Stace England tackles Old Slave House
By Brian DeNeal, Staff Writer
Stace England performed on stage with his
band The Salt Kings in Carbondale Sept. 22
for the local release of "Salt Sex Slaves."
Brian DeNeal photo
EQUALITY - The Sisk family told the story of the Old
Slave House near Equality for decades before George Sisk
closed the house in 1996 and sold it to the state in
The stories of the house and its history have been told
since in newspaper and magazine articles, web Blogs,
books and speeches and now Stace England of Cobden is
telling some of the story in music.
England performed some of the songs at Hangar 9 in
Carbondale Sept. 22 and sold some of the first copies of
his CD, though its official release is Nov. 13.
He believes the 13 songs on "Salt Sex Slaves" will draw
a new group of people to examine the dark history of the
house and, hopefully, learn something from it.
The images throughout the CD booklet are bordered with
the tangled silhouettes of tree limbs.
"It's a briary kind of story," England said.
Locals are familiar with the story of the Old Slave
House that John Hart Crenshaw had built when he owned
the Wabash Salines salt works operation. Though Illinois
was a free state, slave labor was legal to work the
Wabash Salines because salt was such a vital part of the
The third floor of the Old Slave House has a series of
cells built into it. The Crenshaw story has it the third
floor was a prison of free blacks who had been kidnapped
and were sold back into slavery, a sort of supplementary
income for Crenshaw. The house is a National Park
Service National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom
site in recognition of its role in a "reverse
The history of a salt works operator who also
kidnapped slaves may seem an unlikely subject for a rock
album, but England could not imagine another musical
style to use in telling the story.
"I just let the music go where it wants to go. It feels
like a Southern Illinois nod, to me, to 'Brown Sugar,'"
Liner notes tell of the fervor of Emancipation Baptists
who opposed the leasing of slaves to operate the salt
works and who were regarded as trouble makers. England
imagined the impassioned preaching in the churches
decrying legalized slavery.
"I don't know if you can pull off the intensity of that
in a folk tradition," England said.
"Muscle and Bone" is a slower country/rock song telling
England's story of how a slave caught Crenshaw unawares
and chopped off his leg with an axe. There is scant
evidence on how Crenshaw actually lost his leg, though
legend has it black men plotted the act as retaliation
for a kidnapping. In England's fictionalized account the
slave's final thought as he swings from a rope is that
when he sees Crenshaw in hell he will cut off his other
"Crenshaw did a lot of bad stuff, but he never did get
his come-uppance. The only thing that probably affected
him in his life was the incident with the axe," England
In the CD booklet is a portrait of Crenshaw and his wife
Sina. Crenshaw holds his crutches and his wife holds the
stump of Crenshaw's leg in her lap.
The Slave House story is rich in material for ballads.
There is the story of Uncle Bob, the stud slave, who
claimed to have fathered 300 children. The haunting by
spirits of the third floor is also an important part of
the Slave House mythology. "Shawneetown" tells the
fictional story of two slaves falling in love.
"There are so many stories the challenge almost became
weeding away to get at the nuggets," England said.
"Kidnapping Venus" is about one of several stories of
slave kidnapping associated with Crenshaw's operation,
telling the story of Venus Davenport. One stinging lyric
indicates a justification of the kidnappers for the act:
"She'll be atop the block on market day/The U.S.
Constitution says/ She's just three-fifths of a person,
"On Kidnapping Venus it basically refers to the
three-fifths compromise of 1787 where each slave was
given the value for census purposes of three-fifths.
This was to hold down the southern census and avoid
complete taxation, according to most accounts I've read.
I felt it was a further humiliation to blacks," England
In researching the house, talking with Old Slave House
historian Jon Musgrave, author of "Slaves, Sex, Salt and
Mr. Crenshaw," talking with former owner and current
caretaker George Sisk and in visiting the house himself,
England said the lyrics came naturally.
"I found the lyrics came pretty easy. The subject matter
really had its hooks in me," he said.
After several talks with state officials, England
received permission to visit the house, which is not
open to the public. He said the place had not changed.
"It took a lot of lobbying," England said.
"I really needed to get back in. One of my goals was to
really absorb the place. I hadn't been there in years
and it was like it was frozen in amber."
He let the legends of the house sink into him and though
he does not believe in ghosts in the supernatural sense,
he said the ghosts of Uncle Bob and whippings and chains
live in the third floor as real as the beams of wood,
themselves. He sings of the haunted atmosphere of the
third floor in "As Real as Real Can Be": The walls
remember you'd best believe/ All them stories and bad
dreams/ Can't shake it as you go to bed/ Were them
noises real or just inside your head/ Brother, they were
as real as real can be.
In his recordings, England likes to invite guests to
perform. He plays live with his band "The Salt Kings"
with Ron Johnson, Dane Spalt and Charlie Tabing.
Guest musicians include Jason Ringenberg of Jason and
the Scorchers, Mark Stoffel and Wil Maring of Shady Mix,
Alex Kirt of the Woodbox Gang and other friends from the
The recording began September 2006 and ended July of
this year. He is looking into marketing the CD by
setting up concerts in Southern Illinois, hopes to play
in Saline or Gallatin counties, Chicago, Memphis and
"I plan to get back overseas," he said.
He and his band traveled to Holland in support of his
last CD "Greetings from Cairo, Illinois" and crowds
"We did really well there. The folks want to hear
intriguing content," he said.
He said Europeans are interested in hearing stories of
the founding of America, especially stories in the
border areas of the north and south.
"They want to know how America got its sea legs,"
Last week England was one of the subjects of a Welsh BBC
film crew shooting a documentary on Cairo.
England believes the Old Slave House story is a lesson
that our society has not fully learned. We may shudder
at the treatment of blacks during the salt mining days,
permitting slavery to exist in the Land of Lincoln, but
England thinks it is worth remembering that at that time
the practice was rationalized away as a necessity for
the salt production on which the region depended.
In the liner notes there is a form where listeners are
invited to insert their own era, country, region, skin
color, political party and commodity of choice.
"The point is, insert your own commodity. Look at the
British fighting wars for goods and at the different
eras. It happens to be oil at the moment. In Crenshaw's
time it was salt," England said.
"One hundred years from now people may look back on the
U.S. and ask why we allowed things to happen like wars
in the Persian Gulf shipping lanes. There is some really
bad stuff happening so we can fill up our gas tanks."
Currently, "Salt Sex Slaves" is available only through
England's website staceengland.com. He hopes to stock
copies at the Saline Creek Pioneer Village and Museum in
time for the Oct. 6 Barbecue and Bluegrass Festival.
-- DeNeal receives e-mail at