BYRON – At the busy intersection of Blackhawk Drive and Union Street of this little river town stands a historic two-story brick structure built in the mid-1800s.
Once the home of early settlers – the Lucius Read family – the building is now part of the Byron Museum of History, which houses a history of the building and the prominent Read family.
The Read House is the oldest structure still standing in Byron, but its biggest “claim to fame,” says museum Executive Director Marian Michaelis, is its role in the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses used by 19th century runaway slaves to escape to the “free” north.
“There are no ‘records’ of Lucius Read helping runaway slaves,” Michaelis said, “but through family members’ and decedents’ accounts and using documents found in Byron and elsewhere, it was determined that the Read House was used as a safe house.”
Exhibits at the museum, which has been open since 1993, explain that abolitionists – who risked arrest and heavy fines to help people escape to freedom – used code words based on the actual railroad industry. Thus the Read House was a “station,” and Mr. Read was a “conductor” of slaves, who were referred to as “passengers,” “travelers” or “shipments.”
It is thought that the Reads worked as “conductors” from about 1848 up to the Civil War, hiding people in the home’s basement and attic.
“There were two other buildings in Byron used as safe houses,” Michaelis added, “but they have since been destroyed.”
In 2002, the Museum was recognized as a site within the National Network to Freedom, a program of the National Park Service to link and preserve Underground Railroad sites and facilitate education about the historic movement.
Michaelis, Dan Wykes, a full-time educator, and volunteers host several school groups each year that, oftentimes, use the museum’s resources for a unit on slavery and the Underground Railroad.
“The museum is a jewel of history for the area,” Wykes said.
While the Underground Railroad connection is a key component of the museum, the two-building complex also houses several other interesting permanent and temporary exhibits.
One area features a history of A.G. Spalding, who was a sporting goods magnate and Byron native, with displays of baseball artifacts. A small, though popular exhibit with school children, titled “Into the Outhouse,” features interesting items dug up from former outhouses in town, which were used as garbage dumps.
“The kids like the ‘gross’ factor and learn a lot about what turn-of-the century residents thought was garbage, like medicine bottles, porcelain dolls and china,” Michaelis said.
The museum recently was awarded a $43,000 grant to install a new permanent exhibit on the area’s agricultural history, building on the extensive collection of farm machinery and artifacts donated by Art Bridgeland’s family. Bridgeland, who passed away in 2012, was a Winnebago dairy farmer and former member of the museum board.
“We’re excited to get started and see the new exhibit installed by the end of the year,” Michaelis said.
The museum also hosts events, like the popular annual Quilt Show during the Byron Fest in mid-July, and has focused on outreach and education over the past year in an effort to reach more people.
“We’ve seen an uptick in visitors recently," Michaelis said, “and encourage everyone to come and enjoy the area’s rich history.”