Welcome to the collision of two storylines. I don’t know how often this happens to other authors, but I believe this is a first for me in over a decade of blogging. A few years ago I wrote a series of posts in the form of fairy tales. The fairy tales took place in a magical kingdom called Serendip and were a way to convey the story of my father’s declining health. The final installment was written just a few days after his death in December of 2019. Last year I started another series titled “A Journey” after I made a surprising discovery about my great-great-grandparents. I learned they operated a stop on the underground railroad for a number of years. I promised to continue to provide updates as we discovered more of the story. Those two stories came together this past summer.
Even though the title of the third installment of the fairy tale series was “The Land of Serendip – The Final Chapter”, it was not the final chapter. My father’s wish was to have his ashes scattered in Green Lake, Wisconsin where we had scattered mom’s ashes in 2014. Our plans to make that trek in the summer of 2020 were derailed by, yep, the global pandemic. We put our plans on the shelf, well, actually, we put dad on the shelf…literally.
Early in the summer, we made the discovery about my great-great-grandparents. That prompted me to write the “A Journey” series. Fast forward to the summer of 2021. We began to make plans to take dad to be with mom. Our plans included a stop in South Holland, Illinois, to visit the site of the Jan and Aagje (pronounced ahk-e-ya) Ton Memorial Gardens. Jan and Aagje are my great-great-grandparents. In June, almost a year to the day since I posted the first installment of that series, Duane DeYoung left a comment on the post. He, too, is a descendant of Jan and Aagje.
A few weeks later, I received a letter, yes, an actual letter. The return address was the South Holland Historical Society. Curious, I tore open the envelope. Inside was a letter from Robin Schedberg, she, too, found my post. She was writing to let me know about a rededication ceremony to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the memorial garden. The ceremony was scheduled for October 16th. The same date as my…well, I’m not saying which one, suffice it to say I am old…high school reunion five hours away in the opposite direction. Over the summer we texted and emailed several times. Robin sent some wonderful photographs of some historical pieces they have in the Society library.
We toyed with the idea of delaying our trip to scatter dad’s ashes until October but given the conflict with the reunion and the fact that October is the off-season for the Green Lake area, we decided to move ahead with our plans for an August trip. Our itinerary included a stop in South Holland to meet local historian, Larry McClellan, view the memorial, and tour the area. We would continue to Green Lake, spend a couple of days, scatter dad’s ashes and then return home. At the invitation of Duane DeYoung, we planned to stop by his home in Wisconsin on our return trip.
Days before we were to embark on our adventure, Duane wrote saying he had been in contact with Robin and she could meet us on Monday afternoon in South Holland. It had not occurred to me to share our full itinerary with him. I picked up the phone and called him. Imagine that a letter and a phone call in the same story! I explained Larry’s availability was limited to Friday and we were planning to meet him at the memorial site. A day or so later, Duane let me know that he and his wife June would meet us at the site on Friday, and we were still more than welcome to stop by their home the following Monday.
With that preamble, welcome to “A Journey Through the Land of Serendip”. Friday morning, August 13th, my wife, Carmen, my son, Brad and I loaded the car and headed north. Oh yeah, dad was with us too, but he didn’t help load the car. I can’t tell you how many times one of us asked, “so, do we have dad?”. No one wanted to drive all day without the guest of honor!
Trying to coordinate a meetup on the South Side of Chicago, when one group was coming from Indianapolis (three hours away), another group was coming from Lake Geneva (a couple of hours away), and the tour guide, although local, on a tight schedule was a little tricky, especially when Chicago traffic can change in an instant. What did we do before text messaging, GPS, and traffic apps? We arrived at the memorial a few minutes before the appointed time. The memorial sits on the grounds of the First Reformed Church of South Holland, somewhat apropos considering my father was a minister. We learned that Jan had been one of the founders of the church and served as a Deacon for a number of years. That was one of the reasons for selecting the site, and one of the reasons Jan and Aagje were selected to be honored and remembered.
Hoping to have some private time at the memorial, we were a little disappointed to see a woman tending the flowers in the garden surrounding the monument. Our disappointment was short-lived as once again the magic of serendipity struck. The woman tending the flowers was Nadine Harris-Clark, the aunt of LeRone Branch, the Eagle Scout who was the force behind the memorial. We soon learned, Larry had given her a heads up we would be there. Not only did she want to meet us, but she also brought a photo album of the building of the memorial. She was beaming with pride as she talked about the project, the care that had been taken to select plants native to the area to surround the monument, and her nephew LeRone.
The memorial itself is a 9,000-pound piece of granite. We had seen pictures of the gardens and the stone the previous year when we discovered this amazing story. What was hard to see in the pictures were the railroad tracks that ran under the stone as a symbol of the underground railroad. The scene was breathtaking. The tracks seemed to emerge from the native flowers, disappear underground, and reemerge on the other side of the stone, only to disappear again in the flowers. We were all near tears as we took it all in.
Larry soon arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Duane and June. Let the reunion commence! Larry has been researching the history of the area, the Tons, and the Underground Railroad for years. He has written numerous articles and books on the subject. We stood near the monument while he shared the history with us. He believes between four and five hundred Freedom Seekers passed through this area on their way to Canada. “They had to leave the land of the free, to become free”, he stated.
Freedom Seekers would travel north from Missouri, western Kentucky, and parts south, along the Mississippi and the Illinois Rivers and then overland to Chicago. Arriving in Chicago, they would rest before heading south around Lake Michigan and on to Detroit where they would cross into Canada. It was on the southern trek around the lake they likely encountered my great-great-grandparents. Jan and Aagje owned a farm on the northern shore of the Little Calumet River. They would hide them, feed them, provide them a place to rest, and then help them on their way to Indiana. They had purchased the farm from George Dolton, who operated first a ferry then a toll bridge over the river. It is likely Dolton who directed many of the Freedom Seekers to the Ton Farm.
After the history lesson, Larry, Duane, and Brad crammed into the backseat of our SUV and we drove to the location of the Ton Farm. Larry continued our history lesson as we drove, identifying this road and that road as old Indian trails and routes Jan would have taken to get to Indiana with his precious cargo. We crossed the river at the Indiana Avenue bridge. This would have been where Dolton’s toll bridge once spanned the water.
Chicago’s Finest Marina now sits on the site of the Ton Farm. The owner of the marina, retired Chicago Police Officer, Ronald Gaines, was unable to meet us and the gates were locked. We took turns peering through the iron gate at what would have been the location of the Ton home. The farm was originally 40 acres, so we walked a gravel road that ran along the river. It was an incredible feeling to walk where my ancestors would have walked 170 years ago and to peer out on the river they peered upon.
Larry shared the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project was a group of volunteers who are researching the area and identifying historical places of interest. They are creating a water trail down on the river and will be placing markers, one of which will be at the Ton site. Being avid canoeists in our younger days, we are looking forward to paddling the trail! We piled back into the car and headed back to the Church, not before stopping on the Indiana Avenue bridge so Carmen could take a picture looking from the bridge to the farm a short distance downstream.
Once back to the church, we bid adieu to Larry and Nadine (who was still there tending to the flowers). Duane and June left to meet Robin at the library. We needed to continue our Journey Through the Land of Serendip.
Without having to give a spoiler alert for the continuing series, one of the things I need to share is the uncomfortable feeling I get every time we thank someone associated with the memorial project for creating this monument to Jan and Aagje. Why uncomfortable? Because when we thank them, they thank us for what Jan and Aagje (and others) did 170 years ago. We are honored they chose to remember Jan and Aagje. We are honored to be descended from Jan and Aagje.