Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead
The Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead in Lombard. Vashon Jordan Jr. for WBEZ

What’s that building? Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead

The Peck family’s love of art and abolitionist beliefs came together at this home built in 1839 in Lombard.

The Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead in Lombard. Vashon Jordan Jr. for WBEZ
Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead
The Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead in Lombard. Vashon Jordan Jr. for WBEZ

What’s that building? Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead

The Peck family’s love of art and abolitionist beliefs came together at this home built in 1839 in Lombard.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

In a landscape of thoroughly conventional 20th-century houses in Lombard, one at the corner of Parkside and Grace stands out as much older. It’s also a repository of remarkable history.

The Sheldon and Harriet Peck homestead is long and white with a low front porch and a billowy flowering garden bounded by an old-time stacked-wood fence. A sign out front says it was built in 1839.

garden outside Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead
Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead. Vashon Jordan Jr. for WBEZ
What the sign doesn’t say is this was a place where people fleeing slavery would be given shelter on their journey. The Pecks were a family of artists and abolitionists, who offered their home in what was then called Babcock’s Grove as a stop on the Underground Railroad, the informal network of safe places for freedom seekers.
Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead
Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead. Vashon Jordan Jr. for WBEZ.

The Peck house, about 22 miles west of the Loop, is not the only confirmed Underground Railroad site in the Chicago area.

But at the Peck house, art and the abolition of slavery came together in a fascinating artifact: a painting of one of the Pecks’ daughters enjoying the music by a Black man.

The painting, called Old Charley, depicts Abigail Peck with her arm around Charley’s shoulder as he plays a stringed instrument. The piece was painted by Abigail’s sister, Susan in 1856.

painting of Abigail Peck listening to a Black man play music
Vashon Jordan Jr. for WBEZ

“They’re shown comfortably together in the same space, in the 1850s, a time when that was not accepted,” says Alison Costanzo, the executive director of the Lombard Historical Society, which owns the Peck homestead. “It tells me that the Pecks were all strong in their conviction that slavery was wrong.”

Costanzo said Charley is mentioned several times in Peck family journals. He was a freedom seeker who, rather than continue the flight, stayed in the Pecks’ home, attending school in the Peck home and learning to read alongside the family’s own children.

At the time, the Fugitive Slave Act was in effect, requiring that freedom seekers, even if they were in a free state like Illinois, be hauled back to their enslavers. Yet here are the Pecks not only defying the act, but living, painting and making music with a fugitive welcome among them.

“They knew they were breaking the law,” Costanzo said. “There was risk in that, but they didn’t believe in the law.”

Much of that original house still stands today, including wood ceiling beams and about two-thirds of the interior space, although it’s all supported by a new foundation. The western one-third of the house seen today is a reconstruction. The house stayed in the hands of the Peck family for 157 years, from its completion in 1839 until 1996, when the Lombard village board bought it and did a four-year restoration before opening it as a house museum in 2000. The National Parks Service certified the house as an Underground Railroad location in 2011.

wood ceiling beams
Vashon Jordan Jr. for WBEZ

A descendant of the Pecks still lives next door, but declined to comment.

The Pecks and their 11 children raised crops and Merino sheep. The sheep were part of the family’s effort to avoid using cotton derived from the labor of enslaved people in southern states, Costanzo said.

The home became not only a way station for freedom seekers but a school for local children and the site of temperance events. The Pecks were clearly a family of progressive thinkers for their day.

Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead
Inside the Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead. Vashon Jordan Jr. for WBEZ

One of the children who emerged from this environment was a son, Charles Peck, who in 1866 helped found the Chicago Academy of Design, the precursor of the Art Institute. Today, the Art Institute, Yale University and other museums own portraits painted by Charles’s father, Sheldon Peck, but it’s the painting by Charles’s sister, Susan, that may be the best icon of the family’s legacy, advancing freedom.

Costanzo said further research has turned up several Illinois men who might have been the Charley in the image. Other freedom seekers passing through stayed in the Pecks’ barn, which is no longer standing, according to a journal by Frank Peck, a son of Sheldon and Harriet.

The original Old Charley painting, which was handed down through the family for generations, is on loan to the museum and stands among other images, including a reproduction of a painting by Sheldon Peck of a family of well known abolitionists in Aurora. The father in that image is holding a copy of the Western Citizen, a Chicago-based newspaper for the antislavery and temperance movements that Sheldon Peck was involved with.

There are no records of precisely how the Pecks helped freedom seekers or how many they helped, other than Frank Peck’s mentions of people being sheltered in the barn. But Costanzo said it’s very likely Sheldon Peck’s work, traveling around Illinois to paint people’s portraits, might have made it easy for him to transport freedom seekers in his wagon, or to pass messages through the network.

Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead
A portrait inside the Sheldon & Harriet Peck Homestead. Vashon Jordan Jr. for WBEZ

Sheldon Peck had painted at least 24 portrait commissions by the time he and Harriet Peck came to Illinois from upstate New York in 1836. They first lived in Chicago, a town of 3,820 people, but a year later they moved west to 80 acres in Babcock’s Grove, later adding another 80. They lived in a one-room structure and a wagon until the house was completed in 1839.

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.

Vashon Jordan Jr. is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @vashon_photo.