Lorraine Partlow Smalley and Luther Johnson meet at the George Washington Casseday House in July. Smalley is a descendant of the home’s original owner while Johnson is taking over ownership of the structure with the intent to turn it into a museum. (Carol Flynn/Daily Southtown)
The National Trust for Historic Preservation and similar groups believe historic buildings and sites are important to save because they help to tell the full American story and are reminders of our shared heritage. Once a historic site is gone, it is gone forever.
Fortunately for the George Washington Casseday House in Joliet, people with the vision to recognize the historic value of the house and how it can be repurposed for the benefit of the community are coming together to preserve it.
In 2020, the Casseday House, built in 1851 and now the oldest house in Joliet, seemed headed for the wrecking ball after Thorntons made a bid to buy the land the house occupied to build a gas station and convenience store there.
A drawing of the George Washington Casseday House appears on a 1862 plat map at the Will County Historical Museum and Research Center, helping validate the identity and age of the house. (Carol Flynn/Daily Southtown)
In stepped the Will County Historical Museum and Research Center in Lockport, which took over ownership of the building. The city donated land a few blocks away where the house could be relocated. Thorntons spent close to a half-million dollars to move the house, built of extremely heavy Joliet limestone.
“It was looking very bad for this house, but then all the pieces started falling in place. That house was meant to be saved,” said Sandy Vasko, director of the Will County Historical Museum and Research Center.
“What Thorntons did was unbelievable, and the city of Joliet was kind enough to give us a parcel of land. Watching the house be moved was tremendous,” Vasko said.
During the pandemic, Vasko and her colleagues decided to use the historic structure to highlight an underrepresented facet of Will County’s past, and plans began for an African American history museum in Will County.
Vasko found the perfect match for the Casseday House in History on Wheels, a mobile not-for-profit museum founded by Luther Johnson.
Johnson, a Joliet resident, has been passionate about researching and collecting materials relating to the history of African Americans in U.S. military service and for the last 15 years he’s delved into re-enactments, recreating roles from major military campaigns including the Civil War and World War I.
He started History on Wheels in 2019, operating out of a van that travels to schools and museums to give programs.
“African Americans have been in every major military campaign in this country,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make sure that the contributions they made for the causes of freedom are recognized. We started HOW to get the message out.”
The Center offered the Casseday House to give Johnson’s effort a chance to establish a more permanent museum. He initially was unsure if he wanted to take on a project that big, but that changed once he visited it.
“I could see this would be a great place to have a museum on African Americans in the great wars. This building was built pre-Civil War; when you touch the bricks, you’re touching history,” Johnson said. “It would be a lot of work, but it would be well worth it. I told Sandy, we’ll take it, I can do this.”
According to Vasko, “Once Luther realized what all this meant, he was on fire. He has such energy. I know this is going to be a success. I know this is the right decision.”
The process is underway to transfer ownership of the house to Johnson’s organization.
In the meantime, the descendants of George Washington Casseday also came forward to support saving the house.
Lorraine Partlow Smalley, Casseday’s great-great-great-granddaughter, learned about the house last fall while doing genealogical research on her family.
Smalley, a retired association manager who lives in Downers Grove, found that in 1836, Casseday became one of the first land speculators in Joliet. He moved there in 1851 and built his house out of limestone likely quarried on his property. In 1858 he sold a piece of his land to become the site of the historic Joliet Correctional Center.
Casseday died in 1863 at the age of 59 and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Joliet. His wife, Delilah, lived from 1805 to 1893. Their daughter Maria married John Milton Partlow in 1844, beginning the Partlow line of descendants.
Smalley visited the Will County Historical Museum to do research and was delighted to find a drawing of the original house on an 1862 plat map. She has made three visits to the Casseday House, most recently last month to meet Johnson and get a brief tour inside the house, which was divided into apartments many years ago.
“It brings history to life knowing that our family once lived and worked in that home. It’s very special to have something tangible going back that far,” she said.
“We are grateful to Sandy and Luther for their efforts to save the house. I don’t like to think about what would have happened without their involvement,” said Smalley, adding her family plans to help with fundraising and other efforts to restore the house.
Smalley represents the past of the house, and Vasko the present. The future of the house rests with Luther Johnson.
Johnson plans initially to have exhibits on military history and notable African Americans from the Joliet area. He is still deciding on a name for the museum, but a working title is the Descendants of African Americans History Museum, focusing on the many generations of people of African descent and their stories.
His ultimate goal is to revitalize the east side of Joliet, and he believes the museum can spearhead that effort. He envisions the museum becoming a destination attracting people from all over and in turn, more businesses to the area.