The post office in Kinderhook is one of the more unique ones you will encounter. The simple building and nearby walls are decorated with jugs, marbles, model T caps, and other salvaged material that is mortared into the structures, much of it contributed by local physician, Dr. P.H. Dechow.
The Kinderhook Historical Society maintains a small museum in a building across the street from the post office. If you wish to visit, call the Pike County Chamber of Commerce for the most current contacts (217.285.2971).
If you’ve got an extra hour or so to spare, take a sidetrip to the site of the former settlement of New Philadelphia, founded by Free Frank McWorter. In 2009 the New Philadelphia site was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Frank was born enslaved in South Carolina in 1777. His mother, Juda, a native of West Africa, was kidnapped and enslaved in America; Frank’s father was probably her master, George McWhorter. McWhorter moved from South Carolina to Kentucky in 1795, which is where Frank met Lucy. They married in 1799 and had four children while they were enslaved.
Living on the sparsely populated frontier, Frank had access to have several opportunities to earn money, chances that were inaccessible to most enslaved people. McWhorter let him hire out his services, in exchange for a big cut of his wages, but that still left Frank with extra money he could pocket for himself. In his off hours, mostly at night, Frank also mined crude niter, which was abundant in the area, and processed it into saltpeter, a key component of gun powder. When the War of 1812 broke out, saltpeter was in high demand, so Frank earned quite a lot of money, but his mining and processing operation remained profitable even after the war ended. In 1817, he used his savings to purchase freedom for Lucy for $800. Two years later, he bought his own freedom for $800 and the two began new lives as free individuals in their home in Pulaski County, Kentucky. In the 1820 US Census, he gave his name to the census taker as “Free Frank.”
After he was free, Frank expanded his mining operations to nearby Danville and also bought some land, but life for free blacks in Kentucky became increasingly difficult in the 1820s. In 1829 he sold his saltpeter operation for $1,000 (well below market value) to buy freedom for his oldest son, Frank Jr., who had escaped to Canada. In the spring of 1831, the family (Frank and Lucy had three living children born after she was freed) moved to Illinois to live on 160 acres that Frank bought from Dr. Galen Elliott.
While Illinois was a free state, it was still a pretty hostile place for free blacks, who had to post a $1,000 bond to settle in the state. Frank and family made the transition as well as they did largely because they were able to buy land before they moved to Illinois. Once in Pike County, the family grew oats, barley, potatoes, flax, and tended several types of livestock.
In the latter part of the 1830s, Frank took steps to solidify his legal claims for himself and his family. In 1836, he petitioned the Illinois General Assembly to approve an official name change; the legislation was guided through the assembly by State Senator William Ross, one of the founders of Atlas. With its approval, Free Frank became Frank McWorter. Three years later, Frank and Lucy were legally married under Illinois law, some 40 years after they initially exchanged their vows while enslaved.
Around the same time, Frank bought another 80 acres adjacent to their land where he platted the village of New Philadelphia in 1836. The village was composed of 144 lots, each 60 feet by 120 feet, organized around Main Street and Broad Street.
From the beginning, New Philadelphia was a racially mixed community. In 1850, the village counted 58 residents, 38% of whom were African American; at that time, less than 1% of the Illinois’ population was African American. The village had a single, integrated school and was an active link on the Underground Railroad. Many people in the immediate area relied on the village for its services (grocery store, blacksmith).
New Philadelphia historic site
Frank used the proceeds from land sales and from his farm income to buy freedom for more family members, returning to Kentucky multiple times to free his remaining children, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. After Frank died in 1854, the family continued his work. Ultimately, Frank’s efforts freed 16 family members from slavery, costing some $14,000 (over $300,000 in 2015 dollars). Lucy died in 1870; she was just shy of 100 years old.
Frank’s village, New Philadelphia, peaked in the mid-1860s; in 1865 it counted 160 residents, 30% of whom were African American. When the first railroad came through the area, it bypassed New Philadelphia, however, which triggered an exodus of businesses and residents. By 1880, the village had just 87 residents and was officially dissolved in 1885; a few people continued to live on their lots into the 1920s, though.
If you want to visit the town site, it is about 10 miles east of Kinderhook. Take Illinois Highway 106 for 8 miles east to County Road 2 and drive another 2 ½ miles to 306th Lane. The historic site has information panels under a shelter at what would have been Broad and North Streets in New Philadelphia. There’s also a walking path with interpretive markers. If you have an Apple device, you can also download the New Philadelphia app to guide you through the site.