[Tue Sep 16 2003]
A proposal by a nonprofit group to reopen the Old Slave House in Gallatin County was rejected by the governor's office earlier this summer, but is not dead in the water. We encourage Gov. Rod Blagovjevich to be receptive to options of allowing for public access to this historic site.
The 5,000-square-foot mansion, listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its Greek Revival architecture, was purchased by the state in 2000 at a cost of more than $500,000. Since then, nothing has been done with it. Maintaining it has been the responsibility of former owner George Sisk, whose family bought it in 1913 and who spends much of his time chasing away trespassers.
Sisk, 63, wants out of that role, and a group calling itself Open it NOW! Friends of the Old Slave House, stepped in with a plan asking the governor to switch state oversight of the 165-year-old house from the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which would then lease it to the group.
IHPA is strapped for funds and can't afford to prepare and man the house for public tours. Open it NOW would like IDNR to take it over and merge the site with the nearby Saline County Fish and Wildlife Area, creating a new state park - Eagle Mountain State Park. The house would then be leased to the nonprofit group, which would run it as a historic education facility.
This fits with Blagojevich's call to run Illinois government differently and think outside the box.
Jon Musgrave, a member of the group and historian who has researched the house, believes the site can be self-sustaining if an admission fee is charged. He notes that Sisk charged $5 a head for tours when he owned it. Attendance in the mid-1980s swelled to 38,000, or $170,000 in revenue. Musgrave says the state estimates it would cost about $180,000 annually to offer public access to the Old Slave House.
The plan was turned down by the governor's office in mid-August, but during his tour of Southern Illinois later that month the governor met with representatives of the group and said it, or one like it, might be reconsidered.
The Old Slave House - also called the Crenshaw House after John Crenshaw, a reputed slave trader of the 19th century, has been at the center of intrigue and debate for decades.
Based on family folklore passed down through generations, the Sisk family offered tours of the home in which Crenshaw allegedly kept kidnapped free slaves before selling them in Kentucky. Other tales suggest that Abraham Lincoln spent a night at the house.
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The state has looked at these claims with a cautious eye ever since the Sisk family first approached it about purchasing the house in the 1940s.
In the mid-1990s, Musgrave and two other local historians set out to either prove or disprove the legends perpetuated by the Sisk family. After poring through old letters, court records and other documents, they concluded that, in fact, Crenshaw was involved with trading slaves; although proof of just what occurred at the Old Slave House has been challenged. The researchers also believe Lincoln visited the Crenshaw house while stumping for president.
IHPA paid for use of the records found by the researchers and had an independent historian review them. The subsequent report concluded that the historical claims hadn't been proved.
Musgrave is certain of his findings, and said anything put out for public review should the Old Slave House be reopened would first be reviewed by an independent committee.
No one questions that slaves were employed at the salt mines of Gallatin County and that some skullduggery involving them occurred. For that fact alone, the Old Slave House could become the focal point of telling that story and a center for continue research on the subject.
One of Southern Illinois' most precious assets is its rich history. Telling this story is a key element to bolstering the region's tourism industry. The Old Slave House is part of that history and the public should have the chance to see it firsthand.
If that means the governor taking the group up on its offer, or finding the funds to reopen it outright, it should be done.