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The Mother Rudd House: If these walls could talk

GURNEE – The floorboards creak underfoot on the second floor of Warren Township’s historic Mother Rudd House – and so they should.

In the course of their 175-year existence, hundreds – if not thousands – of pairs of feet have walked, run or danced across them. Each creak they emit is a testament to the history they’ve witnessed and the tales contained within the four walls of the modest two-story home. 

Wealthy Buell Rudd opened the O’Plain House in 1843 as a stagecoach stop and temperance tavern, becoming Lake County’s first woman innkeeper and a staunch supporter of the Temperance Movement – a precursor to Prohibition – condemning first the consumption of hard liquor before expanding to decry alcohol in general.

Diana Dretske is the historian for Lake County and curator for the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County and said Mother Rudd’s story first appealed to her “because it is a woman’s story.”

“She must have been a strong person, first of all to make a stand in the community to have a temperance tavern because the other taverns in the area had liquor,” Dretske said. “She probably brought that mentality of temperance with her from the East Coast, where it originated, and as they moved west, she just felt very strongly about that; it really was a women and children’s issue.”

Dretske added that women at the time were at the forefront of several social issues – despite their low status in society itself – including temperance, emancipation and, eventually, suffrage for themselves. 

“Considering where women were in the status of society, you’re really the backseat and the women that came forward on those movements – that took a lot to make those stands like that,” she said.

Strategically located at the intersection of Old Grand Avenue and Milwaukee Road, the Mother Rudd House, as it became known, stood at the crossroads of eastern civilization and the great western frontier – an ideal place for weary travelers to stop and rest for the night, or several nights – before continuing on their journeys. 

Local oral history also asserts that the tavern served as a stop along the Underground Railroad, providing shelter for escaped slaves heading north toward freedom. While there are no written records confirming that – not unusual, Dretske said, as the Fugitive Slave laws of 1793 and 1850 prohibited anyone from providing any sort of aid to runaway slaves – there is compelling evidence suggesting that local legend is true.

“[The Rudd family] was definitely Union supporters, so they had that going for them,” she said. “When I looked through old newspaper records, I found little blips and blurbs about them: During the Civil War, [Mother Rudd] would have fundraisers there for the Aid Society for soldiers. Not everyone in the North was pro-Union – it wasn’t that cut and dry – but they definitely were, so that’s kind of in their favor.”

Plaques distributed throughout the surviving stone foundation of the Rudd barn, located behind the house, provide commentary on the Civil War, the Underground Railroad and local lore surrounding the role Mother Rudd allegedly played in it despite the significant risk she took to do so: The revised Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 introduced much harsher repercussions for anyone found guilty of aiding and abetting escaped slaves than the fugitive slave laws of 1793, including a fine of up to $1,000 – equivalent to more than $30,000 today – and up to six months imprisonment.

“Notable people did notable things,” Warren Township Historical Society Vice President Joe Lodesky said as he stood in what would be considered the parlor of the Rudd House. “And Mother Rudd was definitely notable.”

Today, the Mother Rudd House stands as a museum with a collection of about 27,000 artifacts pertaining specifically to the history of Gurnee and Warren Township, historical society president Ron Wendt said. 

Gurnee bought the house in 1984, later restoring it in 1991 before it opened as a museum run by the historical society.

“As the Warren Township Historical Society, we’re the keepers of history – literally,” Wendt said. “History didn’t stop at 1850, 1890, 1920. It didn’t stop today; history keeps moving, so we look for the history of the area and we retain that history in some form.”

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