Dedication of local Underground Railroad marker scheduled for Saturday

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Underground railroad
A dedication ceremony for the historical marker at the Ton Farm Underground Railroad site is scheduled for Saturday, September 24 at 1 p.m. (Photo provided)
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For some local residents, marker dedication brings to mind old rumors of Lansing’s possible involvement with the Underground Railroad

By Carrie Steinweg

CHICAGO, Ill. (September 22, 2022) – A dedication ceremony for the newly-installed State of Illinois historical marker at the Ton Farm site is scheduled for Saturday, September 24. The site is an authenticated Underground Railroad station where slaves were hidden or aided as they escaped the southern United States in search of freedom.

The Jan and Aagie Ton Farm was authenticated as an official Underground Railroad station in 2019 by the National Park Service (NPS) and is part of the NPS “Network to Freedom.” The Tons, Dutch immigrant farmers, owned a forty-acre farm at the site. At great risk to themselves, the Tons and other local abolitionists aided escaped slaves, referred to as “freedom seekers,” to reach safety and freedom in the northern states and Canada.

Dedication details

The ceremony will take place at 1 p.m. at the Chicago’s Finest Marina, 557 East 134th Place, in Chicago’s Riverdale neighborhood, a short drive northwest from Lansing. The public is invited to attend the presentation.

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The program will include a keynote address by U.S. Representative Robin Kelly from the Illinois second district. Other speakers will include Professor Larry McClellan and Glennette Tilly Turner, who as educators, historians, and authors are experts on the Underground Railroad in Illinois.

A representative from the NPS Network to Freedom, descendants of the Ton family, and other elected officials are also expected to attend. Tom Shepherd, the Lead Project Organizer, will serve as presiding officer for the dedication ceremony. The dedication is hosted by the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project and the program is expected to last about an hour. Chairs will be available and parking is available at the marina.

Decades of Underground Railroad education

The Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project is a volunteer-driven group whose mission is “to educate about the community’s significance in the nation’s freedom movement and to promote local development efforts.”

The Project began around 1999 when a group of historians combined their efforts to help raise awareness of the role that the south part of Chicago and south suburban area played in the Underground Railroad. Some of the group’s initial research involved Jon and Aagie Ton, the Kuipers family, and other early settlers to the area, according to Shepherd, a founding member of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project.

It wasn’t until 2019 that official recognition came for the Ton family, with a designation by the National Park Service as being part of the “Network of Freedom.”

Underground Railroad
From a canoe on the river, Prof. Larry McClellan gives a presentation about one of the Underground Railroad “stations” earlier this summer. (Photo provided)

Thousands of freedom seekers are estimated to have passed through and near the Calumet region in the decades before the Civil War. The Underground Railroad reached its height between 1850 and 1860.

History in Lansing’s backyard

Once enslaved people made their way out of southern slave states, they moved north through a network of routes known as the “Underground Railroad.” Stops where the fugitive slaves would rest for a meal or stay temporarily were called “stations.” It was a dangerous endeavor that necessitated moving quietly and quickly, but with the assistance of abolitionists, it is believed that around 100,000 slaves escaped using this network.

Underground Railroad
Tom Shepherd speaks about the Little Calumet Underground Railroad Project in 2018. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

The Ton farm was one of those stations. It was located in the southern part of Chicago near the adjoining neighborhood of Riverdale, not to be confused with the current Village of Riverdale, according to Shepherd. With rural out-of-the-way locations and barns or large farmhouses that allowed for hiding spots, farms fit well into the routes leading to freedom.

“I always say, ‘who knew?’” Shepherd said. “I live in Pullman and when I learned about this — the fact that this history was right in our back yard, so few in the area knew that this happened. We want to bring awareness that this was an important place in the development of the Underground Railroad as it relates to the south suburbs of the city.”

“The cooperation between white and black folks at that time, that was something,” Shepherd continued. “These settlers were principally Dutch and white and helping these fugitive slaves of a different race. I think that’s really significant that this was happening here in the early to mid 1800s. I don’t think that fact should be lost on folks that live there today or that we bring out for these tours.”

Information on the Ton Farm can be found at Jan and Aagje Ton Farm’s page on nps.gov.

This memorial in South Holland, Illinois, uses railroad ties to depict the Underground Railroad and Jan and Aagje Ton. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

A rumored Lansing Underground Railroad station

There are no sites in the Village of Lansing that have been authenticated as Underground Railroad stations, but there were members of the Ton family that settled in the area.

“Several Ton family members lived in Lansing,” said Lansing Historical Museum Curator Barbara Dust. “The one that comes to my mind first is Janetje Ton, who married an Eenigenburg of Lansing. She was the sister of Jan Ton of the Underground Railroad.”

Dust also noted that a prominent resident, Cornelius Ton, lived in what was then known as the Oak Glen community (a separate community on the west end of the village in the 19th century that was later incorporated into the Village of Lansing) and William Ton was an early principal of Oak Glen School. There is also a Ton Avenue in Lansing that was named for the family.

Unauthenticated family stories have also been passed down about one of Lansing’s first buildings having possibly been an Underground Railroad station. That building was the Union Hotel, owned and operated by the Krumm family, and once located on the Southwest corner of Ridge Road and Wentworth Avenue.

A late member of the Lansing Historical Society, Herb Krumm, often shared memories of stories he’d been told by relatives about groups of slaves making their way to the hotel late at night where a meal was prepared for them and then finding all the food and people gone the next morning with all of the dishes cleaned and put back in place.

Dust shared that she’d read an article about Krumm’s accounts with comment from a historian who stated, “that they were probably true, but there was no way to verify them.”

Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project members have been involved in different tours related to the Underground Railroad — including a Graceland Cemetery tour of graves of significant abolitionists, a “Freedom Trail Hike” at the site of the Ton farm, and also a tour for descendants of the Ton family that involved sites in Roseland, South Holland, and a Lansing cemetery where family members were buried.

To learn more about upcoming tours and events, join the Facebook group “Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project.”

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Carrie Steinweg is a freelance writer, photographer, author, and food and travel blogger who has lived in Lansing for 27 years. She most enjoys writing about food, people, history, and baseball. Her favorite Lansing Journal articles that she has written are: "Lan Oak Lanes attracts film crew," "Why Millennials are choosing Lansing," "Curtis Granderson returns home to give back," "The Cubs, the World Series, fandom, and family," and "Lansing's One Trick Pony Brewery: a craft beer oasis."