The Underground Railroad at Pleasant Hill

When I was young, I’d go driving with my grandfather Ed Drake, and he would often point out local landmarks and tell me little tidbits about each place. When we would drive on Pleasant Hill Road, we’d pass his old family homestead. He had fond memories of growing up there. He would mention getting into mischief with his brother, and raising chickens and other animals. Just recently, I remembered that Papa had mentioned that he and his brother discovered some hidden spaces in the barn. At the time, he didn’t realize their significance. Looking back now, it appears that our old family farm was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

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Ira Douglas, unknown year. Image source: Past and Present of DeKalb County, Illinois, 1907.

Located in Mayfield, IL, the Pleasant Hill farm was established by Ira Douglas, an early Mayfield pioneer. Ira Douglas was one of the very first settlers in Mayfield Township, arriving in the fall of 1836. At that time, the whole area was prairie grass, with some marshes in the low-lying areas, and some forested areas close to the Kishwaukee River. For his homestead he chose the top of a small hill in the Northeast corner of the township, and named his farm Pleasant Hill. From this hill, you can surprisingly see pretty far across the open prairie. Pleasant Hill Road is named after this estate. Besides farming, Ira Douglas raised cattle, horses, sheep and hogs on his 450 acres.

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The view of Pleasant Hill farm in 1871. Activity on the Underground Railroad had ended with the abolition of slavery, but Ira Douglas preserved the hidden rooms and tunnels in his house and buildings while he lived there. Image source: 1871 Combination atlas map of DeKalb County, Illinois.
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The unveiling of the plaque commemorating local abolitionists at Mayfield Church on Oct. 15, 2016. The sign says “Underground Railroad – Abolitionists from Mayfield Wesleyan Methodist Church defied the law and helped runaway slaves enroute to freedom in Canada before the Civil War.”

The abolitionist movement was particularly strong in rural DeKalb County. By the start of the Civil War, over 1,000 households in the county were antislavery supporters (about 25% of all households). Last weekend, the DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society commemorated three prominent Underground Railroad stations in DeKalb County. One of these sites was the Mayfield Congregational Church, which was once the Mayfield Wesleyan Methodist Church, a congregation of antislavery supporters. Ira Douglas was a member of this church, which was located at nearby Brush Point. Like many of his neighbors, Ira Douglas was outspoken against slavery and its evils and was willing to break the law to help those who were escaping slavery. He subscribed to the Western Citizen, a prominent anti-slavery newspaper that served Illinois and the surrounding areas. The Mayfield Wesleyan Methodist Church had its roots in about 1839 in his log cabin, located near the site of the large frame house that he later built. As Nancy Beasley points out in her book The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County, Illinois, the group started as a Bible study, but “one might surmise that the evening conversations may have turned to social causes of concern and to discussion of slavery in particular. The small group continued to worship regularly at the Douglass home for a couple of years until they moved their meetings to the new Pleasant Hill School [across the road], and later to the Brush Point School” (p. 118).

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This is an excerpt from an article in the True Republican newspaper in 1935. The author provided a little history about Mayfield Township and the origins of the Mayfield Church. The location of the church is misidentified; it should be Brush Point instead of Pleasant Hill. Image source: Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections

The Mayfield Wesleyan Methodist Church as built in 1860 in its present location at Brush Point. He was friends with known Underground Railroad station agents like the Nickersons, the Nichols and the Townsends. Two of his daughters married into the Nichols and Townsend families. He was definitely part of local efforts to aid fugitive slaves. Whether his farm was actually a station on the Underground Railroad hasn’t been officially recorded.

My grandfather and others who grew up exploring the farm know that it was a testament to Ira Douglas’s commitment to the antislavery cause. Based on descriptions from Papa and others who lived there after him, his farm was definitely one of many local places that sheltered fugitive slaves. There were secret doors and rooms in the sheds and the hay barn. A room under the shed had a hidden loft in the corner where someone could hide. There was also a hidden room in the basement of the house with a small tunnel that lead to one of the sheds. The Douglas family lived there for almost 30 years before slavery was finally abolished in 1865. Who knows how many people Ira Douglas and his family were able to shelter during those years!

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Ira Douglas’s obituary in the True Republican newspaper, 1888. Image source: Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections

Ira Douglas passed away in 1888. He is buried in the Pleasant Hill Cemetery across the road from his house. His obituary doesn’t mention his role in the antislavery movement. My grandfather’s grandfather, Gustaf Medine, rented the farm for a while from Ira Douglas’s son, Ira W. Douglas, and purchased it from him sometime after 1905. When my great-grandfather (Gust’s son-in-law) Charles Drake lost his farm in the Depression about 1936, Charles Drake brought his family to the Pleasant Hill farm. Papa spent much of his young life on this farm, attending school at the one-room schoolhouse across the road and working and playing in that barn. When Charles passed away in 1948, Papa and his brother gave up farming and sold the farm at auction. Through the years, there have been several more owners, and many of the children who grew up on that farm remember spending many hours playing hide and seek in the hidden spaces in the barn and shed. By today, all of the outbuildings, including the big hay barn, have been lost.

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Only the house still stands today. Although there have been several additions added through the years, it’s still recognizable from the 1871 drawing.

Because the outbuildings are no longer standing and the house has been remodeled, there is no surviving evidence of Ira Douglas’s role in the Underground Railroad. Even after slavery was abolished, there were many who had hidden fugitive slaves that never spoke openly about their role in the Underground Railroad. There are most likely countless men who risked their livelihoods to aid escaping slaves, and when their job was no longer needed, they quietly went back to normal life. Their courage to stand up for justice shouldn’t be easily forgotten. There are also countless lives that were saved from the horrors of slavery, and I hope that someday their courageous stories can also be told.


Timeline of the Pleasant Hill Farm:

1836 – Ira Douglas arrives in DeKalb County and settles in Mayfield Township. He may have been the first settler in the township. Several other families settled in Mayfield Township about the same time.

1837 – The first meetings of what will become the Mayfield Wesleyan Methodist Church take place in his log cabin.

1840 – Ira Douglas appears in the first census taken in Illinois.

1840 – 1865 – Ira Douglas supports the antislavery cause through his participation in his church, his subscription to the Western Citizen newspaper and by giving shelter to fugitive slaves on his farm. Sometime during this time, he builds a large frame house to replace his log cabin, and the log cabin is disassembled.

1865 – Slavery is abolished in the United States with the passing of the 13th amendment.

1871– Pleasant Hill appears as the residence of Ira Douglas in the 1871 DeKalb County Plat Atlas with a school and cemetery on the west side of the road. A view of his farm is also provided in the plat map.

1884 – My great-great grandfather Gustaf Medine arrives in America from Sweden. He begins farming in DeKalb County and rents property.

1888 – Ira Douglas passes away and his sons Cyrus and Ira W. Douglas purchase the property.

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This is the northeast corner of Mayfield Township from the 1892 Plat Map, showing Ira Douglas’s sons Ira and Cyrus owning the property. The house is the small black square on their property, and the outbuildings are the white squares. A garden is on the south side of the house. A school and the cemetery are located across the road and a little to the north of the house. Image source: Ancestry.com

1892 – Ira W. and Cyrus A. Douglas own the property. The map of Mayfield Township in the Plat Map shows the house with a barn and several outbuildings on the east side of the road, and the small schoolhouse and cemetery on the west side of the road.

1905 – Ira W. and Cyrus A. Douglas own the farm, and Gust Medine owns property to the west, based on the 1905 Plat map. A newspaper article mentions that Ira W. Douglas lives on the farm.

1910 – Gust Medine appears to own the property in the 1910 census. (Property ownership papers needed to confirm.)

1927 – Gust Medine passes away and his estate continues to hold the property.

1929 – Gust Medine’s estate owns the property, based on the 1929 Plat Map. Several families live on the farm before 1936, including the Melvin Voltz family and the James Garvin family.

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Notice in the True Republican for the farm auction after Charles Drake passed away in 1948. Source: Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections

1936 – Charles Drake purchases the land and moves his family back to the Pleasant Hill Farm.

1948 – Charles Drake passes away and his sons Ed and Chuck Drake sell the farm at auction. The Pluister family purchases the farm.

1948 – abt. 1962 – The property is owned by Chas. & Maggie Pluister.

abt. 1962 – 2016 – The property has been owned by at least three other owners, including Floyd Mollet, Knute Olsen Jr. and Mr. Stores. Several other families have rented the property.

1987 – The hay barn (already in weak condition) and the shed fall down in a tornado/storm.

after 1994 – The rest of the outbuildings are torn down and the house is remodeled.

2016 – Ira Douglas’s house still stands.


Sources:

  • The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County, Illinois by Nancy Beasley, 2013.
  • Nancy Beasley, speech made at the dedication of an Underground Railroad plaque at the Mayfield Congressional Church, Mayfield, Illinois, Oct. 15, 2016.
  • Past and Present of DeKalb County, Vol. 1 by Lewis M. Gross, 1907. (pages 151-152)
  • Portrait and Biographical Album, DeKalb County, Illinois, 1883. (pages 323-324)
  • A Journey Through DeKalb County, vol. 3 by Stephen J. Bigolin, 2004.
  • From Oxen to Jets: A History of DeKalb County, 1835-1963, by Harriet Wilson Davy, 1963.
  • Combination atlas map of DeKalb County, Illinois, 1871.
  • Plat Book of DeKalb County, Illinois, 1892.
  • Standard Atlas of DeKalb County, Illinois, 1905.
  • Atlas and Plat Book of DeKalb County, Illinois, 1929.
  • Atlas of DeKalb County, 1955.
  • Personal electronic correspondence with Becky Kaufmann, Rhonda Mollett Kitsos, Carrollene Burtch, Nancy Michael and the Facebook group “Genoa-Kingston, Remember When…”.
  • Newspaper clippings primarily from the digitized True Republican from the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.
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