The Underground Railroad: The dangers of cherry bounce

Part II

From May 3 to June 28, 1908, the Springfield Daily News and Press Republic published a series of letters by the Rev. J.R. Scurry that details the rich, complex history of local connections to the Underground Railroad. A graybeard at the time and a shoe repairer living on Central Alley, Scurry had been a conductor on the railroad in the 1850s and ’60s.

Scurry’s letters are will appearing in condensed and edited form in this column all month to help celebrate Black History Month. Today’s installment illustrates how motor vehicles are not the only means of transportation that ought not to be operated while under the influence.

Note: The text includes words now considered to be dated in referring to African Americans. We have preserved them, in most cases, to be consistent with the usage in J.R. Scurry’s time and his writing voice.

By J. R. Scurry

The old National Hotel or Werden House was a great stopping place for slave holders in the early 50s, after the passage of the fugitive slave act. But many a weary fugitive found shelter in the hotel’s stables in the back yard off Spring Street. And one day we almost lost eight of them there.

Somewhere in there, the place was bought by and renamed for H.F. Willis, the best man I ever worked for. Mr. Willis was a Democrat, and not a lazy one. He believed in earning his own living and not by any stealth against poor blacks, who were unable to defend themselves.

We all liked him and he liked us. If anybody asked him anything he didn’t want to answer, he would say, “Well, now, I don’t know. I’ve got some colored gentlemen out in the office or porter’s room that know everything.”

So, we had a large chicken coop in the stable yard, and generally from 50 to 100 fowls in it. At night it was the business of the yard man or second porter to see that all the chickens, turkeys and other poultry were snugly housed away. In the morning his duty was to let them out and feed them. There was a high stone wall in the rear of the hotel with steps going down into the yard. It served two purposes: to provide concealment and as a path to get to Uncle Harry Washington’s house on Walnut Alley.

We had put these eight fugitives into the back room part of the coop knowing that Peter Bird would be down from Urbana with a load of turkeys and other fowls that day. The plan was for him to take eight fugitives back north with him on the return trip.

In the hotel barroom there was a lot of old cherry bounce bottles filled with old cherries. The barkeeper wanting to put in fresh cherries and new whisky, he told the porter to throw out the cherries and wash the bottles that very day.

Some of the bottles had right smart of liquor in the, and it was good and strong. So, the porter put a lot of water in each bottle, shook it up and had some good bounce out of it. Knowing that all black people loved cherry bounce, he filled a jug and took it up in the chicken coop to those hidden there who already had had such a long journey. They licked it up like bears licking on honey.

The porter then emptied the cherries out down over the stone wall, and you ought to have seen the turkeys and chickens go for them. This was about 9 o’clock in the morning.

About 10 o’clock, the cook went down to kill some chickens and every chicken and turkey was lying down or staggering about the yard. The whole house came down to the stone wall to see the sight and, of course, the cook couldn’t kill any.

As scheduled, Peter Bird came about noon with his load of fowls and had a big surprise. And, of course, every little while someone was coming down to see the same sight. Bird drove his wagon loaded with several big coops on it in the chicken yard, where it could be unloaded after he went to Uncle Harry’s for dinner.

The porter thought while everybody else was at dinner, he would slip something to eat up to those in the coop. Laying on the floor in the corner were the eight fugitives just as drunk as the turkeys and chickens.

What was to be done? In the afternoon dozens of people would be there to look at the intoxicated chickens. That made it more likely the fugitives would be found out, with bad results.

Bartie Smith, second porter, went over and told this situation to Peter and Uncle Harry. When Bartie came back, he gathered up those chickens that couldn’t walk and put them into an old cellar to try to keep spectators from the stable yards.

After dinner, Peter Bird came to the office, settled with the landlord for his fowls and asked Bartie in the presence of the landlord when he could help him unload. He said he could when he got through with the work in the bar. Every chance he got, Bartie would slip up and see to his charges.

How was he, Uncle Harry and Peter Bird to manage to unload and load up eight fugitives in unsteady condition in a way they wouldn’t be detected?

Peter Bird had his double deck wagon, which is in such a shape as not to reveal the back gate, and he stood up at the tall end of the wagon to keep an eye out. When Bartie would take a load of chickens up, one of the fugitives would come down instead of Bartie, go around the wagon, and slip in the false deck. Bartie would slip out of the side door next to the stable unseen by anyone that would chance to be in the hotel yard above the wall.

This was repeated, with a little tension, until all eight were housed away. A tough job it was to squeeze eight half-drunk and scared human beings into so small a hole. Peter helped to get the rest of the drunken fowls into the coop. When all were at supper, he drove out onto Spring Street, went down to North Street, then north on Limestone to the halfway house, drove in the stable yard and fed the horse and fugitives. After supper he made tracks for Urbana.

Two hours later, the stable and barn yard at the Willis House were searched by those who suspected that negroes had been hidden there, but the birds had flown.

Mr. Willis didn’t know anything about it. But some colored gentlemen out in the office or porter’s room did.

Part I: Sunday, Feb. 7 - The Underground Railroad: The escape

Part II: Today - The Underground Railroad: The dangers of cherry bounce

Part III: Next Sunday - A near miss in the cheap seats.