Progress on developing the Crenshaw House near Equality as a tourist attraction inches forward, though opening up the house to the general public appears to be years away.
Gallatin County entities worked together in the past year to make one important improvement to the house — a permanent running water system — and the governor took notice.
"The house is a unique part of Illinois history, but it also faces unique challenges. We're fortunate to have wonderful local partners," Amy Martin, director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, said.
"One challenge has been the water system. We found out a couple of years ago that the house wasn't properly connected to its water supply. That meant we had to disconnect it, leaving the house without any running water."
The caretakers of the house were left without running water, but local groups pooled resources to correct the problem. The Gallatin County Tourism Committee, Tourism Committee President Mark York, the Village of Equality, Equality Village President Frank Sisk, State Representative Brandon Phelps, Robert Wilson of the Saline Valley Conservancy District Board, Danny Paige of the SVCD Board and Parks Plumbing are all named in a Governor's Commendation proclamation signed by Governor Pat Quinn for "the invaluable service they have provided to the citizens of Illinois," states the proclamation.
Martin and other members of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency delivered the message from Quinn and distributed copies of the proclamation to the groups on the porch of the Old Slave House Tuesday.
The groups then toured the historic home, built by John Hart Crenshaw in 1842. Crenshaw operated the Saline salt works using African American slave labor. He is also believed by many to have kidnapped freed African Americans to sell back into slavery.
Director of the Southern Illinois University Center for Archeological Research Mark Wagner said Tuesday at one time there was a "widow's walk" on top of the house where Crenshaw could have mounted a telescope and watched the activity at the salt works.
"He could have monitored the people working down there without leaving his house," Wagner said.
Wagner has led a team of archeologists in excavating the grounds and researching the house's structure with the long term goal of restoring the house to its original form.
Wagner revealed findings Tuesday that would appear to refute a long-held belief regarding the house and its third floor. The third floor has what appear to be two bunks in each of several small rooms. Signs on the walls from when the house was operated privately as a tourist attraction indicate kidnapped African Americans were held captive in those rooms.
Wagner said an architect working with his group determined the rooms were original to the house, but would likely have been inadequate for holding prisoners.
Page 2 of 2 - Looking at the original door jams, he believes the doors they were built to hold were thin and would not have held anyone intent on getting out. The architect said the bunks were built like those on steamboats which had louvered doors for ventilation.
"Whatever may have happened up here, (holding captives) was not why it was built," Wagner said.
The top floor had light-colored plaster originally. It also had the same fine architecture as the lower two stories with decorative details in the support posts.
"There is no way we could prove or disprove something like that, but if they were going to use this to lock people up, why have this detail up here?" Wagner said, pointing at an embellishment on a support post.
Wagner believes the third floor was built as sleeping quarters to rent to travelers, for Crenshaw's many children or for servants.
"My feeling is he was expecting to have travelers up here," Wagner said.
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency Site Superintendent Alyson Grady said there is no plan in the near future to open the site to the public, though that is the long term goal.
"The immediate plans are to continue to protect and maintain it. We don't have future plans at this time to open the home to the public. When that will happen I can't say right now," Grady said.