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

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