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Lambert: The Slippery Slope of Quality Hill – Part 2

Was the home at Lockport Street and Eastern Avenue part of the Underground Railroad movement?

The Inquiry

Several readers have inquired whether it is true or not that a home is associated with the Underground Railroad movement of the 19th Century.

The Facts 

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

Aaron June 21, 2012 at 09:55 PM
Thanks so much for putting this together, Michael. This house has had a very full, storied history, and your knowledge is very valuable to the Village of Plainfield. I will say, though, I have to make a small correction. "Sadly, the House has deteriorated over the course of nearly three decades." While this is close to the truth, you are a decade off. When my family moved into the house in 1983 it was an absolutely beautiful house, and remained that way, under the care of my mother, for the next ten years. When my folks divorced and my mom and I moved out in 1993, maintenance and TLC of the house became, well, less than a priority. Sadly, when I returned to the house after college in 2009, sixteen years of neglect had taken it's toll.
Aaron June 21, 2012 at 09:56 PM
I do find comfort in the fact that for the last 2 years that I lived there (May 2009-September 2011), the house seemed to be the cultural center of Plainfield. I moved in with my band, Overman, as well as another songwriter (Clifton Roy), and the house was dubbed The Overmanor. There was a spirit about the house and the people who came there that I cannot express in lines. Beautiful, timeless music was written and recorded there, and we hosted artists from all over the world. Without knowing exactly what the future holds for "Quality Hill," I think it's worth noting that for those 2 years, there was a richness and sense of community there that I've not felt before or since, that affected those who entered in a very profound Manor;-D Thanks again, Michael!
Michael Lambert June 21, 2012 at 11:00 PM
Aaron, Thanks for the clarification. Since I did not know the exact timeframe of the lack of care that led to the current state of the house, I just used a general period of time. The house and property, even today, still possess a great presence and timelessness. The creativity that you and your fellow musicians experienced there is certainly one more layer of the rich contextual spirit of the place. Thanks for sharing.
Paul Huling Jr. June 22, 2012 at 12:44 AM
Thank you Michael for deciphering the history of the house. My father never forgave the title company for destroying some of the original records. And thank you Aaron for your additional comments.
Shannon Antinori (Editor) June 22, 2012 at 12:51 AM
I've always wondered about this house, too, since hearing about its alleged ties to the Underground Railroad back when I started covering Plainfield 10 years ago. I've enjoyed both of these columns greatly, so thank you, Michael, and thanks too, Aaron, for your input.
Grouchy Grammaw June 22, 2012 at 03:58 AM
We know the house well, as our family and the Huling family were good friends in the 60's. The underground room was fantastic-- very exciting and mysterious, and so well hidden that it is not remarkable that it was not discovered until the Hulings found it. As I recall, it is even wallpapered! According to Paul Huling, the siding under the present exterior is solid walnut. Our daughter and Sarah Huling played there often, and the huge lilac hedge that bordered Eastern Ave. grew from sprouts from our lilac hedge on Division St. They put in a wonderful, large, plastic lined swimming pool in back at the northeast corner--deep enough for a diving board--and if I remember correctly it was HAND DUG by Paul! Paul worked at Caterpillar and Jean was a serious pianist and organist. However, she loved playing rag-time and Scott Joplin, and she and Paul would don costumes and entertain at various venues--with Paul playing the WASHBOARD! Jean's original 1891 reed organ is now in the home of our daughter in Portola Valley, California. Happy memories! How sad to think that this Plainfield treasure may be lost unless someone comes forward to preserve it!
Michael Lambert June 22, 2012 at 01:46 PM
Paul, Thanks for your comment. The puzzle statrted falling into place once I got all of the great information from your family, especially your mom's article from so many years ago. It was easy to see how the information got fuzzy over time...parts are still fuzzy regarding the earliest transactions, but that is not uncommon in the days before traditional banks were in place and the fincially well-off provided financing for the sale of properties. I am looking at some original documents regarding those transactions and will see what new clues emerge. Again, thanks for your information and especially your mom's recollections and writings.
Michael Lambert June 22, 2012 at 01:51 PM
Shannon, Cool thing is that, yesterday, a loyal Patch reader walked into my downtown office and showed me a late 19th century watercolor set that had been purchased decades ago at a sale on Eastern Avenue. Not only was the set in great condition for its age, but it contained a watercolor painting by "Manias O. Mottinger at a young age." Manias Oliver was the twin of Minnie Olive Mottinger, the youngest children (born 1858) of George Mottinger who built the front part of the Quality Hill house! That the set survived is amazing; the reality of holding an artifact related to the house was even more amazing, knowing that the images were likely painted at the time that the Mottinger addition of the Quality Hill house was brand new! Always appreciate the Patch readers!
Michael Lambert June 22, 2012 at 01:57 PM
GG, The Huling family really loved the Quality Hill house...that is evident in the information they have shared with me over the years. I was sad when I did not get Mrs. Huling as my fourth grade teacher because I was hoping to be traeted to a field trip to the house to see "the secret room." Paul and Jean Huling played their ragtimne music and the washboard at several of the first "Strawberry Fests" held at The Meeting Place...was always great to hear and fun to watch the joy they got out of playing! Thanks for adding some of the additional details...space limits all of the details that I can provide in each of my columns...typically, there is "more to the story" that I don't get to tell in my columns. Guess I should start on that book...
S H June 22, 2012 at 07:10 PM
I did some playing with the Huling kids in that front yard and with the Moore kids (who lived next door) and Stewart kids (across the street). Tree swing, bikes, stilts, sprinklers- what fun! I remember the lilac bushes, the tall trees and eventually the pool. I always loved the look if that house architecturally. I remember being in the house and how cozy it felt. That organ was "something else" to my kid eyes, but then they showed me the hidden space... WOW! Now THAT was really neat!!! Love reading your column and learning more about the little place where I grew up. I hope Plainfield will try and preserve what history is remaining and restore some neglected spots. So much has been shamefully torn down for "progress". Waiting for your book.....
Martha Huling June 23, 2012 at 02:18 AM
Wow, what a great article. I grew up in this house and have 2 pieces of history to go with it. One is the original paper advertisement from the day of the auction when my parents bought it. The other is a trunk that didnt sell at the auction, so also came with the house. It was listed in the ad as being over 100 yrs. old back then. I agree with S.H. that Plainfield should preserve what history is left to pass on.
Mark S. Morgan July 22, 2012 at 04:38 PM
Thank you for the article on Quality Hill. My name is Mark Morgan. William Eaton Morgan is my 3rd great grandfather and Fred Morgan is my great grand uncle. The Morgan family was indeed aware of the room under the stairs and the significance of the home as a stop on the Underground Railroad. I am 56 year old native of Massachusetts and remember quite well my grandfather H.R. Morgan relating the story of his Uncle Fred's house in Plainfield, Illinois being a stop on the Underground Railroad. It was part of the family lore that my great grandfather, Herbert Henry Morgan (1862-1942) - who was born and raised in Plainfield and later moved to Boston would tell my grandfather. It distresses me to hear the house is in disrepair. Is it for sale? I will post a picture of Fred and Carrie Morgan, their children Lorna and John along with Katherine Day- Fred's mother-in law taken at Electric Park.
Martha Huling July 23, 2012 at 06:10 PM
The Hulings are THRILLED that the Morgan's knew the history!!! This is confirmation for us! Thank you Mark Morgan for answering our questions we have had and thanks again Michael Lambert.
Holly Occhipinti April 19, 2013 at 04:27 AM
I used to live at 104 Lockport Street, near this house I think. We only lived there for 2.5 years sometime around 1980-1982, but I have so many wonderful memories of Plainfield. One of them is of playing with a girl friend in this house on a rainy afternoon and her showing me the secret place under the stairs. While training to be an elementary school teacher many years later (and here in California), I wrote a story as a writing workshop example and titled it "The Secret Stairs". I was never quite sure if my memory from between the ages of 7-9 was truthful, and now I know thanks to this article that my mother sent me the link to. If any of you are interested in reading the story, I would by happy to send it by email (if I can find it- that was 13 years ago). I wish I was wealthy enough to pay for the restoration of the house. It is indeed special. I know that because our family moved so frequently that for me to remember details like the size and feel of the house, it must have been exceptional. Thank you for keeping the world informed of something so wonderful. ~Holly Occhipinti (Rogers)

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