Teaching Safari Spotlight: Graue Mill and the Underground Railroad


You might not realize this, but one of the most precious historical sites in U.S. is located just outside of downtown Chicago in the southern corner of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage CountyGraue Mill and Museum is one of the area’s remaining authenticated Underground Railroad “stations” and the only operating waterwheel grist mill in Illinois.  This site is a extraordiarily valuable resource to teach students the history of the state of Illiois; and we felt it was important to add it to our roster of educational tours through Teaching Safari.  Today, the museum is open to the public and offers programs on milling, spinning, and weaving to illustrate life between 1850 and 1890 and the effect mills had on the area’s culture.

HistoryInfo Compiled By The Graue Mill and Museum:

As early as the 16th century, western European nations constructed a slavery system in the Western Hemisphere. There was slavery in all thirteen original American colonies. After the Revolutionary war the northern states found slavery to be unprofitable and abolished it; the largely agricultural southern states found slavery to be profitable and continued it.

Although both black and white people were temporarily bound as indentured servants in the early colonial period when demand increased for a perpetual labor force, laws were passed which established chattel (that is, lifelong) slavery. People of African origin were taken from their homelands to supply this labor. Enslaved Africans took considerable risks to gain freedom by escaping from their masters. Their escapes were carried out in secrecy (therefore, “underground”) and were most numerous about the time that newly built steam railroads had captured the public imagination.

The “Underground Railroad” became a major impetus leading to the eradication of slavery. Through the use of secret codes, runaway slaves (“passengers”) usually traveled to their destinations by night either alone or in small groups. Whenever possible black and white abolitionists provided food and shelter at stopping places known as “stations” or served as “conductors” providing transportation between stations. The Underground Railroad remained active until the end of the Civil war as black bondsmen continued to use the system to flee the horrors of slavery. DuPage County played a significant role in this pivotal chapter in American history.

In the 1800’s, Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Glendale Heights, Wayne Center, Warrenville, West Chicago, Lombard, Naperville, Downers Grove, Hinsdale, Lyons and Oak Brook had “stations” on the Underground Railroad. DuPage County was situated in such a way that “passengers” coming from the south, southwest, and western parts of the state passed through the area. Wheaton College, the Filer House (Glen Ellyn), the Peck House (Lombard), and the Blodgett Home (Downers Grove) are examples of the few remaining structures in DuPage County which provided havens for slaves seeking their freedom.

The Graue Mill and Museum in Oak Brook is one of the remaining authenticated “stations”. Frederick Graue, a miller by occupation, housed slaves in the basement of his gristmill. The Graue Mill’s location on Salt Creek, a tributary of the Des Plaines River, made it an ideal location for harboring slaves. Glennette Turner, local historian and noted author regarding the Underground Railroad in Illinois, believes that Mr. Graue built tunnels linking the basement of his mill with other hiding places. Today, the exhibit “Graue Mill and the Road to Freedom” uses photographs, documents, a computer interactive system and additional displays to illustrate the issue of slavery, the Underground Railroad and the importance of Graue Mill and DuPage County in assisting fugitive slaves to escape to freedom.

We highly recommend planning a visit to this site to understand the history and the important role mills had on our culture.  The Museum is dedicated to maintaining a bridge between past and present generations in the belief that understanding our history is vital to our future. The provides programs  include milling, spinning and weaving and living history presentations that powerfully demonstrate the way of life between 1850-1890

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