Illinois College and the Morgan County Underground Railroad Committee have announced that Gillett House at 1005 Grove Street in Jacksonville has attained the prestigious National Park Service certification as a “National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom” site. A formal ceremony will be held on Friday, May 10, at 12:45 p.m..
The 175-year-old residence, gifted to Illinois College when alumni Stephen and Katherine Tillery purchased the house in 2004, proved to have convincing documentation of its use in assisting runaway slaves in their flight to freedom. In the citation, the NPS states that they found Gillett House “makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the Underground Railroad in American history” and meets all the “requirements for inclusion as a site.”
Underground Railroad Committee member Loreli Steuer explained, “This was our third attempt to achieve this sought-after classification; fortunately, this time we found enough additional evidence to satisfy the strict standards of the judges.”
The determining factor, Steuer said, was a shed or “shanty,” as it was called, that was built by Bezaleel Gillett at the same time he completed building the house. Documentation shows that it was used more than once to shelter freedom-seeking slaves as they made their way north to Canada.
The most notable story involved three slave women who were sequestered in the shanty when Illinois College Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner, an active Underground Railroad member, was called on to help them escape. Armed with only a hefty cudgel he quickly went to their hiding place. Seeing the lanterns of the slave-catchers in the near distance and hearing the baying of the pursuing hounds, he led them through the fields and woods to a house in Jacksonville where no one would suspect they were hidden, since the owner, one of his friends, was thought to be strongly pro-slavery. Turner later said in a Jacksonville Journal article that after a few days, once the women rested and gained their strength, he lent his horse and buggy to another Underground Railroad rescuer who took them on the next stage of their journey. After several weeks, he heard that they had made it safely all the way to Canada where slavery had already been abolished.
Gillett House now joins two more Jacksonville sites, Beecher Hall at Illinois College and the Congregational Church (UCC) on College Avenue, as being certified by the National Park Service. This gives Jacksonville the distinction of having the most “Network to Freedom” sites of any community in Illinois and Illinois College the recognition of having the only two National Park Service Underground Railroad sites owned by a college and located within its campus area.
The Morgan County Underground Railroad Committee, at present, claims six more sites in the Jacksonville area as deserving of the same National Park Service recognition and is working to gain that recognition in the near future. On April 21, they held a Spring Bus Tour of all nine local sites. Five sites were described and viewed from the bus. The three National Park Service sites, along with Woodlawn Farm, had inside tours.
The formal ceremony on May 10 will be held with dignitaries from the City of Jacksonville, Illinois College, the Underground Railroad Committee and the National Park Service to celebrate this important honor. A plaque will be dedicated on the building, along with a sign in the yard signifying its noteworthy history and recognition. The public will be invited to share in this special occasion.