Monday, July 31, 2017

Echoes in Our Own Backyards

John Rankin House, Ripley OH, Summer 2017
"The great eventful Present hides the Past; but through the din of its loud life, hints and echoes from the life behind steal in." --John Greenleaf Whittier

Ah, what a chance for the hints and echoes of the past to break through the walls of the present! We recently took a mini-road trip, hubby and I, to historical sites relatively close to our backyard. In all the years we've lived near them, this would be our first visit to each. We traveled just up the Ohio River from us and into eastern Ohio, branching off on seemingly back roads. Back roads to us now, but major points of activity over 175 years ago for the people back then. And what a group of people they were, as we were soon to find out.

John Rankin house
John Rankin House, Ripley, OH. The story of abolitionist John Rankin (1793-1886) and his family is amazing. I had already begun reading Ann Hagedorn's Beyond the River, the Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, and was fascinated with the in-depth account Hagedorn presented. I knew of the 'house on the hill,' and how a lighted candle would be lit night after night as a beacon for escaping slaves across the river in Kentucky. What I didn't truly comprehend, though, was the depth of compassion John Rankin--and others in this small town of Ripley--had for these shackled, oppressed people until I actually stepped into that house on the hill.
view of Ohio River from hilltop
These weren't just people you read about. These were real people whose stories stir our hearts, risking their lives to free others. Their children were also involved, often escorting fleeing slaves to the next 'station.' There were the beds they slept in, the kitchen fireplace where they cooked their food.  In a Cincinnati Enquirer interview (March 16, 2003), just after her book came out, Hagedorn was quoted as saying, "I was drawn to the people in the book because as a reporter I had covered crime for years...But after years on the crime, grime and slime beat, I really wanted to write about people with good values, people who did something bigger than themselves. People here were on the front line of the war against slavery simply because they wanted to do the right thing." It is estimated that over 2000 slaves passed through Rankin's care to freedom between 1829-1865. I echo Hagedorn's words, again from the interview: "And I learned things. I learned that the Underground Railroad was really about choices--the choice of slaves to escape, the choice of a free black (see J. P. Parker, below) to risk helping them and losing his or her freedom, the choice of white people to believe in racial equality enough to risk life and livelihood to help. There's a lot to be learned from people who made those incredible choices." Walk the original wood floors where these people walked, climb steps to upstairs rooms where Rankin's 13 children slept, look out over the wide river where desperate people risked everything to cross, and you'll feel the same way.

John P. Parker House
John P. Parker House, Ripley, OH. The Underground Railroad network in Ripley included a man born into slavery, John P. Parker (1827-1900). His story includes being sold at the age of eight and made to walk ragged and barefoot from his original home in Virginia to Mobile, AL, chained to other slaves. In Mobile he was sold to a doctor where the doctor's sons taught him (illegally) to read. Eventually he purchased his freedom and moved to Cincinnati. By 1849 he settled in Ripley. His story is also fascinating. He owned a foundry, working there during the day and helping fugitive slaves escape at night. During the Civil War, he was a recruiter for the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Colored) Regiment. He was a successful entrepreneur and inventor with at least three patents to his credit for agricultural inventions. Though we didn't get to tour this home (it was closed the day we were there), it stands as a testament to courage, determination, and vision. Parker's book, His Promised Land, the Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Salve and Conductor on the Underground Railroad now sits on the top of my reading pile, close to Hagedorn's.

U.S. Grant Boyhood home
Boyhood Home of Ulysses. S. Grant. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), 18th president of the United States, was born in Point Pleasant, OH and grew up in Georgetown, OH, just up the road from his birthplace. I've read some about President Grant, even did a post about him a couple of years ago (see  Moving Rocks, and Historical Figures) where I shared about a humongous rock that Grant, when 15 years old, moved into town from the local creek when none of the men could complete the task. I always thought I wanted to see that rock and now I can say I did! I also learned more about the man who became Commander of the Union troops and later President of the United States. More than that, I got insight into his childhood and the acquaintances and close associates that influenced him and his family. Many were deeply involved in the Underground Railroad in the area, a fact chronicled in a book I discovered while there:  Ulysses Underground, The Unexplored Roots of U.S. Grant and the Underground Railroad, by G. L. Corum. Another incredible book I scooped up!
rock moved by Grant, 2540 pounds

Oh, the whispers and echoes of that time that continue to resonate.

We also visited Kentucky Gateway Museum in Maysville, KY, and had supper at The Olde Wayside Inn, a restaurant on the historical stagecoach route called Zane's Trace. This old-time building at one time hosted such dignitaries as Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and General Santa Anna after his defeat in TX by Sam Houston following the Battle of the Alamo. The location and owners of the time also played a significant role in the Underground Railroad network.

All in all, it was a significant trip, effective in pulling back the curtain and letting the hints of the past filter into the mind, settle and percolate. I'm sure some of the threads will show up in my writing. For sure people I only once read about have become alive in my mind.

Are there places in your 'backyard' you always thought you'd visit one day but haven't? What are some of the local places of interest where you live that you would recommend others visit?


  1. Your trip sounds wonderful. I love historical places but don't often get to see them. Marion has a few things of historical interest.

    When we moved to Marion 30+ years ago, we vowed to see the local landmarks. We have yet to visit President Warren G. Harding's home, which we pass every Sunday on the way to church. (That's partly because it's not open all the time, partly because the fee to get in seemed high for a house that isn't all that big or all that grand.) However, we have visited his grave, which is pretty. He doesn't have a "library" that I know of, but many of his papers are stored in an upstairs room in our university library (OSU Marion). I've been in that room for a meeting but never looked at his papers. There are apparently some underground railroad homes in our vicinity - one in Marion, but you can't just visit because someone lives there.

    1. Hmmm, Warren G. Harding--don't know too much about him. But I find I learn something anytime I visit one of these historical homes, so maybe I should put his house on my list? Marion could almost be considered in my 'backyard'--you're really not that far from me :-) Thanks for sharing. And are you getting ready for a new school year? Hope it's a good one!

    2. I am getting ready for school - 3 weeks from today. Most of my prep is done, but I have meetings before that and - this was not good planning - 3 weekend trips in the first month after school starts. So things will be a bit hectic. By the way, what historical period are you writing about now?

    3. 3 weekend trips sound interesting :-) Hope they are all to fun places. And, no surprise based on places we visited on this trip, my WIP is set in 1862! I've toyed with the idea for so long, I'm hoping this time I'm on the right track and will make progress here soon... :-) Enjoy your last three weeks before school starts!

  2. What a wonderful trip! The Underground Railroad stories are so inspiring and I love the quote about choices. I've discovered quite a few historic gems near my home, from a historic furnace where women, white, and blacks all got equal wages for equal work (not a common concept at the time) to the Daniel Boone homestead.

    1. Jess, so nice to hear from you! Sounds like you have a number of historic sites to explore near you, too :-) Enjoy! And enjoy your coming release of your latest book, "Under the Bottle Bridge." It really sounds terrific....

    2. Thank you :) And sorry I've been scarce on commenting. Moving from CO to PA over the last year (and then moving from an apartment to buying a house) has been a bit hectic. I'm not keeping up with things the way I'd like to. I always enjoy your posts!

    3. Oh, my--all of that AND a new book coming out? That's amazing (not to speak of being mom to little ones)! I'd like to learn some of your time management techniques :-) Again, so happy for you in your writing successes, wishing you all the best...

  3. Oh we have so many places we want to visit in our backyard area once we get home to PA. We never could vacation summers when we lived up north because of my husband's job so always went south in the winters. Now we can and I can't wait to explore New England and even Ohio as We have hardly ever driven west in PA!

  4. Yes, so much to see in PA, Terri--have fun exploring! And New England would really be neat. The beauty and history would be amazing. And of course I'm partial to Ohio :-) So you will have all kinds of places to visit once you settle in. Wishing you all the best on your upcoming move...