On Saturday, September 13, I traveled to Princeton, Illinois, for its 43rd annual Homestead Festival. The festival is named for Princeton’s Lovejoy Homestead, a stop on the historic Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th Century slaves escaping to freedom in the North. The Homestead is one of five Underground Railroad stops in Illinois. (Click here for the National Park Service’s interactive map of the Underground Railroad). The festival commemorates the 1971 restoration of the homestead.
Saturday’s Festival activities started off with the Underground Railroad 5K race at 7 a.m. and rounded out with ‘80s tribute band Hairbanger’s Ball playing ‘til 12:30 a.m. Other events throughout the day included tours of the high school and library, barbecue courtesy of the Bureau County 4-H Clubs, a blues concert with James Armstrong, and a celebration of Princeton-born screen actor Richard Widmark, including a screening of his biography with a moderated discussion afterward.
My friend and I mostly wandered the booths at the Beta Sigma Phi Arts and Crafts show. There was a wide range of offerings, including beautiful handmade wooden furniture, a small (as in, one booth) farmer’s market, a children’s author selling books and associated toys, as well as the best caramel popcorn I’ve ever had (sorry, Garrett’s; though to be fair, you’re a distant memory). It was fresh, with coating light enough that you could still appreciate the natural popcorn texture.
We also checked out the Homestead Festival Parade. My friend warned we should get seats early, and the fest’s website says, “Parade starts at 1:30 but the lawn chairs start to appear on Friday!” Being accustomed to city-sized parades, the setup seemed rather spacious to me, with plenty of room for everyone. It was small enough that parade marchers passing out leaflets handed them directly to individual crowd members. Lasting about an hour and a half, there was the usual parade fare of local businesses and politicians, local school marching bands, as well as Chicago’s South Shore Drill Team. Going along with the home/homecoming theme, there were an impressive array of Princeton High School graduation class floats; I spotted at least six, ranging from the ‘60s up to 2009.
After the parade, we stopped at the Lovejoy Homestead. They’d had a busy day with the festival going on, and we’d arrived when they only had about an hour left. The actual building is the small, single family home once occupied by the abolitionist, Reverend Owen Lovejoy, his wife Eunice, and their nine children (six of their own and three from her previous marriage). A paid staff member in each room gave a history of the room’s setup and how daily life was carried out there.
The most history was gleaned from the Document Room. We learned about Owen’s older brother Elijah, a fellow abolitionist. Elijah fled Missouri, a slave state, after three of his printing presses were destroyed by pro-slavery mobs. He moved to Alton, Illinois, seeking refuge in a free state where slavery was illegal. However, his troubles followed him; on November 7, 1837, he was shot in Alton while defending his printing press. Our friendly Document Room tour guide said Elijah died in Owen’s arms; the former becoming the first martyr of the abolitionist movement, the latter becoming the new leader of the Illinois abolitionists. There were differing accounts of Owen Lovejoy’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Document Room told us Lincoln was an anti-slavery rather than an abolitionist president. That is, he believed slavery should be restricted and voted on locally, while abolitionists believed in an immediate end to slavery. It is known that Owen Lovejoy was a special guest at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
I asked the tour guides where the slaves seeking shelter actually stayed. I was told they mostly stayed in the fields or the barn, where they were less likely to be detected and could make a quick escape. There was also a see-through secret compartment in the wall with a mannequin representing an escaped slave; I was told this was a last resort hiding place. I asked if there was a basement and was told, “If there is ,we don’t have access to it.”
The first tour guide didn’t mind us whipping out our cameras, but in each subsequent room we were told “no pictures.” You can check out the interior rooms on the Lovejoy Homestead’s official website here.