What does the future hold for Hickory Hill?By JON MUSGRAVE
HICKORY HILL (Dec. 21, 1996) The lines have disappeared from the Crenshaw House, more popularly known as the Old Slave House. Third-generation owner George Sisk closed the tourist site where he lives on Oct. 31, 1996. For the past year he has urged visitors to contact Gov. Jim Edgar in an effort to get the state to purchase the site.
John Hart Crenshaw started construction on his plantation home atop Hickory Hill between Shawneetown and Equality in 1834. A cornerstone on the front left corner of the porch foundation provides a completion date of 1838.
Known as the "Salt King of Southern Illinois," Crenshaw was last lessee of the Gallatin Salines, which produced salt. Crenshaw legally used slaves at the salt work and later used indentured servants. He was also involved in the Bank of Illinois at Shawneetown, helped build part of the failed Shawneetown & Alton Railroad, owned thousands of acres of farmland, operated a grist mill, a steam sawmill and a distillery.
But Crenshaw had a darker side. When we started researching the history behind the Old Slave House in October, we first looked at the question, "Was Crenshaw involved in the illegal kidnapping of free blacks and selling them back into slavery?" From what we found, the question is now, "How many people did Crenshaw kidnap?"
There are a number of legends surrounding the Old Slave House. We looked at as many of them as we could. We discovered that although there are lots of exaggerations of the truth that have been made over the years, there is still a lot of truth behind the basic legends. Did Crenshaw keep slaves upstairs on the third floor? Evidence indicates that he did. Did Abraham Lincoln stay the night at the plantation home? Recollections from four different families recall his visit. Did Crenshaw use the third floor to breed slaves? It's possible, we're still working on that one. We do know that "Uncle Bob" Wilson, the alleged stud slave, was a real person and he told a number of people that he had been kept at the house. The next story covers what's the basic legend of the kidnappings.
In the defense of Sisk and his family, we also can rule out the charge that they simply made up these stories as a lure to draw tourists to the site. Sisk's grandfather, A. J. Sisk, bought the house in 1913, with plans to tear it down. When he discovered brick walls under the clapboard and interior plaster, he decided against it. In 1926, as the "hard roads" were developed, people having heard about the legends began coming to the house and wanting tours. In 1930, Sisk started charging admission: 10 cents an adult, a nickel for children. We discovered the legends were around before the Sisks owned the house.
The above story was published in the December 1996 issue of Springhouse Magazine.
©1996 Jon Musgrave
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Created Dec. 29, 1996 by Jon Musgrave