Byline: Robert Sanchez Daily Herald Staff Writer
In the 1970s, Alyce Mertz would sit outside the Lombard house her grandfather Sheldon Peck built and tell local schoolchildren it used to be a stop on the underground railroad.
She would recall stories her father, Frank Peck, told her about seeing escaped slaves at the house and hearing their songs. No one questioned the validity of Mertz's stories.
Instead, Lombard residents embraced the idea that Sheldon Peck, a famous portrait painter and farmer, was an abolitionist.
Despite decades of public acceptance that the Peck House was part of the network that aided escaping slaves, there has never been any evidence supporting the belief - until now.
Research being done by two Lombard historians shows Sheldon Peck and his family were involved with the abolition movement, the Liberty Party and the temperance movement.
The evidence could lead to Peck's home being nationally recognized as an underground railroad station. The house, located at the corner of Grace and Parkside streets, is already Lombard's oldest.
"I think if Alyce (Mertz) is up there somewhere, she would be so thrilled about what's going on with the house and the research," said Lombard resident Margot Fruehe, who uncovered the evidence with Joel Van Haaften, director of the Lombard Historical Museum. "She's probably thinking, 'Well, I told you so.'" Fruehe said.
While Lombard residents believed Alyce Mertz's account of her grandfather, the federal government needs more proof before declaring something a former underground railroad site.
So when the Peck-Mertz family donated the house to the village about five years ago, Lombard Historical Society members knew extra research would be needed to prove or disprove Alyce Mertz's claims.
That effort started last year when Fruehe, a friend of the Mertz family, and Van Haaften began reading microfilm copies of the Western Citizen, a weekly abolitionist newspaper that used to be published in Chicago.
"We wanted to take the oral histories and support them with primary documents that were written during Sheldon Peck's time period," Van Haaften said.
The pair ended up spending countless hours reading hundreds of Western Citizen newspapers published between the 1840s to 1860s and gradually piecing together the needed facts.
The clippings show that Sheldon Peck was listed as a member of an abolitionist political party, called the Liberty Party. …