Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Old Slave House

************WARNING! This house is off-limits to the public. DO NOT attempt to enter it.******

Construction of the well-known Hickory Hill House began in 1833 on the orders of John Hart Crenshaw, an extremely wealthy man who made his fortune in the salt mines of Illinois. He was the owner of thousands of acres of land, three salt furnaces, and a sawmill.

Crenshaw's interest in earning ever more money would come at a terrible price to many citizens of Illinois. Though a free state in those days before the Civil War, three Illinois counties (Gallatin, Hardin, and the appropriately named Saline) allowed Southern slaves to be leased from their "owners" to work in the brutal environment of the salt mines. The work was almost impossible to endure, but with salt being the important commodity that it was, the owners needed labor - so they got it for free.

Crenshaw, unfortunately, was not the only mine owner who kidnapped runaway slaves and free blacks, forcing them to work in his mine. He also sold free blacks into slavery in the South - men, women, and children. Those who really were runaway slaves could also be turned in for a reward. As far as Crenshaw and his ilk were concerned, it was a win-win situation. It's said that Crenshaw hired several men to keep an eye out for escaped slaves, to help his human trade.
Hickory Hill is a three-story house with a view of the Saline River. The style is Classic Greek. The interior was decorated with original artwork from Europe. The first two floors of the house have fireplaces in each of the thirteen rooms.

Behind closed doors, however - upstairs and underground - the neighbors had no idea what the house contained. There may once have been a tunnel connecting the basement to the Saline River, a nighttime sending and receiving point for slaves. The back of the house had another passageway big enough to hold a wagon. Vehicles could thus enter the house itself, unloading slaves so that nobody outside could see what was happening.
The third floor of Hickory Hill contains the now-infamous attic, reached by a flight of stairs. Several tiny cells, with barely enough room for an adult to turn around, can still be seen today, though some have been removed. A corridor connecting the cells runs from one end of the attic to the other. The only ventilation was provided by windows at the ends of the attic; in summer, the heat was stifling. These windows also gave the room the only light it received. The slaves were chained in their cells. One man, with a very slightly larger cell, was kept in the attic for the sole purpose of fathering children - more slaves for the mines; more money from children sold to the South.

In 1842, matters began to turn sour for Crenshaw. He was brought up on charges of kidnapping a free black woman and her children. One of his sawmills burned down (arson?) and the value of his other holdings decreased. Many civil court actions were brought against him, while salt deposits were found in other states that were more profitable than his once-rich mines. In addition, Crenshaw was also attacked by a slave, who cut off one of his legs. Crenshaw survived the attack, but most of the slaves were sold afterward and operations came to an end.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Crenshaw sold Hickory Hill and moved to a new farm, closer to the oddly-named Equality. He died on December 4, 1871 and was buried in Hickory Hill Cemetery, near his former home.

In 1906, Hickory Hill - already well-known as a haunted house - was bought by the Sisk family. The locals called it the “Old Slave House”. In the 1920s, visitors began to drop by. They arrived at all hours of the day and night, asking for a tour of the house; the locals had the tendency to share their rumors about the house with visitors, who then headed out to experience the local haunting. In 1930, the owners began to charge admission to the house; 5 cents for children, 10 for adults.

The visitors reported strange occurrences. They heard strange noises, especially in the attic, such as cries, whimpers, and chains rattling . Many people who visited the slave quarters claimed that they had uncomfortable feelings, such as extreme fear and sadness, and the feeling that someone was watching them. Physical sensations were also experienced, such as chills, being touched, and feeling someone brushing by them.

Not surprisingly, once these stories spread, the number of visitors increased. Rumor had it that no one could spend a whole night in the badly haunted attic. Those who tried, ran full-speed out of the attic and the house well before the night ended. Then-owner George Sisk ended the practice when a fire started one night from a lantern that was knocked over.
In 1978, however, Sisk granted permission for a Harrisburg reporter, David Rodgers, to spend the night in the attic. Rodgers was doing a Halloween show for a local TV station - and, somehow, made it through the night in the attic, alone. (On a previous occasion, some Vietnam veterans had attempted to stay there overnight, but ran in terror from the apparitions.) Rodgers heard many unidentifiable noises; later, when listening to the tape he recorded, he heard voices that had not been audible to him during the night.

Once again, this house is private property. Absolutely no trespassing is allowed.

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