The Header image

History of the Homestead Festival

The annual Homestead Festival honors Reverend Owen Lovejoy and his contributions to our nation’s history. Lovejoy was prominent in the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad, a founder of the Illinois and national Republican Party, and a congressional leader.

Today his home is open to the public as a museum. The United States Secretary of the Interior declared the property a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and it is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

The following is a biography of Owen Lovejoy, and a brief history of his home and the Homestead Festival.

Reverend Owen Lovejoy
Reverend Owen Lovejoy

Owen Lovejoy was born in Albion, Maine in 1811. The details of his early life are sketchy, but it is known that he attended college for a few years and taught school for a short time before moving to Illinois. In 1836, Owen arrived in Alton, Illinois to be with his older brother, Elijah, and study for the ministry. Elijah was the editor of an anti-slavery newspaper and was eventually murdered by an angry mob of pro-slavery citizens. After his death, Owen devoted the rest of his life to the abolitionist cause.

He came to Princeton, a village of about 200 people, in 1838 to assume the ministry of the Hampshire Colony Congregational Church for the salary of $600 a year. He held that position for seventeen years, preaching his views against slavery. Lovejoy boarded and roomed with the Butler Denham family for three years. After the death of Mr. Denham, Lovejoy married his widow and continued to help operate the farm. (The Denhams owned nearly 1,200 acres, but only 240 acres were listed as “improved” in the 1850 Census.) They raised her three daughters in addition to six children of their own. The home became an important station on the Underground Railroad. The Denhams were abolitionists, and it is believed that they sheltered runaway slaves before Owen Lovejoy’s arrival in Princeton.

Lovejoy’s reputation as an abolitionist spread, and he eventually felt the need of political power to fulfill his life purpose. In 1854 he was elected to the Illinois legislature. Two years later he won the nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives by one vote, and was elected to four consecutive terms. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Lovejoy was appointed a Colonel of the infantry. He took a leave of absence from Congress to serve in the war.

Lovejoy was an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, and Lovejoy was one of the special guests invited to witness the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lovejoy died in 1864 of Bright’s disease (a liver and kidney disorder) at the age of 53. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Princeton. His widow lived to be 89 and continued to live in the house for a number of years after her husband’s death.

Lovejoy Homestead Restoration
Lovejoy Homestead Restoration

The Homestead remained in the Lovejoy family until 1931. The property was then purchased by Jay Spaulding and his daughter, Sue Gross. Mrs. Gross renovated the house and decorated it with furnishings reminiscent of the Lovejoy era. She ran it as a private museum for several years before selling the property in 1951 to Leonard and Chara Routt. They kept it until November 1953 when they sold it to O.B. and Grace Johnson. The Johnsons in turn sold it to Ed Finn and Jim English in 1955.

Finn and English built a Dog ‘n Suds fast food restaurant on the grounds in 1956 in the hope of attracting more visitors, but the business venture was unsuccessful. They finally sold the property to Robert Fritz in 1966. By that time the building was in very poor condition. Birds nested inside; there was a hole in the floor where the furnace was taken out; and windows were broken by vandals.

In 1967, Fritz contacted Mayor R.H. Eckdahl to see if the city was interested in purchasing the Lovejoy site. If not, Fritz told the Mayor he planned to bulldoze the house and construct apartment buildings.

Concerned citizens, including Doris Leonard, Mayor Eckdahl, and State Representative Tobias Barry, convinced the State of Illinois to purchase the Homestead. In April of 1967, the Department of Conservation bought the building and the 1.2 acre lot from Robert Fritz for $21,500.

Although the state now owned the property, nothing was done to preserve it, reestablish the museum operation, or otherwise save the Homestead from further decay. Once again, local citizens joined together and obtained $30,000 to restore the home. They received the money on the stipulation that the City of Princeton would take charge of the project and assume ownership once the restoration was complete. It was also to be maintained as a public museum.

A restoration committee was formed whose members were: Karl LaPinska, Chairman, of Dr. K.M. Nelson, vice chairman; Cliff Leonard, secretary; Ned Huffstodt, treasurer; Ted Duffield, Ed Finn, Marjorie Johnson, John B. Johnson, Llewellyn Newcomer, Roger Steele, Earl Sutliff, Maude Trimble, Robert Zearing, Delma Shipp, Doris Leonard, and Mayor Eckdahl, as ex-officio member.

Jack Roggy was hired as the contractor for the restoration of the home. A new foundation for the house was laid; the porch was rebuilt; steel beams were installed for more support (bark can still be seen on the original log beams); new redwood siding was painted and shake shingles covered the once sagging and deteriorated roof.

Interior work included repairing plaster, woodwork, and floors. The original wood flooring and baseboard were repainted. In the kitchen, a cutaway section was left to show the original lathe and plaster. Electricity provided both heat and light.

The Leonards kept a constant eye on the renovation. Along with Ned and Doris Huffstodt, Marguerite Dant, and Mrs.George McKewen, they spent countless hours on the interior work. To help complete the decorating, local organizations were encouraged to furnish a room as a community project.

Homestead Festival
Homestead Festival

In 1971, through the efforts of Doris Leonard, the Illinois State Historical Society held its annual Spring Tour in Princeton on May 14th and 15th . The Bureau County Historical Society hosted the event.

As a part of the weekend activities, a Reader’s Play was presented at the Lovejoy site to inform the state society members of the background of the home and its significance in history. The play was written by Delma Shipp and the cast included Scott Madson, narrator; Karl and Jeannette LaPinska as the Lovejoys; and John Revell as Abraham Lincoln. While still in a state of disrepair and unsuitable for an actual tour, the visitors were able to see the possibilities of the home after its restoration.

By 1972 the restoration was complete, and Mayor Eckdahl appointed the Lovejoy Homestead Board of Trustees to administer funds and oversee the running of the home. They were Cliff Leonard, Karl La Pinska, Dr. K.M. Nelson, and Robert Zearing. Mayor Eckdahl was ex-officio member.

A dedication ceremony was considered, and also the possibility of a festival and parade.

Princeton Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Milligan was approached with the idea. With the Chamber’s approval, Mary Milligan was named general chairman for the event, which was to be combined with the annual Bureau County Pork Producer’s pork barbecue.

Pork Days was scheduled for Saturday, September 16, 1972, and the dedication planned for Sunday. Other events were gradually added, including Friday night activities.

An ice cream social, square dancing, and ballroom dancing were set for Friday night, September 15. The parade, local arts show, musical entertainment, and an antique auto display were scheduled for Saturday, when the pork barbecue was held.

The first presentation of “Like the Handle of a Jug,” written by Princeton resident Palmer Martin and starring stage, screen, and television actor, Lyle Talbot, was held Saturday evening. A second performance was held on Sunday afternoon.

The play encompassed 15 years in the life of Owen Lovejoy and focused on highlights in his career as a minister in Princeton; his work with the Underground Railroad; and years in the U.S. Congress.

Sharing the stage with Talbot were the following local cast members: Russell Park, Melissa Martin, Delma Shipp, Karl LaPinska, Jerry Jacobsen, Peter Harty, Charles Knudsen, Jim Wenneker, Paulette Brokenbourgh, Jill Skiem, James Lowers, Hugo Gartner, Thomas Crane, and the Rev. Richard Peterson. Martin directed.

On Sunday, craft demonstrations were featured, and the Antioch Mountain Boys Muzzle Loader Shooters gave a demonstration. The highlight, of course, was the dedication of the Lovejoy Homestead.

Local attorney Donald C. Martin was master of ceremonies; Lt. Governor Paul Simon was the principal speaker. Other participants were Mrs. Keith Soderberg, soloist; the Rev. Warren Mueller; Doris Leonard; and State Representative Barry, who presented the deed and keys to the home to Mayor Eckdahl.

Other state dignitaries present for the dedication ceremony included: State Representatives James Nowlan and Kenneth Miller; U.S. Representative Robert Michel; Ted Kavadas, executive assistant to the director of the Department of Conservation; Ronald D. Johnson, superintendent of parks and memorials, Department of Conservation; Dan Malkovich, director of Historic Sites survey; and Michael Lerner, vice president of the State Historical Society. Also, introduced were Ned Huffstodt, chairman of the Restoration committee, and his committee, Mr. and Mrs. George McKewen.

The Illinois State Historial Society declared the homestead an official historic site and presented the community with a marker, bearing the official seal of the society and telling the story of Owen Lovejoy.

Following the dedication ceremony, those attending were invited to tour the home and the red brick school house which had been moved to the Lovejoy site from a location two miles east. The Lovejoy Homestead was officially open for tours as a public museum.

Past Grand Marshalls

1983 Kathryn Hayes (actress - As The World Turns)
1984 Mary Win Walter
1985 Dr. and Mrs. George Rathbun
1986 Charles Schultz
1987 Neil Kastor (Chicago Bears - Brian Baschnagel & Jim King were honoraries)
1988 Hugh Skinner
1989 Mary Milligan (organizer of the first Homestead Festival 1972)
1990 Harold and Marge Steele
1991 Mayor Richard Welte
1992 Roger and Joann Swan
1993 Howard and Pauline Trimble
1994 Norm and Marge Faber
1995 Dr. Nelson and Dr. Kowalski
1996 Ralph and Pat Rod
1997 Bob and Kay Telfer
1998 Don and Nedda Simon
1999 Don and Diane Evans
2000 Roger and Linda Gustafson
2001 Al Chase
2002 Mr. & Mrs. Philbrook
2003 Bill Nelson
2004 Glenn Browning
2005 Daryl Becker
2006 Robert Lautzenheimer
2007 Gary Bruce
2008 Mayor Keith Cain and Julia
2009 Dick Nelson
2010 Gary & Bea Coates
2011 Steve Samet
2012 Lou Brown
2013 Penny Best
2014 Julie McCutchan
2015 Jan Milles
2016 Gary Swanson
2017 Dr. Martin Faber
2018 Jim Smith
2019 Ted Johnson
2020 Steve Bouslog
2021 Steve Bouslog due to Covid 2020
2022 Tom Tester