- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Tim Kirsininkas, marketing manager for the St. Charles History Museum.
When it comes to the Underground Railroad in Northern Illinois, it seems that all roads, in one way or another, lead back to Sheldon Peck.
Peck was an American folk artist, conductor on the Underground Railroad, and radical abolitionist at the height of the Civil War and the abolitionist movement of the mid-1800s.
In the midst of one of our nation’s most contentious chapters, Peck was the perfect example of an ordinary man who took extraordinary actions to stand up for what he believed was right at a time when it could have cost him everything.
As a central figure in the operation of the Underground Railroad in Kane and DuPage counties, it made perfect sense for us to center our research for our new Underground Railroad exhibit around him. In the process, numerous local and regional connections were uncovered which showed the extent of this secret operation of freed slave movements.
Peck’s 160-acre farm and homestead located in present-day Lombard served as a stop on the underground railroad, providing a safe haven to hundreds of escaped slaves moving northward to find refuge in the Great Lakes region. It is the only historically-verified site in Northern Illinois that is part of the National Park Service’s “Network to Freedom.”
In addition to serving as a secret “conductor” for the underground operation, Peck worked with other local abolitionists and surrounded himself with those who supported the cause in both his personal and professional life. These connections provide the basis for our Underground Railroad exhibit.
Artifacts of these connections still exist around Kane County, and one of them resides on the wall of the St. Charles History Museum. Here, you can find a rare painting of Peck’s creation featuring his distinctive American folk art style — a portrait of Steven Sanborn Jones, St. Charles lawyer and the man who has been historically credited with naming St. Charles and securing our town’s charter.
This painting is only where the local connections to Peck and the Underground Railroad begin.
In our new “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Actions” exhibit, visitors can explore all the ups and downs and ins and out of this complicated and top-secret operation. From Sheldon Peck and his professional connections to the Kane County Anti-Slavery Society, all the way up to U.S. Rep. John Farnsworth and the pressure of the national conflict over the morality of slavery, you will find an intertwining network of people who stuck together to do what they thought was right at a time when everything was on the line.
We invite you to explore these local connections to the operation of the Underground Railroad by dropping by the St. Charles History Museum as 215 E. Main St. in St. Charles. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
For more information, visit the museum’s website at www.stcmuseum.org.
- FEATURE PHOTO CAPTION: Sheldon Peck’s painting of S.S. Jones hangs at the St. Charles History Museum next the congressional desk of U.S. Representative John Farnsworth, another distant connection of Peck’s.
Read The Kane County History Series!
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