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The Plantation & Grounds

John Hart Crenshaw and his brother Abraham started buying land east of the North Fork of the Saline River in the 1820s following Crenshaw’s first forays into kidnapping and slave trading. Crenshaw bought into his first saltworks on Nov. 5, 1828. Nine months later the brothers purchased the site of the Old Slave House on July 8, 1829. When Abraham decided to move to Texas in the mid 1830s, Crenshaw bought out Abraham’s interest in the land atop Hickory Hill as well as other properties on January 12, 1835. Construction on the house is believed to have started in 1838, the date which is on the cornerstone.

Besides the Old Slave House, Crenshaw’s Hickory Hill plantation included some 5,500 acres of contiguous property in a rough diamond shape bounded on the northwest by the North Fork of the Saline River and on the southwest by the Saline River itself. Over time Crenshaw sold off most of the land or deeded it to his sons-in-laws John E. Hall who bought the land north of the house and Michael Kelly Lawler who got the land east of the lane running south by the cemetery.

Although the house faced the Saline River Valley and the Shawnee Hills to the south, the main road going by the property would have been the federally funded route first laid out during territorial days running from the Ohio River at Shawneetown west to the saltworks at what became Equality. This generally followed what would eventually be recognized today as the old Illinois Route 13, and particularly Walnut Lane for the stretch north of the house that intersects Illinois Route 1 about a quarter mile south of the modern Route 13. What is now Pleasant Lane (formerly Lawler Cemetery Lane) running south would have been the main lane off the highway that ran to Crenshaw’s plantation manor.

Family letters suggest slave cabins stood below the house, believed by modern researchers to be northwest of the house. Folklore identifies a location of barracks for Crenshaw’s saltworks north of Illinois Route 13. Although that has not been confirmed, state records for the saltworks also mention barracks in connection with the Lower Lick saltworks that operated a couple of miles south of the house which utilized the water from the Great Salt Spring located today between the Saline River and Salt Well Road. Before her death Crenshaw’s niece Mariah (Crenshaw) Wallace) wrote out a list of Crenshaw’s household servants, but not the field hands, as they were “too numerous to mention.”

Crenshaw built an extremely large barn for his day on the summit east of the house. By the late 1840s the county board used it as a landmark when identifying road routes. It burned in the 1920s and according to local folklore was so big the Old Slave House itself could have fit inside. Although Crenshaw owned the property on Hickory Hill in the 1850 and 1860 agricultural censuses he did not actively farm himself, but leased out the property.

Crenshaw’s brother-in-law Jonathan Huston is believed to have farmed the area in 1850. The totals of his output suggest that he might have been using Crenshaw’s big barn and the main fields around the house. He farmed 150 acres improved land and also controlled another 150 acres of unimproved land that he had leased off his brother-in-law. They valued the farm at $1,500 and the implements at $300. Livestock on hand at the beginning of June included 15 horses, two asses and mules, 10 milch cows, 14 other cattle, 100 sheep, all worth $1,200. Produce raised over the year included 3,000 bushels of Indian corn and 1,000 bushels of oats. The cows produced 400 pounds of butter and Houston slaughtered $200 worth of animals over the year. Interestingly, Houston’s household produced no small amounts of anything or manufactured any small household goods like other independent households. Instead, his operation looks large-scale.

By 1860 it appears that Crenshaw and his son William T. lived at Hickory Hill, though their households are counted separately. The enumerator only listed the father with personal property and listed the real estate with the son. The agricultural census provided details of what the plantation was producing in the years just before the Civil War. For the 12 months ending June 1, 1860, the plantation included 1000 acres of improved land, and 2,040 acres of unimproved land, all together worth $46,000. The value of the farm implements alone came to $2,000, which was 10 times more than any other neighboring farmer on the census page in that area. The livestock valued at $2,700 included 21 horses, 2 asses and mules, 15 milch cows, 12 working oxen, 50 other cattle, 8 sheep and 130 swine. It took all those animals to help produce 1100 bushels of wheat, 3,000 bushels of Indian corn, 5 bushels of peas and beans, 200 bushels of Irish potatoes, all together valued at $500. Market garden produced another $100 worth of produces. The farm also produced 500 lbs. of butter, 250 tons of hay, 100 bushels of grass seed and saw $725 worth of animals slaughtered.

— Information compiled from Jon Musgrave. 2005. Slaves, Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw. Marion, Ill.: Used with permission. Signed copies of the book can be purchased from the author at




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