Jacksonville's Huffaker family offered their home as a stop on the road out of slavery.
If only the antique doorbell on the entryway door of the historic Woodlawn Farm home could trade its sound for talk of things that happened in the foyer during the 19th century.
The doorbell — embossed with the date Oct. 23, 1860 — is a reminder of things that happened in the two-story brick home built in 1840 by Michael Huffaker, a pioneer settler who people wouldn’t dream was involved in anything clandestine.
Michael and his wife, Frances, were owners of the safe house in the Underground Railroad, a system of cooperation among people in the United States that sheltered slaves escaping to freedom in the north or Canada.
What the doorbell couldn’t voice a descendant of the Huffakers did reveal, which has since put Woodlawn Farm on the map as an Underground Railroad stop.
“That’s how we can prove that this really was a stop on the Underground Railroad. It’s so compelling a story because the Huffakers were in the top 10 percent of wealthy people in this area at that time,” said Connie Walls, a tour guide and host at the farm, located 5 miles east of Jacksonville at 1463 Gierke Road.
“They were quiet, church-going, respectable people. Abolitionists were regarded as crazy nuts around here.”
A contest about local heroes that a newspaper in Jacksonville hosted in 1942 coaxed an essay from the Huffakers’ granddaughter. She related an incident that her mother, Fannie, had witnessed one night sometime in the late 1850s to about 1865.
“One night she was awakened by a noise down in the front hallway there. She came to the landing on the stairs and peered down. She saw a mulatto girl with a crying baby, her father’s best friend, Hezekiah Craig, a couple of African-American men who she did not know,” Walls said.
“When the adults saw little Fannie … they hustled her back to bed, and they ushered the people into a room off the foyer, which I’m guessing was probably the parlor.”
Fannie awoke the next morning very excited because she thought that her father had hired new free black workers to work the farm. She ran out to the black workers’ cabins to locate the baby to no avail. She returned to the house to question her mother about the baby.
“Her mother was uncharacteristically stern with her, and she said, ‘The people that you saw last night were in terrible trouble, and you must not speak to anyone about this,’ ” Walls said.
“Well, it scared her. It frightened Fannie, and, of course, then she didn’t talk about it.”
The penalties for helping runaway slaves were harsh, including a $1,000 fine and a year in jail for the head of the household, said Loreli Steuer, board chair of Jacksonville’s Underground Railroad Committee, which is raising funds to restore Woodlawn Farm. The Morgan County Historical Society owns the farm, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It alerted everybody that you were a sympathizer to anti-slavery,” said Steuer, who added that it opened the offender to mob attacks, ridicule and ostracizing.
“It wasn’t done lightly by those who helped. They were really risking a lot themselves.”
A risk taker
Michael Huffaker settled the farm in 1824.
“The young man who founded this farm was 21 when he came looking for a place to have for his own,” said Mary Hathaway, director of tours for the farm.
“He had worked for his father at Kentucky for 21 years, and he wanted to have a place of his own. He discovered this land, and it was beautiful. It was mostly tall prairie grass and woods. He really loved it.”
In setting out to buy the land, Huffaker headed in November to the land office in Edwardsville. He ran into an ice storm and froze to his saddle. A cabin-dweller saw him, and realizing his plight, took him and his horse in and cared for the now-ill man.
Huffaker canceled his trip to Edwardsville, instead going home to Kentucky with the idea of returning to buy the land when he felt better.
“It took him a couple years to feel well enough to set out in this new journey,” said Hathaway, who added that in the meantime, he married Jane Bartleson.
The couple eventually set off for Springfield, where the land office had been moved, to buy the land. They stopped along the way in southern Illinois for the birth of their first child. Later, they were able to go to Springfield to buy 160 acres of land for $1.25 an acre, having 25 cents left over.
Huffaker built a 16-by-16-foot cabin on the land for his family and cabins for the four free black families he hired to help him clear the land.
“He wanted to raise cattle, hogs. I guess he had chickens, and quite soon, he was a really good farmer,” Hathaway said.
“He wrote to his folks and told them how good the land was, and, in 1830, they sold the farm in Kentucky and came up here with at least two of his sisters and one brother … They purchased land close to here, probably adjacent to it.”
Jane Huffaker died in November 1833 after giving birth to their seventh child. Michael later married Frances Jane Smith (also known as “Jane”), and together the couple had several children (perhaps 10 or 11).
Huffaker built the two-story brick home in 1840. Shaped in an “L,” the original house included the entryway, a parlor, downstairs master bedroom and two bedrooms upstairs (an addition was added in the late 1920s that included a dining room).
Michael Huffaker believed in education, Walls said.
“He had a good library, and he really believed in women’s education as well,” said Walls, who added that Huffaker built a one-room schoolhouse for the neighborhood children known as “Prairie College” that’s on Prairie College Road near the Huffaker homestead.
“The teacher for the school often boarded here with the Huffakers. He was really quite well read, owned a lot of books at a time when books were relatively expensive and precious. He was a progressive thinker.”
People were used to seeing black people working on Woodlawn Farm and didn’t suspect that it was a safe house for freedom-seekers. The home doesn’t have hiding places, because they weren’t necessary.
“You had to be just really, really confident and outspoken to stand up and say you were an abolitionist. The Huffakers were taking terrible risks,” Walls said.
“To my way of thinking, they were behaving sort of out of character for people of their social and economic status here to have had this clandestine thing going on.”
Gertrude “Trudy” Gierke — who, with her husband, Leon “Bud” Gierke, owned the farm from 1959 through 2003 — agreed that having free blacks living in cabins on the property made it easy for the Huffakers to hide other blacks who were fleeing.
“They would come on Mauvaisterre Creek from Jacksonville and then come through our woods. That was all woods along the south part of our farm,” said Trudy who, with her husband, now lives in Indiana.
“They would come up from the woods, and then they could hide them in the cabins of the free blacks.”
The Underground Railroad Committee continues to develop the property into a living-history museum, which will celebrate the courage of people involved in the Underground Railroad and demonstrate what life was like on a farm in the mid-19th century.
The committee, with the assistance of the Morgan County Historical Society, purchased the farm on Dec. 29, 2003. To date, the historically accurate renovations completed include repairs to the roof and exterior walls. A local contractor who specializes in historic restoration is rehabbing the front door and 13 windows, which were removed from the home for the project.
The property now is on 10 acres and has pear and apple trees, plus an original brick sidewalk leading to the front door.
The Gierkes are pleased that Woodlawn Farm, which was a typical dairy farm, will be preserved and be open for others to enjoy, Trudy said. When Trudy’s parents bought the farm in the late 1920s, the house was in very poor condition, she said.
“Because it had been lived in by someone who was renting it, and it had gotten very run down. So, my folks did a lot of work to it, and then we did a lot of work to it,” said Trudy, who was 1 year old when her parents bought the farm.
“All the woodwork in the home is walnut or oak. My mother refinished all the woodwork in the living room because … when they bought it, it was all covered with black paint. She took all the paint off. It’s beautiful wood.”
This is the farm’s fifth summer that it’s been open for tours, and people from all over have visited, including from Canada and Minnesota.
“We’re very much a teaching and educational organization. Our prime role is to teach about this terrible time and yet the wonderful people in it,” Steuer said.
“We don’t want anyone to forget how terrible this was. It must never happen again in any other form.”
Tamara Browning can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (217) 788-1534.
Planning a visit
Originally, Woodlawn Farm was called “Woodland Farm.” But it’s thought that after the house was built, the name changed to reflect the fact that there was a lawn.
Woodlawn Farm is open for tours on weekends through the end of August or at other times by appointment. Call 243-3755 to arrange for a tour. Special children’s tours are given throughout the year. The suggested donation is $3 per person. Visit www.woodlawnfarm.com.
To get to the farm, follow Morton Avenue east over Route 72, underneath the railroad underpass, to Arnold Road. Turn left and follow the signs to Gierke Road.
The Underground Railroad Committee has undertaken a recycling campaign to raise funds for the restoration of Woodlawn Farm. Aluminum cans and other recyclable metals can be taken to Jacksonville Iron & Metals, 739 E. Lafayette St., Jacksonville.