Plans for historic site in Shiloh close to fruition

News-DemocratMay 13, 2013 

A historic site in Shiloh once known as a "refuge of righteousness" for those fleeing political oppression may soon receive $225,000 in upgrades as St. Clair County officials prepare to make the Shiloh site into a park.

Plans are under way to turn Engelmann Farm, a 143-acre homestead along Shiloh Station Road, into a public park featuring a walking trail and will also have picnic pavilions and parking lot. The St. Clair County Board recently approved a $32,500 contract with Rhutasel and Associates in Freeburg for the company to design the park.

Efforts to preserve the property began several years ago when conservationists, including historian Bob Brunkow of Belleville, stopped the farm from being turned into a residential subdivision. Brunkow said the farm was settled in the 1830s by highly educated professionals escaping political oppression in Germany.

Brunkow said the site was called the "refuge of righteousness on the Mississippi River" during that time as political exiles from Germany resupplied and rested there while on their way to settle the American frontier.

"The farm goes just to the beginning of the German migration of this area," Brunkow said. "You really get a sense from walking through there of that German heritage."

Heartlands Conservancy purchased the farm in 2007 and has sold the property to St. Clair County, which has worked to maintain the site. A majority of the funding for the $4.6 million project stems from federal grants and donations from the Metro-east Parks and Recreational District.

County Board member June Chartrand, D-Dupo, is the chair of the committee that oversees the county's plans for the historical site. Chartrand said she was happy to see the plans coming close to fruition and the improvements will need to be completed by November to adhere to the requirements of federal grants partially funding the project.

Fellow County Board member David Tiedemann, R-Shiloh, said concept plans have been in the works for years to turn the site into a "passive" park.

"This will be a great open space," Tiedemann said. "This won't be a soccer field but more like the Silver Creek Reserves with walking trails."

The open space is needed to provide a noise break, fresh air and dilute population density near the site, which has seen a lot of development, Tiedemann said.

The county's portion of the funding for the park came from sales tax revenue, not from property taxes, according to Tiedemann.

"We're hoping to have a grand opening this time next year," Tiedemann said, noting the historic site's creation was made possible by marrying several different agencies for the project. "If we get the construction and seeding done this fall in a timely fashion, then the (grass and other landscaping) will have a chance to grow and the park should be open and used this time next year."

The farm has been called home by some of the most significant historical figures of Illinois from the 19th century, including Gustave Koerner, Georg Engelmann and Theodor Engelmann. All three lived at the farm in the 1830s when first settled by Friedrich Engelmann in 1833.

Koerner was a steadfast supporter of Abraham Lincoln during the presidential campaign of 1860 and later became an Illinois Supreme Court judge and lieutenant governor of the state.

Georg Engelmann, a botanist, helped develop the Missouri Botanical Garden and Theodor Engelmann published the first German newspaper in Illinois.

"You kind of wonder what Germany would have become if they had stayed around and flourished, but we got them instead," Brunkow said. "They originally planned to settle in Missouri, but they stopped in Kentucky and saw the evils of slavery and decided they could not live in a slave state. So when they arrived in St. Louis they contacted earlier scouts who convinced them to live in what is now Shiloh Valley Township."

The property features two historic homes, a family cemetery and 80 acres of undisturbed forest land. One of the homes was built in the late 1850s using the traditional wooden framing between brick walls. The other home was built around the 1890s.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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