Cretan historians finally have a home for 186 years of stories
As the people of Crete prepared to celebrate their city’s 150th anniversary in 1986, they launched a concerted fundraising effort for a museum housing a century and a half of local history.
“They sold everything,” said Ryan Martin, president of the Crete Region Historical Society. “They made blankets, ashtrays, calendars and mugs for the 150th anniversary. I was amazed at how much they raised.
Civic pride was at its height. One of the floats in the Cretan Sesquicentennial Parade even featured the altar of the old Congregational Church of Crete, a building almost as old as the village itself.
As the celebration faded and life in Crete returned to normal, plans for the museum were put on hold and eventually scrapped. And gradually, the artisans, makers, and donors who had raised money for the effort died.
The Historical Society’s organized activities “fell by the wayside” in the 1990s and early 2000s, Martin said, but an underlying interest remained among those with deep roots in the community. In recent years, these individuals have revived the Society, and one of its 1980s goals, with the help of funds their predecessors had raised during the sesquicentenary.
“The Historical Society didn’t waste (the money),” Martin said. “They’ve had it since. We were to make these original donors proud. The best thing to do with that money was to use it for what it was intended for.
After about five years of searching for the perfect location, they finally spent those funds two weeks ago when they struck a deal for a former antique store on Exchange Avenue.
“It was too good to be true,” Martin said, as their new museum will be housed in buildings that played key roles in many of the stories they would tell there.
Built in 1853 by some of the region’s earliest settlers, the Congregational Church of Crete was home to ardent abolitionists who helped freedom seekers escape slavery along a fork in the Sauk Trail, Martin said. Among them was Caroline Quarlls, whose harrowing escape included an encounter with church members in Beebe’s Grove, an area in eastern Crete along Richton Road, according to an account from the 1880s.
Martin said they were sworn in 1841 declaring slavery to be “oppressive and sinful” and promising to “do everything possible to bring about its speedy and peaceful overthrow”.
“They were one of the first churches in Illinois to put this in writing,” he said. “They were advising their congregation to break the law, basically.”
This connection was one of the reasons the church building was already on the Historical Society’s radar. Former President Phyllis Monks was one of many members of the group who researched the history of the church and its early members, leading the National Park Service to designate the Congregational Church of Crete as a Historic Site on the National Underground Railroad System to Freedom Trail in 2018, according to the Society.
More than a decade after taking that oath, church members who had gathered at a school in Beebe’s Grove decided to build a church in Crete, which had recently been plated. Some of these founders traveled to Michigan in the dead of winter so they could cut wood and sled it back. About 50 years later, church members raised enough money to install 10 new stained glass windows, each bearing the name of one of the founding families of the church.
Among those names inscribed in those 1894 stained glass windows is Adams, for Henry and Catherine Adams, who happen to be Martin’s ancestors — “my 5th great-grandparents,” he said. To his knowledge, none of the other names in the windows are linked to any direct descendants who still live in the region of Crete.
“There aren’t many old British-American families left,” he said. “They moved west, but we stayed in Crete forever.”
The building is adjacent to the Cemetery of Crete, the final resting place of many abolitionists associated with the Congregational Church, as well as Willard Wood, believed to be the founder of Crete.
It also houses the remains of William Hewes, one of four Revolutionary War veterans buried in Will County. It wasn’t Hewes’ first resting place, however. He was originally buried at his family plot, but his remains were moved when the former family property was redeveloped in the 1920s into Lincoln Fields Racetrack, which later became Balmoral Park. Some of Hewes’ family members are still buried in the infield of the track, Martin said.
“The little family cemetery is still there, he says, but it’s not marked. They removed the fence years ago and laid the headstones flat. Sallie Hewes Cole is still there, and probably a few others.
The congregational congregation next to the municipal cemetery lasted another half century before disbanding and selling its church in 1957. By 1963 it was in its first incarnation as an antique store, evolving into something of a mini -shopping center in the 1970s, where people could buy trinkets from the past, books and, for a short time, even ice cream.
This variety was made possible by the acquisition of another building, which was connected to the old church by a timber frame annex. Besides the extra space, the new building was already familiar to Cretans, as it had been the village train depot and was located in Crete Park until the Chicago and Eastern Railroad Illinois ceased offering passenger service in the late 1960s. The owners of what was then known as The Marketplace purchased the old depot and, like William Hewes, it was moved from l across Exchange Street next to the Old Church.
This was the second time the depot changed address. Originally built to serve the town of Goodenow a little south on the railway line, it was no longer needed after most of Goodenow was wiped out by a massive tornado outbreak in 1917. The Crete depot had recently burned, so Goodenow depot was sent north to replace it.
Martin said the Historical Society would like this section of the museum to focus on the area’s rich railway heritage. Apart from the adjacent busy railway line, Crete was once home to the Faithhorn Rail Yard, of which little remains.
The middle section is initially intended for a research area, where materials such as old maps and other historical resources will be available.
And Martin hopes that part of the old church will one day look a little more like its original incarnation.
But the old pews and other religious equipment are long gone, and the old altar has not been seen since it appeared in Crete’s sesquicentennial parade in 1986.
“If we could find that original pulpit that was used on the tank, we could put it back in its rightful place,” Martin said.
They also don’t have the original church bell, but at least they know where it is. When antique shop owners had the building re-roofed in the 1980s, they tore down the bell tower, Martin said, and donated it to the canton of Crete, and it remains on display outside of Wood Street Town Hall.
But the Historical Society of the Region of Crete has more immediate concerns now that it has acquired the historic structure of its dreams. The floor of the church part of the building will have to be renovated, among other works, before the whole square can be opened to the public. Martin estimated that it would be two years before that happened.
The bones of the place are in good condition, said Martin, who works in construction. He said he crawled through a trapdoor to the area under what was once the steeple, finding old stairs that date back to the building’s origins and beams made from that virgin wood cut in Michigan in 1853.
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“I was looking at bundles up there, and they’re so dense you don’t even see any pores,” he said. “If you were going to drive a nail into it, you’d probably bend the nail.”
Fortunately, the group is made up of many practical people, Martin said.
“Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, our members will be there to fix the place, do what we can,” he said. They will also be fundraising and applying for grants to help pay for repairs and upgrades.
But the time and effort will be worth it as they work towards a home for the stories of Caroline Quarlls, William Hewes, the Faithhorn Rail Yard and even the mysteriously missing Parade Pulpit.
“I always thought Crete deserved a museum,” Martin said. “We are so old. We have so many stories to tell, so many artifacts to display.
“I’m just glad we finally have one.”
Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on Southland. He can be reached at [email protected].