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How One Peoria County City Became A Stop on the Underground Railroad

Courtesy Brandon Butler
William Phelps

Few people know rural Elmwood was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. WCBU student reporter Olivia Streeter talked to local historian Brandon Butler about the Phelps Barn, and his broader mission to educate the community on the importance of Black history.

BRANDON BUTLER: Elmwood is a little town west of Peoria on the edge of Peoria County that was actually started by William Phelps. So when he had moved from Connecticut, he traveled around. He was a politician from Connecticut. He moved here, bought 2000 acres of land, built his mansion, built the farm.

But at that time, there were also people trying to escape slavery. So his barn that was built in 1845 was used a part of the Underground Railroad. A lot of people in Peoria don't know about the Phelps barn.

So our history here was helping people get free, standing up for others as we should be now. And what I want to do is continually do that, and show people that during this time of slavery, our little small town of Elmwood was helping other people be free, you know, accepting other people for what they were.

Elmwood was a part of a bigger part of the Underground Railroad with Peoria, and Galesburg, and Farmington, and Princeville, and Princeton. So if you go to the Alexander Steakhouse, they would bring people off of the river and take them through the basement of that building. That was a part of the Underground Railroad. There was ... houses in Farmington, they were stops for food and clothing.

And the cool thing about the Phelps barn is they had a cross at the top of it that was carved out, and they would light it at night to let them know it was safe to pass or safe to stop here. If it wasn't lit, then the fugitive slaves knew not to pass. In 2021, we still light that cross.

OLIVIA STREETER: You kind of gave some information on William Phelps. Any other information you can give on him?

BB: William Phelps was the person that started them. Elmwood was actually named after his mansion that he named after the grove of trees that was around this town. So with the 2000 acres of land, he had the railroad built through here. Without him moving here, you know, who knows if Elmwood would have even been created. So we owe a lot to him.

What I want to do is with my Black history stuff is get the word out on him, a lot more history about him. And then find another way that we can honor him. We do have the barn, but I feel like there's something else that we we should be doing for him and not just for creating Elmwood, but for what he did, and saving a lot of lives by helping people get their freedom.

OS: With your organization, where do you see it moving forward? What is the main goal of Brandon's Black History?

So, as I was thinking about that today, I would really like to be able to spread history and teach and talk about this more. Now that consist of going and doing speeches and lectures. I would love to step out and do that and start talking to people and and meeting different people. Right now, it's social media, but I would love to be able to get out in front of people. I feel like if you're face to face with somebody, and you can ask questions, and then somebody can answer those questions, you get a lot more than me sharing a picture and reading what I wrote, or something like that.

OS: So maybe an overarching statement you'd like to make about anything we didn't touch on if you want to add anything?

BB: Black history is a very important part of  our history in America. And to get a couple people that we talked about in February, you know, it's usually the same for Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass. There's a lot more to our history. And I feel people need to hear it. People need to need to learn about it. And let's talk about those people that we don't hear about.

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Olivia Streeter is an intern at WCBU. The Illinois State University student joined WCBU in 2020.