Underground Railroad quilt speaks volumes

By on September 4, 2009

by Susan O’Neill
KANEVILLE—The Underground Railroad quilt Karen Heinberg made for a community raffle is steeped in history, the Kaneville resident said.

During the mid-1800s, the Underground Railroad was a network of free blacks and sympathetic whites who cooperated to help fugitive slaves escape to freedom.

Runaway slaves would often travel as much as 10 miles a day for as long as four or five months. Their journey to freedom went through wilderness areas and hostile territory.

The network of individuals used a series of “safe houses” in which fugitives could hide on their way to the northern states. Heinberg said that historians have found former safe rooms during excavations of old homes in St. Charles and other parts of the Fox Valley.

She said there were often ships docked in Cleveland that would take the runaways across Lake Erie into Canada, where they would be assured their freedom.

Because these escapes had to be planned and executed in secrecy, there was little open discussion within the network. The Underground Railroad relied on secret communication methods that had been developed over generations.

According to legend, Underground Railroad quilts were made with various symbols and patterns that, when hung in someone’s back yard, would signal which homes were safe, what direction people should travel in, and other critical information for their dangerous endeavor.

Since it was common for quilts to be aired out frequently, no one would be suspicious when they saw the quilts displayed this way.

Symbols included such things as a bear’s paw, which communicated that the fugitive should take a mountain trail, following the path made by bear tracks. These trails would lead them to water and food. A bowtie meant that they should dress in disguise, or put on a change of clothes.

A picture of the quilt and the raffle tickets are available at the Hill’s Country Store. Proceeds from the sale of the tickets will be given to the Kaneville Historical Society to paint the Benton House. The Benton House, which is located across the road from the Kaneville Fire Station, represents the many Benton family descendants who remain in the area.

The winner of the quilt will be chosen at the Kaneville Christmas celebration in December.

Quilt raffle
Raffle tickets for a chance to win the Underground Railway quilt are for sale at Hill’s Country Store on Main Street Road in Kaneville.

Tickets are $3 apiece or two for $5.

The winner will be chosen at the Christmas in Kaneville celebration in December.

Proceeds to go to the Kaneville Historical Society.