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The Crenshaw House, Gallatin County, Illinois 

October 2014

Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography
View of The Crenshaw House from the road - thought this would be the closest I would get!

"The Old Slave House on Hickory Hill" way down in Southern Illinois has been on my "to do" list for decades now. I don't know where I first read about the "Slave House," as I knew it then, but it may have been Troy Taylor's website and book of the same name, Ghosts of the Prairie ( Built in the 1830s, this house has a dark history as a location on the "Reverse Underground Railroad." Its isolated, rural location and inaccessibility to the public just added to the intrigue. Last year I was able to "drive by," knowing it was shut off down a private gated road....but I got much closer thanks to luck, serendipity, and some manual labor!

Built sometime in the 1830s by John Crenshaw, who is reported to use slave labor to help mine the salt works located near the Saline River.

Slavery was illegal in the state at the time, however slaves were still used as labor, and it is said, that Crenshaw was able to get slaves by using his house, the house on Hickory Hill, as a so-called station on the Underground Railroad - capturing and keeping slaves as they attempted to escape North to freedom.

The stories that came out of the Crenshaw house during this time are simply atrocious...if believed...

In the Fall of 2015 I was able to finally "visit" the Crenshaw House. I knew from research that the house was owned by the state of Illinois and had been closed to the public for years. That it sat at the end of a long private, gated drive on a small rise, and that the only way to photograph it was from the road side - at a distance. But, this would be better than nothing.

Pulling off on the side of the road, I was able to capture the image seen above - while doing so a truck, one of the only vehicles to pass us, drove by....moments later the truck U-turned and pulled in behind us. Knowing I was not trespassing I wasn't too worried, but when a vehicle notices you and never know.

The gentleman got out, asked about what we were doing....after I told him he then said his father owns the land the Crenshaw House sits on, would we like a closer look? OF COURSE! YES! We just had to follow him to his father's house (which was nearby), and see what mood his father was in...ok...! We followed the son to his dad's house were he was busy picking turnips! Before we left he gave us free reign to go and pick some ourselves - so there we were picking turnips from a hillside just below the infamous Slave House!

Anyway, the man's father - Mr. Siske - would be happy to drive us over to get a closer look at the house, but only after my husband helped his son unload a porch swing from the truck bed. Once our chores were done we all piled into Mr. Siske's pick up and off we were!









Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography  

Mr. Siske was kind of quiet about any personal experiences with the house, but he did confirm it's been in his family for decades, that he was born in it and spent his childhood growing up in it. Currently a caretaker lives in the house but the state owns it. At one time it was open for tours, but it's been closed up for a long while now. I really never thought I'd get this close to it, but when Mr. Siske's pulled up in front boy was I thrilled.

Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography

"The Crenshaw House was a "station" on the Reverse Underground Railroad that transported escaped slaves and kidnapped free blacks back to servitude in slave states. The home’s third floor attic contains 12 rooms long believed to be where Crenshaw operated a secret slave jail for kidnapped free black and captured runaway slaves. A grand jury indicted Crenshaw for kidnapping, once in the mid-1820s (the outcome unknown) and again in 1842 when a trial jury acquitted him. ... 

Despite accounts that the rooms were slave quarters, Crenshaw family stories indicate a distinction between the plantation’s household servants and field hands, and the victim’s of Crenshaw’s criminal activities."



Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography

"In September 1840, Abraham Lincoln, a state representative, was in Gallatin County for over a week attending debates in Shawneetown and Equality. The Crenshaws hosted a ball in honor of the debates. The ball was held on the second floor. The second floor of the house was designed to be easily converted into a ballroom because the hall and two of the rooms were made from moveable partitions particularly for such events. Mr. Lincoln along with other male guests spent the night in the Southeast bedroom of the Crenshaw House. The furniture in the room consisted of one bed and two chairs. Mr. Lincoln either slept on the bed, which was shorter than he was, or he could have spread out over the two chairs, or possibly slept on the floor."


Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography
An osage orange tree and shed.


Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography
The rear of the house, showing where the large carriage doors may have been.

"Crenshaw's dealing led to one architectural oddity of the house he built in the 1830's - doors on the north side of that wagons could enter through and be concealed from prying eyes. The wagons carried captured slaves, who were then whisked up to the third floor to await sale. A long, too-narrow staircase, with bare wooden steps worn down and worn smooth by years of sue, leads to the third floor, 12-by-50 foot hallway lined with cells. The third floor has never been remodeled and has never been used for anything past its original purpose 160 years ago."


The Crenshaw House is situated on a lovely piece of land, for sure. I don't know what the best thing would be for this place, a museum? Interpretive center? It would be nice to see some income generated for the area if it were to be open to the public.

Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography

After we left the Crenshaw House, Mr. Siske mentioned there was a small family cemetery nearby where John Crenshaw was buried, along with other family memebers and pioneers of the area. Did we want to see that, too? Of course! 

We walked and Mr. Siske followed us on his ATV.

It was a really pretty cemetery.

Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography

Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography


Copyright Amanda Schmidt/BlackDoll Photography


As we were heading back to the car - it was a bit of a walk back to where we initially parked, we heard someone calling for help....apparently Mr. Siske's ATV had died and he was stuck! We had to push him back home, while he sat in the seat, steering! Did I mention it was a pretty warm day? Needless to say we definately earned our keep that day!


Sources and Further Reading:,_Illinois)

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