'll want to buy.

Take Exit 77 on Interstate 57 and following the signs.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Saline Creek Village Inhabited By Ghosts?

The paranormal researchers who spent two nights at the Saline Creek Pioneer Village and Museum may have hit the jackpot in their search for evidence.

Saline County Historical Society President Eric Gregg spent two sleepless nights with the group from Tennessee this past weekend. I talked with him Sunday and he was stoked.

Brian DeNeal has the official story in today's Daily Register, so here it is in part:
Members of Southern Paranormal Experiences and Research have hours of audio and videotape to sort out, but they had enough strange pictures early Sunday morning they are eager to pour through the other data.

"One resembles a girl kneeling in the graveyard. We were all pretty impressed with that," SPEAR member Sandy Tullock said.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Beard Tagged to Run Lincoln Museum

Gov. Rod Blagojevich named Rick Beard as the new executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum complex in Springfield.

Beard has helped run some of the country's biggest museums and is leading the effort to commemorate the upcoming sesquicentennial of the Civil War in 2011 to 2016.

Read more about the appointment in the state news release.

French and Indian War Assemblage Saturday

From the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency:
PRAIRIE DU ROCHER, IL – One of the most historically correct re-enactments of an often little-known conflict will be held during the annual French and Indian War Assemblage scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, October 7 and 8 at Fort de Chartres State Historic Site near Prairie du Rocher, Illinois.

The colors will be raised at 9 each morning, and throughout the day visitors may watch teams of re-enactors portraying 1700s French and British units that fought in the French and Indian War.

Saturday, October 7 will feature live fire competitions. There will be a first place prize for the highest scoring French competitors, first place for the highest scoring British unit, and a traveling trophy for the overall first place unit.
The highlight of the weekend will be the Drill, Bayonet, Musket, Guard Duty and Officer’s competitions on Saturday. The winning unit will have “bragging rights” as being the best French and Indian War reenactment group.

On Sunday, October 8 at approximately 1 p.m. there will be a tactical event (mock battle) in front of the Fort. This will be a good chance for the visiting public to see how 18th century military tactics were used.

The closing colors ceremony for the event will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The French and Indian War Assemblage is sponsored by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (www.Illinois-History.gov), which administers Fort de Chartres. The Fort is a reconstruction of the mid-1700s fort built by the French at that location. It is open Wednesday through Sunday for free public tours, and is located four miles west of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois on State Route 155.

These are pretty impressive events.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Register Covers Vendetta Book

Brian DeNeal gave me a good write-up last week in The Daily Register for my new book, The Bloody Vendetta of Southern Illinois, which can be ordered online here.

The story ended up with a list of Saline County signings. The first one this Friday I won't actually make. Blame the librarian at the Harrisburg Public Library. She's sponsoring me for a signing Friday at the Illinois Library Association conference in Chicago.

Josie at The Book Emporium will have signed copies of my book available though and I urge everyone to still go. Ernie Heltsley, author of the non-fiction "A Stroll through Egypt and Paradise" will be signing as well as Lois Barrett with her novel, "When the Earthquake Spoke". There may be some others there as well.

I will also be doing a book signing at the Harrisburg Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 16, and a signing and book discussion at 6 p.m. three days later on Thursday, Oct. 19 at the Eldorado Memorial Library.

Archeologist Lands Laclede's Home Site

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a great story today about the recent discovery of the location of Pierre Laclede's house near Fort du Chartres in Randolph Co., Illinois.

Laclede is probably the best-remembered French colonist in the Mississippi Valley as he later founded St. Louis. Laclede's Landing along the riverfront upstream from the Gateway Arch is named for him.

In today's story Georgina Guston interviewed Robert Mazrim, an archegologist at the University of Illinois, about his findings.

"The huge community that means so much to all of us, the big 200-year-old iceberg that is St. Louis, has a tip," Mazrim said Monday, "and it's sticking out of the ground in Southern Illinois."

Read the rest of the story headlined, "Pottery called clue to Pierre Laclede's first home".