Home / News / Recovered from the wrecking ball, the house built in 1851 will be Will County’s first African-American history museum

Recovered from the wrecking ball, the house built in 1851 will be Will County’s first African-American history museum

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and similar groups believe that saving historic buildings and sites is important because they help tell the full American story and remind us of our shared heritage. Once a historical site is destroyed, it is gone forever.

Fortunately for the George Washington Casseday House in Joliet, people who recognize the historic value of the house and know how it can be reused for the benefit of the community are banding together to preserve it.

In 2020, Casseday House, built in 1851 and now Joliet’s oldest home, appeared to be heading for demolition after the Thorntons bid to buy the land occupied by the house to build a gas station and grocery store here.

He stepped into the Will County Historical Museum and Research Center in Lockport, taking over ownership of the building. The city donated land a few blocks away where the house could be moved. The Thorntons spent close to half a million dollars to move the house, which was built from extremely heavy Joliet limestone.

“The situation for this house looked very bad but then all the pieces started to fall into place. That house had to be saved,” said Sandy Vasko, director of the Will County Historical Museum and Research Center.

“What the Thorntons did was incredible and the city of Joliet was kind enough to give us a parcel of land. It was amazing to watch the house move,” said Vasko.

During the pandemic, Vasko and colleagues decided to use the historic building to highlight an underrepresented aspect of Will County’s past, and plans have begun for an African American history museum in Will County.

Vasko has found the perfect fit for the Casseday House at Traveling History, a mobile nonprofit museum founded by Luther Johnson.

A Joliet resident, Johnson was passionate about researching and collecting materials related to the history of African Americans in U.S. military service, and for the past 15 years has dived into reenactments, recreating roles in major military campaigns, including the Civil War and World War II. War I.

Dressed as a WWII soldier, Luther Johnson speaks to visitors at the Traveling History exhibit during the 2022 Veterans Day event at Brookfield Zoo.  Johnson prepares to transform the oldest house in Will County into the county's first museum of African American history.

He started Traveling History in 2019 with a van going to deliver programs to schools and museums.

“African Americans have taken part in every major military operation in this country,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make sure their contributions to freedom causes were recognized. HOW we started delivering the message.”

The Center offered Casseday House to give Johnson’s efforts a chance to establish a more permanent museum. Initially he wasn’t sure if he wanted to take on such a big project, but that changed when he visited.

“I could see that this would be a great place to have a museum about African Americans in the great wars. This building was built before the Civil War; When you touch the bricks, you touch history,” said Johnson. “It would be a lot of work, but it will be worth it. I said to Sandy we’ll get this, I can do this.

According to Vasko, “Luther was on fire when he realized what it all meant. He has such an energy. I know this will be successful. I know it was the right decision.”

The process is ongoing to transfer ownership of the home to Johnson’s organization.

Meanwhile, descendants of George Washington Casseday stepped forward to support the rescue of the house.

Lorraine Partlow Smalley, Casseday’s great-great-great-granddaughter, became aware of the house’s existence last fall while doing her family genealogy research.

Smalley, a retired association executive living in Downers Grove, discovered in 1836 that Casseday was one of the first land speculators in Joliet. He moved there in 1851 and built his house, probably from limestone mined on his own property. He sold some of his land in 1858, making it the site of the historic Joliet Prison.

Casseday died in 1863 at the age of 59 and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Joliet. His wife Delilah lived from 1805 to 1893. Their daughter Maria married John Milton Partlow in 1844, marking the beginning of the Partlow lineage.

Smalley visited the Will County Museum of History to do research and was delighted to find a drawing of the original house on the 1862 plat map. He made three visits to Casseday House; He last met Johnson last month, and took a quick tour of the flat house many years ago.

“Knowing that our family once lived and worked in that house brings history to life. “It’s very special to have something concrete going back this far,” he said.

“We are grateful to Sandy and Luther for their efforts to save the house. I don’t want to think about what would have happened without their participation,” said Smalley, adding that his family plans to help with fundraising and other efforts to repair the house.

Lorraine Partlow Smalley and Sandy Vasko discuss research at the Casseday home during a visit to the Will County Historical Museum and Research Center in July.

Smalley represents the past of the house and Vasko represents the present. The future of the household depends on Luther Johnson.

Johnson initially plans to have exhibits on military history and important African Americans in the Joliet region. He is currently deciding on a name for the museum, but the working title is the Descendants of African American History Museum, which focuses on the many generations of African descent and their stories.

His ultimate goal is to revitalize Joliet’s east coast, and he believes the museum can lead that effort. He envisions the museum becoming a destination that attracts people from all over and therefore attracts more businesses to the area.

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Johnson’s wife, Treasa Johnson, also suggested a community garden along with the museum, reinforcing the idea that it could be a hub for community projects and resources as well as a cultural center for the community.

However, first of all, the legal side of the property transfer needs to be completed.

“I’m ready to get in there and start working. “This is even more aggravating because I can’t schedule contractors or ask for funds until I own the property,” Johnson said.

Vasko and Smalley are his allies.

“It’s good for Joliet, it’s good for society. I hope others with ties to the Casseday/Partlow family come forward and support this plan,” said Smalley.

“It’s like a window into the past,” Vasko said. I don’t care how many movies you watch with computer generated images, this is not the same as seeing the truth. This house is not only a part of history, it will now also host history.”

Carol Flynn is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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