Several readers have inquired whether it is true or not that a home is associated with the Underground Railroad movement of the 19th Century.
Dating to circa 1843 and built by Robert and Louisa Bartlett, the home at the corner of Lockport Street and Eastern Avenue is believed to have been a “station” along the famed Underground Railroad as it passed through Plainfield.
However, as the house passed from one family to the next, the history of the storied house became twisted and—eventually—lost.
The Dillman Years
As Robert Bartlett began to subdivide property in the village in the late 1850s, he sold his pioneer home to Michael and Mary Dillman.
Dillman was a prosperous farmer from Stark County, Ohio who had settled at Plainfield in 1849. He and his family established a successful foundry and reaper manufactory at Plainfield. Michael and Mary Dillman had built a home for themselves at the south end of present-day Dillman Avenue.
In 1858, however, Michael Dillman and his wife purchased the original Bartlett homestead along the Lockport Road. It is unclear whether or not they ever lived in the house or whether they purchased the home for one of their children, another relative, or some of their foundry workers.
Less than three years later, Michael Dillman died. Within a few months’ time, the widowed Mary Dillman married a widower, John Mottinger, who also hailed from Stark County, Ohio.
Not the John or Sam Mottinger Farmhouse
John Mottinger moved to Plainfield in 1864. John came to Illinois to marry his longtime friend from Stark County, Mary Dillman. His son, Sam, arrived with him and married “Belle” Hartong, a resident of Plainfield. Although both men have been wrongly associated over time with the Lockport Street home, neither ever owned the property or lived in the house.
However, Michael Dillman’s children—the heirs to his estate—sold the Lockport Street property in 1865 to George Mottinger, the younger brother of John and, then, the new brother-in-law of the former Mary Dillman.
A native of Ohio, George Mottinger was a wealthy farmer who had four children with his wife, Elizabeth. They came to Illinois in 1849 and settled in DuPage Township, northeast of the village of Plainfield. However, his wife died shortly after their arrival, leaving George Mottinger with four children under the age of 15. He married Caroline Keim in October 1850, and—over the next eight years—added four more children to his clan, including a set of twins. By 1860, the Mottingers were farming in northern Plainfield Township.
When George Mottinger purchased the former Bartlett Home in 1865, he erected the imposing two-story, Italianate section of the house that faces Lockport Street. He died in 1873, but his family continued to live in the home until his second wife’s death in 1881.
“Gram Morgan” Arrives at Quality Hill
During the short period of a few years, several people owned the property that once served as a safe house along the Underground Railroad. By 1884, it is likely that few knew of its once-storied past that had unfolded forty years earlier at the hands of the home’s first occupants.
In 1884, John Day purchased the Lockport Street home for his family, including his 9 year old daughter, Carrie. Eventually, Carrie met and married Fred Morgan, the grandson of William Eaton Morgan, who had financed the sale of the property decades before.
Beginning about 1915, Fred and Carrie (Day) Morgan made many improvements to the property, including the expansion of the basement for central heating, the installation of indoor plumbing, and the addition of a large front porch. At that time, they remodeled portions of the interior of the home as well.
However, with all of their renovations, Carrie and Fred Morgan apparently never discovered the secret chamber where runaway slaves had been hidden decades before.
Living with her aging parents, Carrie and Fred Morgan raised their three children in the pleasant home along Lockport Street. Years later, “Gram Morgan” could point out many of the trees on the property and tell how they had been planted by her father.
In August 1922, the Morgans registered their Lockport Street property under the name of “Quality Hill.” At that time, about 35-40 farms in Will County had been registered with picturesque names through the County Recorder’s office. When the name “Quality Hill” was chosen, the property sat on a substantial rise above Center Street and points west.
The House That Almost Wasn’t Home
With plans to move to her daughter’s home in Chicago, Carrie Morgan—then 80—chose to auction the family home in 1954. By that time, the house had been divided into two apartments.
A neighbor, Judson George, offered $10,000 for the property that he hoped would be a good investment. But, Paul and Jean Huling, a young family with a six month old child and new to the area, wanted the home just as badly. “Gram Morgan” wanted the family to have the home as well.
However, the Hulings did not believe they had the resources to outbid Judson George’s offer until they were reminded that the rent generated from the apartment would allow them to offer an additional $100. Paul and Jean Huling became the owners of the property … and a loveseat which had been made by an uncle of Carrie (Day) Morgan as a wedding gift in 1892.
Carrie (Day) Morgan—known as “Gram Morgan” to her friends and neighbors—died in 1957. She had lived in the house more than 70 years…longer than any other resident of the property. “Gram Morgan” never mentioned the secret room to the next owners of the property although she enjoyed many visits with the young Huling family until her death.
The Past Rediscovered
Over the years, the Huling family renovated the home…eventually eliminating the apartment as their family grew. During one of their remodeling efforts, two of the Huling sons discovered the long-forgotten hiding place of runaway slaves.
The young boys discovered that a section of the rear staircase could be raised, allowing access to a small room beneath the stairs and behind a built-in china cupboard.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jean Huling—an elementary teacher at Central School—gave tours of the home and its special hiding place to her fourth grade students. It was a memorable outing for those who were lucky enough to be her students.
When the Plainfield Bicentennial Commission published a book on local history in 1977, the house was identified as “Centennial House” although no one had ever called it by that name before.
The Huling family moved from Plainfield in 1983, and the home they cherished was sold.
An Uncertain Future
With its secret chamber nearly intact, the Bartlett-Mottinger-Morgan House is the last residence and one of a handful of structures thought to be associated with Plainfield’s Abolitionist movement. One non-residential building associated with Plainfield Abolitionists is the local Congregational church (present-day ). Another Plainfield home may be associated with the Underground Railroad, but the suspected hiding chamber below a porch was filled in during a renovation several years ago.
Sadly, the Bartlett-Mottinger-Morgan House has deteriorated over the course of nearly three decades.
And, despite its colorful history and association with one of the most important periods in our nation’s past, the historic Bartlett-Mottinger-Morgan House is for sale without any local or federal protection as a nationally-significant, historic property in our village.
Next Week: The Chittenden-Owens House
Have a question about Plainfield’s history? Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch.
© 2012 Michael A. Lambert. All Rights Reserved