Sunday, August 31

State Capital, Underground RR and a dollop of Mark Twain

Notes from a two-wheeled historian wannabe...

I haven't visited my state's capital in years. So after scrapping my plan to circle Lake Erie this weekend, I headed south for central IL. My plan was to ride around Springfield, IL do a bit of sightseeing and head west for Jacksonville, IL, about 38 miles west of Springfield, where I would learn more about its role in the Underground Railroad history. Jacksonville is important for many reasons not the least of which is its close proximity to MO, a former slave state. Jacksonville is home also of Illinois College, whose first president happened to be Henry Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin) and brother to theologian Henry Ward Beecher. The Congregational Church, founded in 1833, preached anti-slavery sermons and filled the church with like-minded parishioners. Eventually, The Congregational Church became known as "the Abolition
Church."

For much of the ride, the temperature was around 78 degrees. Everywhere the roads were lightly traveled--a perk of leaving early in the morning. Once beyond the Aurora area, the roads were downright desolate! I arrived in Springfield nine minutes shy of my estimated arrival time. My last visit to Springfield occurred on a weekday. It reminded me of a bustling, mini version of downtown Chicago, with traffic congestion, people rushing around and evidence of Illinois' rich history everywhere. But on this Saturday, much to my utter amazement, Springfield was dead. I felt as if I were riding through a ghost town! The GPS led me to two Thai restaurants, both were closed for the day. I parked and walked along a main street only to find that the overwhelming majority of restaurants were closed. The one or two I found open were the kind of places I'd eat at only if I were famished--and I'd still have to be forced. The occupants insde cars looked like tourists as they slowed down and peered blankly from the windows. People were on the street, but most of them looked like tourists too. I expected far more action from Springfield. After stopping at a train depot visitor's center, I head west.Well, Jacksonville wasn't much better. However, I was on a mission there so the desolate streets worked for me--some of the underground stations were difficult to find and I roamed up and down some streets repeatedly. Earlier this season, I had visited Princeton, IL to see the Homestead of Owen P. Lovejoy. His brother, Elijah Lovejoy, a minister and abolitionist had lived in Jacksonnville, IL and was affiliated with the Congregational Church. During slavery's reign, many in Jacksonville blindly followed prevailing notions about slavery. The Lovejoys and other local abolitionists tirelessly tried to spread their humanitarian, anti-slavery gospel. They encountered considerable resistance and I'm sure their close proximity to slave state Missouri made their preaching particularly dangerous. Jacksonville was literally surrounded by slavery sympathizers and slave owners who did not hesitate to cross state lines in pursuit of their runaway "property" and to deal brutally with those they believed wanted to destroy their human chattel investments. High on the hit list were abolitionists like Lovejoy, and a host of religious leaders and institution that dared advocated the abolition of slavery.Jacksonville has seven house I wanted to see and is home to Illinois College, whose first President, Edward Beecher, was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Henry Ward Beecher, famous abolitionist and renowned theologian. Some of the homes have historical landmark designation that document their UGRR station status, while others have what they feel is unequivocal evidence of being an UGRR stop, but lack landmark status. Like Woodlawn Farm. Tucked far back off a narrow road on gravel that requires careful navigation. The road is narrow and shoulderless. It is easy to envision a horse and buggy traveling this old farm road. The path is gently rolling and winding in spots that make seeing what is coming at you impossible. I looked for animals, animal droppings, and cars that might want to use this road as practice for the Indy 500. At one point, I thought of turning around, but the road was so narrow that a u-turn was impossible. It was downright scary in parts. I cut my speed to navigate the sometimes wet, freshly mowed grasses that covered huge sections of the road. Relieved that I had finally reached Woodlawn Farm, I pulled into the small gravel filled lot and parked.A personal opinion here about landmark designation for recognition as a "true" underground railroad station (UGRR). I get why it is important to acknowledge the real deal and disallow any old house to claim UGRR status. Still, the requirements to meet certification is a Catch 22. On paper, it makes sense that the process remain a careful one. But it's a little paradoxical too. By definition, the stations were highly secret locales and involved in intricate webs of clandestine networks around the nation and Canada. These were dangerous endeavors for both runaway slaves and the families who sheltered them. People were killed for housing slaves and slaves were killed in failed attempts to recapture them. Thus, it makes sense to me at least that some of these houses would not have the tangible documentation to prove they were part of this secret society to combat slavery. Getting these runaways to Canada or places outside of the slave South depended on people keeping secrets. Word of mouth, messages embedded in quilts and human memory was often all anyone had to pass down. Stories passed on with some tangible evidence found in homes are often all that now remains. Still, the committees that confer the UGRR stamp require far more hard evidence than stories, crawl spaces and secret underground passageways in old houses.

I arrived at the Woodlawn Farm just in time to be greeted by a small boy, who looked to be around 6 years old, with a basket of apples and pears. He kindly showed me where to sign the book and invited me inside the house where the final tour of the day was just beginning. This is one house that has no confirmed designation of being a UGRR. In fact, they've been turned down twice. The UGRR evidence seems convincing, to me. The oral history handed down by the family is gripping and some written documentation exists. The farm was settled in 1824 by the Huffaker family and never suspected then of being a "safe house for 'freedom seekers'" It is now under the ownership of Illinois College and is used as a service project. The highlight of the Woodlawn Farm tour was the mention of the Lovejoys. In Princeton, on the Owen P. Lovejoy Homestead tour, there is considerable mention of his brother, Elijah Lovejoy, minister and abolitionist who was murdered for his anti-slavery beliefs in Alton, IL.Now, in Jacksonville, I'm listening to the story of Elijah Lovejoy. Later, I visited the Congregational Church in which he preached. The little boy who acted as a tour guide assistant was another trip highlight. He assisted the elderly tour guide who appeared to be any one's doting grandmother. She donned period clothes and reminded me of Mrs. Claus, Santa's wife. I swear, I felt this way before I saw that her license plate read, "M. Claus"!! (Dang, I should have taken a picture!). Her little helper was black. He called her "Grandma." He's must be adopted. He couldn't have been a better helper. I wanted to take him home with me. He was professional, articulate and gave a heck of a demonstration of one of the dolls reminiscent of the past. Cute, patient, and clearly a sharp kid. He'll understand more when he matures how valuable his experience was hanging out with Grandma and absorbing all the rich history stored in her brain and poignantly shared with those lucky enough to visit Woodlawn Farm.

I spent the next hour or so riding around Jacksonville looking for the other underground railroad stations. Some are now private residences, others have been turned into museums or organizations (all of which were closed). I looked for two important places on the grounds of Illinois College but never got close enough to the interior campus to see the building and plaque. When finished, it was nearly 7pm, which meant I had been on the bike for 10 clock hours but probably only 8 of it was actual riding. Still, I was nearing exhaustion but it took another 30 minutes to find the hotel when it should have taken 10. I slept soundly with the bike right below my second floor window.Sunday, I was on the road by 8 a.m. U.S. Highway 36/Interstate 72 was devoid of traffic! I mean NONE! This on a holiday weekend?! I went miles without seeing another vehicle heading west--and this was true too for the eastbound lanes. It was actually rather spooky. In the 70 or so miles it took to get to Hannibal, I probably saw a dozen cars MAX. The closer I got to MO and the nearer to the Mississippi River, the more beautiful the terrain. Deep verdant trees and grasses, sandy and iron colored cliffs and increasingly winding roads made the journey pleasant.Hannibal, MO is Mark Twainville! His essence is everywhere! That's both good and well, bad. I loved feeling transported to the past but only for about two hours. After that it became too much. In high school, I hated Mark Twain but admired his writing and story telling. I now realized I just hated reading Mark Twain in my classroom and in the school I attended. I'll leave it at that. This town's love for Twain is in your face obvious and they maximize all things Twain. Like, Mark Twain fried chicken? Mark Twain vending machine? American capitalism hard at work. My two hour stay in Hannibal didn't do it justice and I will return some day.I headed back to IL and traveled U.S. highway 36/Interstate 75 East--again, no traffic to speak of. The sparsely traveled roads encouraged me to try out the Throttlemeister--I love it and used it a few times. It's far easier than all the forum discussions I've read on how to activate it. In a few spots, I also tried out Jesse's speed. The bike flies! I'll leave it at that! Didn't see many policemen out but I did see one totally cool looking motorcycle police office--now that's a job to have! Traffic picked up on I-55 North and I was on heightened alert by the time I reached the Aurora area. It got crazier and crazier the closer to the city I came. A few trip highlights: I met up with some elderly women (on separate occasions), who looked to be in their mid-80s. Their eyes twinkled as they eyed the bike. One said, "You're lucky to know how to ride that thing," Another commented that she was happy to see women having fun. A third gave me a huge smile and a thumbs up. It made me think of how restricted some women must have felt about their lives in 1920s--then again it was the "Roaring Twenties"--hopefully, a few were flappers and in their day and in bold acts of independence they wore "slacks" and marched to their own drummers.

Mileage: 650
Fun factor: 8/10

10 comments:

D. Brent Miller said...

Sharon, it doesn't sound like you spent much time in Springfield. Did you get to the Lincoln home or tomb? It's been quite a while, but I remember the historic district where Lincoln's home is located was a walk back in time. I don't know if it is that way now.

Brent

Sojourner rides said...

Brent, you're right, I didn't spend much time there. I wanted to stay for a few hours, have lunch and head to Jacksonville, IL--one of my targeted destinations (left Sat, and had to be home Sun). I've done the historic district a very long ago but had no time this time to do it justice. I have a Springfield trip planned for early fall when I'll spend all my time there. The new Presidential Library deserves a day all by itself! So are all the great places to eat located in the historic district?

D. Brent Miller said...

Sharon, I don't know about all the great places to eat in Springfield, Illinois. But I do know a few places to eat here in Cincinnati, location of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Your reservation is still on hold at the Miller Inn. :)

Brent

Earl Thomas said...

In the past year or so, I’ve been re-visiting a number of the Authors of my earlier school years. Two that are on the list that come to mind have been Harper Lee, and J.M. Barrie. I’ve been considering some of Mark Twain’s work mostly because back in junior high and High School, I never really cared for his stuff. I think perhaps the reason I never really appreciated Twain was due to the ignorance of my youth.

While I have always enjoyed authors like Harper Lee and Barrie in school, I never really appreciated their genius until my adult years; maybe this will be the case with Mark Twain. I currently have a different book in every room of the house at the moment, so one of his will have to wait.

Last weekend, while painting the shed and loathing every minute of it; I couldn’t stop daydreaming about the chance that my own Ben Rogers would show up at my gate. You know, maybe ole Twain is just a little bit craftier than I ever gave him credit for.

Ride Well

E.T.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Sharon:

A fascinating ride and read -- as usual.

I read your column, and the comments with great interest --and horror. Once you have seen Jersey City, places like, Springfield lose all charm and significance. But I perked right up at the mention of Hannibal, Missouri!

Then I discovered that you didn't like Mark Twain. And Earl Thomas didn't like Mark Twain either!

Most schools present the works of Mark Twain through the study of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This is a tragic mistake as the average American school child cannot relate to giggin' for frogs or building a raft.

I once had dinner with a reporter from USA Today, who disliked Twain intensely because of his use of the "N" word, and his depiction of the slave Jim.

I find myself having to roll up my sleeves, spitting into my hands, and dealing with the re-education of the masses.

As a freshman in a Jesuit high school, I was assigned Twain's "Life On The Mississippi" for summer reading. It was a real eye-opener. Part travelogue, part history, part humor, and pure genius, it was a slice of Americana.

But that was just the beginning. As a boy, I read Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Saga (Last Of the Mohicans). It was Cooper's writing that brought me to the Adirondacks. But one always has a suspicion when reading Cooper. I advise you to read a few chapters, and then read Mark Twain's "The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper." I nearly wet my pants laughing.

Twain was a humorist and a humanist. In his essays, read "To The Person Sitting In Darkness," and "The War Prayer." You will be unsettled for the rest of the day. He had tremendous sympathy for slaves, former slaves and immigrant Chinese. Yet he had no patience for the immigrant Irish (especially policemen) or the Digger Indians. (Please read "The Stolen White Elephant," which takes place in Jersey City.)

His travelogues are unbelievably funny, and have greatly influenced my own work. "The Innocents Abroad" is paralyzing funny. When I get depressed, I read the chapter on a Syrian house.

I have all 24 volumes of the last 1911 authorized Colliers Edition of Twain's work here in front of me. An autographed copy of "A Tramp Abroad," complete with a page of the original handwritten manuscript is the gem of this collection.

Fondest regards,
Jack Riepe
Twisted Roads

Sojourner rides said...

Brent, my friend, thanks for the "Inn" invite. OH is still on my mind. I hope to turn that into a reality before this rapidly closing season ends. Thanks!

Sojourner rides said...

Earl, I hear you!

For you not appreciating Twain may have been the "ignorance" of your youth. For me, it was definitely my hypersensitivity to living in a tough political time and attending a school that was angrily changing much to the dismay of the extant group. To then read Twain in an atmosphere of hostility caused me considerable discomfort--yet I was impressed with his use of dialogue and storytelling. On general principle though, I think I had to dislike him then. Yet, I don't think one can read Twain and not be moved in some way. Even if you're moved not to like him. You later find that a piece of him has remained with you. Thanks.

Sojourner rides said...

Hey Jack,

As usual, your comments are thought provoking. I owe you a longer email and I'll get to that today (privately). Let me here say that reading, as you know, takes place in a certain context and the re-intro of Twain to me in high school was not a good time for me. I had read Twain as a young child and can't recall any issues with him then. But in high school, wow, that was brutal. As I said to Earl, it was assigned at a school where the environment was hostile; the people who felt they owned the school were often cruel to us newcomers; the surrounding neighborhood was not always easy to navigate through; and some really dumb teachers who knew nothing about preparing us for Twain's text (or, perhaps they just didn't care to prepare us for the text) were a few of the things that shaped and influenced my feelings about Twain then.

Like your reporter, I didn't like Twain's use of the "N" word either; however, it was only because of how it was being allowed to be used in my class. As a history major, I know the importance of situating text and views, etc in the *times* in which these were produced/practiced/believed. But learning must take place in an atmosphere of trust and safety particularly in schools like the high school I attended.

When I taught high school, I spent considerable time preparing my students before introducing texts that were highly controversial, might be marginalizing to one group within the classs. I know why I shut down in school and it was directly the result of ongoing feelings of exclusion and a palpable understanding that the overwhelming majority of teachers I had did not care one iota about me or my education.

I know that others have similar experiences, I've had friends tell me about ruler wielding nuns and brutal school masters. While I don't discount those experiences, what I'm talking about is different and too deep to go into here. Suffice it to say, that when learning is expected to occur in an atmosphere of utter hostility, all kinds of miseducation--and no education--transpires more than anything IMHO.

Students come to school with a bunch of things/stuff that can unnecessarily get in the way of learning. Helping students, all students, develop the appropriate historical mindset prepares them getting inside the heads of those who went before. When a teacher guides her students, helps them demystify the problems, the texts, and gains trust with her students, any topic, no matter how tough can be introduced, discussed, and used to expand the students knowledge base.

My educational journey k-12, for the most part, was an endurance test that lasted 12, long, painful years. I am fortunate that the damage that was actively carried out didn't destroy me or my love of learning-- and as the old saying goes, "that which doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. But no one should have to persevere against those kinds of odds

I love Flannery O'Connor, McCullers, Eudora Welty, Faulkner and a host of other southern authors who have liberally used the "N" word--but none of them were introduced to me in that school in that environment with those people. Twain readings that I discovered on my own as a child were forgotten and lumped under the rubric "Twain/high school bad experience. "

I have a book of quotes and some of the best ones come from Twain. Still, I have not dared re-read the two books assigned in high school. I think hating Twain then was a sublimation, a way to turn the extreme discomfort I felt in school into some more acceptable, perhaps? Don't know...haven't analyzed it fully.

I do think now I can re-read Twain with appropriate dispassion-- enough to enjoy it without all the history, racial hostility, neighborhood change issues, and adolescent angst getting in the way.

And, I do plan on picking him up again.

Gosh, I just realized that if I'm going to send you a "longer" message, it must be a dang book! Sorry if it seems as if I'm lecturing you, I don't mean to. School and the schooling experience always gets me going.

I love your notes to me and stop worrying about offending me. I'm pretty thick skinned and I love the exchange.

Your friend,
Sharon

p.s. forgive the errors here. I really thought this would be a short note and now I must dash off.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Sharon:

A longer note isn't necessary. Go ride. We've both made our points. I went to a Catholic grammar school, where Sister Constance Aggressa would beat the hell out of you, and often did. I loved her for it and still do.

I went to a Jesuit Prep School (also Catholic) where stupidity was tolerated briefly and rudeness not at all. The penalty was death. I watched a teacher pound a kid into dust one day. You could have heard a pin drop in that class for the rest of the year. Learning is a lot easier free from distractions.

Oddly enough, going to class was a lot like riding a motorcycle. By getting distracted, you got thrown to the ground.

As I said, no long letter is necessary. Just send me the answer to my one enduring question regarding style.

Fondest regards,
Jack Riepe
Twisted Roads

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Sharon:

A longer note isn't necessary. Go ride. We've both made our points. I went to a Catholic grammar school, where Sister Constance Aggressa would beat the hell out of you, and often did. I loved her for it and still do.

I went to a Jesuit Prep School (also Catholic) where stupidity was tolerated briefly and rudeness not at all. The penalty was death. I watched a teacher pound a kid into dust one day. You could have heard a pin drop in that class for the rest of the year. Learning is a lot easier free from distractions.

Oddly enough, going to class was a lot like riding a motorcycle. By getting distracted, you got thrown to the ground.

As I said, no long letter is necessary. Just send me the answer to my one enduring question regarding style.

Fondest regards,
Jack Riepe
Twisted Roads