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Chug, Chug, Puff, Puff, Off They Go...

Down by the station, early in the morning,

Climb on aboard and hear the whistle blow;

Mr. Conductor, please take my ticket.

Chug, chug, puff, puff--off they go... [1]

Jacksonville, IL (June 20, 2018) - During our summer travels in the Midwest, we took time to visit some of the sites in and around Jacksonville, Illinois. One such site, unassuming from outward appearances, was Woodlawn Farm. In the mid 1800s, Jacksonville acted as a the hub for Underground Railroad, sheltering hundreds who wished to escape the horrors of slavery. Several local historic homes served as havens on this journey to freedom, making Jacksonville one of the first such stations in the area and by far the busiest.

This Farm, five miles east of town, was established in 1824 by Michael Huffaker. Michael and his wife, Jane, rode by horseback from Kentucky, bought land east of Jacksonville, and built a cabin for their growing family and four cabins for free black families who helped Michael raise cattle, horses and crops. In 1840 he built the two story brick home which stands to this day on the property.

Proud, educated abolitionists like Jonathan B. Turner and Edward Beecher, brother to Harriet Beecher-Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, proved to be invaluable advocates for freedom. Edward Beecher was the first president of Illinois College, the first college in Illinois. Because of the strong views of many of the students and faculty, Illinois College was considered an engine of abolitionism. Benjamin Henderson, a former slave, came to Jacksonville in 1841 and immediately began working on the Underground Railroad. These men and countless others kept the spirited torch of freedom burning bright aboard the Underground Railroad. [2]

The Underground Railroad was not a real railroad nor was it underground. It was a network of secret routes and antislavery believers who assisted the runaway slaves--or  freedom seekers--as they followed the North Star to safety. Conductors assisted freedom seekers providing safe refuge, clothing, food, transportation and friendship. Such persons risked fines, imprisonment, and personal safety. Because of the danger, the routes and activity had to be kept secret.

Many of the freedom seekers coming to Jacksonville were from St. Louis. Benjamin Henderson and David Spencer were two free black men living in Jacksonville who did most of the driving.  Elihu Wolcott, a deacon in the Congregational Church, was considered the Conductor-in-Chief of this endeavor and he was assisted by many brave men and women. African American freedom seekers began coming through Jacksonville in the late 1830s and continued until the 1860's with the beginning of the Civil War. We will never know how many were helped to freedom nor do we know the names of all who helped nor all of the sites that were used in helping them on their way. But those we do know, we celebrate and cherish as part of a shining moment of courage and principle in American history. [2]

Underground Railroad Quilts - maps hidden in plain sight

A recent published book reveals more of the folklore to be fact, as oral accounts of quilts used to help slaves escape are confirmed by quilts of the Ozella McDaniel Williams family. Mrs. Williams shared stories of her ancestors to bring life to the meaning behind quilts used as secret codes to camouflage symbols and disguise signposts that were part of the "Underground Railroad" experience. Oral accounts of slaves escaping, traveling on foot in unfamiliar territories, recognizing strangers' homes as places of sanctuary by means of prearranged signals have been doubted by some because of lack of written documentation. In slave-holding states, it was actually illegal to teach slaves to read and write. Therefore oral stories have been the only records of some of these events, causing some historians to doubt credibility. Mrs. Williams has shared this code to reveal African symbols and quilt patterns, both still used today to complete this historical time.

KNOTS on the quilts told various things as when and where to travel.

QUILTING STITCHES were used to stitch intricate maps on the quilts discovered on the backside of the quilts.

SIGNATURE QUILTS were often made by Women's groups, sometimes as a fund raising effort to show the support of the idea of eliminating slavery. Many quilters used their talent to pass along their political views. The Quakers, Masons and Easter Star organizations provided help int he Underground Railroad.

MONKEY WRENCH - This pattern would direct the slaves to get their tools or belongings together in preparation for escape.

WAGON WHEEL - This pattern would suggest that the escaping slaves were to follow the carpenter's (Jesus) wheel to the Northwest.

BEAR PAW -  The easier routes were actual bear trails, which also led to food and water.

LOG CABIN - Open to speculation. Some log cabin quilts have a yellow center, no the usual red, and so may have been a code for a safe house.

SHOOFLY - This pattern would tell the slaves to dress in good cotton clothing so they would not look like runaways.

BOW TIE - This pattern would suggest the slaves should shed their immediately identifiable worn and torn garb and possibly wear satin bow ties so they could travel through towns.

FLYING GEESE -  This quilt pattern would point in north, south, east and west. The odd fabric may distinguish the traveling direction.

DRUNKARDS PATH - This pattern would encourage the slaves to follow a zig-zag path similar to a staggering gait of a drunk. The Africans believed that evil traveled only in straight lines. There is believed to be a connection between that superstition and the quilt pattern. It is also interesting to note that safe houses were staggered for protective reasons as well.

STAR PATTERNS - Since the escaping slaves were told to follow the North Star, many nineteenth century quilts contain star images.

Suggested reading: Hidden in Plain View, by Jaqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. Quilts from the Civil War, by Barbara Brackman.

Contributed by Sue Hileman, Times Square Sewing Complex of Jacksonville, IL, 217-245-5445. [2]

Below is the quilt that is located at Woodlawn Farm:

This was a wonderful tour, filled with rich history of the farm, those in the community who acted as Conductors on the UGRR, and some of the people whose lives were saved by them. It is well worth a couple hours of your time to visit this site and see, feel, and learn about the Underground Railroad experience...


In 1990 legislation was introduced in Congress by Representative Kostmayer and Senator Paul Simon to study ways of commemorating the UGRR. On November 28, 1990 this Act, Public Law 101-628, was enacted. In 1998 Public Law 105-203 directed the National Park Service to establish the Network to Freedom project which tracks the UGRR routes throughout the country and which supports the preservation and educational uses of the many known underground railroad sites. [2]

Woodlawn Farm

1463 Gierke Lane Jacksonville, IL 62650


Hours of Operation:

Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day

Walk-in guests:

1pm-4pm, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday

$4 suggested donation

Groups by appointment, call:

Carole Crim 217.473.0216

Mary Hathaway 217.243.5938

Jacksonville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau 217.243.5678

School groups welcome by appointment




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