Quilts led the way to freedom

BETTY GEPHART (left) and Miriam Vance (center), members of the Ohio Star Quilters of Findlay, and Deb Wickerham (right), educational coordinator at the Hancock Historical Museum, are shown with a replica quilt made by members of the quilting club and donated to the museum that shows symbols used to guide slaves north to freedom in the 1850s.  (Photo by Sara Arthurs)

BETTY GEPHART (left) and Miriam Vance (center), members of the Ohio Star Quilters of Findlay, and Deb Wickerham (right), educational coordinator at the Hancock Historical Museum, are shown with a replica quilt made by members of the quilting club and donated to the museum that shows symbols used to guide slaves north to freedom in the 1850s. (Photo by Sara Arthurs)


It is believed that in the 1850s, quilts held coded messages to help escaping slaves find their way north. The Hancock Historical Museum is the recent recipient of a quilt that replicates these messages.

Ohio Star Quilters of Findlay created the quilt over a period of several months. Club members Miriam Vance and Betty Gephart donated it to the museum Aug. 5. Vance led the project and Gephart sewed the top of the quilt before other club members assisted with the rest.

The project started when Joy Bennett, curator at the Hancock Historical Museum, mentioned that the museum would be interested in having such a quilt. Club members learned that Gephart had part of one already made, and having her work in hand made it easier to complete the project, Vance said.

They started their work last fall. During the winter it was harder for members to get out to stitch, so it was some months before they finished.

“We did long hours in June,” Gephart said.

Gephart started creating the quilt as part of a “block of the month” quilting class. She used fabrics that were reproductions of fabrics that would have existed at the time so the quilt would look authentic.

About 12 to 15 women participated in making the quilt, including attaching the backing and hand stitching throughout.

Vance said it would have been quicker to sew it with a sewing machine, “but that wouldn’t be authentic to 1850,” she said.

The quilt will be displayed at the museum and will be included in a trunk of items to help teachers educating their students about the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a network of safe havens for slaves fleeing to the north in the years before the Civil War.

It was active from 1856 to 1860 in Hancock County, said Deb Wickerham, educational coordinator at the Hancock Historical Museum. There are a few places where stations are known to have existed and there are rumors about other homes that have secret passages, but not all of these have documentation. Wickerham said there were six documented stops on the Underground Railroad between Williamstown and Van Buren, including stops in Arlington and Findlay.

In Findlay, the stop was at David Adams’ barbershop in the Reed Hotel, once located directly east of the Hancock County Courthouse.

Adams, one of the few black men who lived in Findlay at the time, was part of the railroad and reportedly assisted 40 or more runaway slaves in their journey to freedom. Others who helped with the cause included: John A. Woods, a Williamstown-area farmer, bricklayer and township trustee; John King, a farmer who lived on the north side of Findlay; Joel Markle, a farmer, justice of the peace and fire chief; and Robert B. Hurd, a banker, justice of the peace, collection agent and driver in Arlington and Findlay.

A bronze plaque was dedicated in front of the former location of Adams’ barbershop in 2002 thanks to the efforts of Glenwood Middle School students in Beth Ann Nissen’s sixth-grade language arts class.

When Wickerham leads a program on the Underground Railroad she starts with the history of the slave trade and the abolitionist movement. There were many abolitionists in Ohio and at first they could help slaves by getting them across the Ohio River into the state of Ohio. But in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act passed, which made it a crime to help escaping slaves. From then on, escaping slaves would make their way through the northern United States into Canada.

Wickerham said there are many towns in existence today in Canada that were started by slaves who crossed Lake Erie into Canada and settled there.

Anyone caught harboring a slave “could be charged a thousand-dollar fine, and jail time,” Wickerham said.

In addition to the people actually helping slaves escape, the Underground Railroad’s “stockholders” also played an important role by contributing to the effort financially, Wickerham said.

Among the best known heroes of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, who helped her family members and many other slaves to escape.

Wickerham said the model for the character of Uncle Tom in the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was based on a slave that came through Findlay.

In the years of the Underground Railroad, quilts were used as code, Wickerham said.
Quilts might be “hung one at a time on a fence or cabin door, left to ‘air out’ while communicating a specific action or step in the journey,” wrote Eleanor Burns in a quilting book used by Gephart.

Burns quoted author Jacqueline Tobin, who heard the story from a woman named Ozella McDaniel Williams of South Carolina. Tobin quotes Williams in her book, “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad”.

“The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel toward Canada on a bear’s paw trail to the crossroads. Once they got to the crossroads, they dug a log cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin bow ties, go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange double wedding rings. Flying geese stay on the drunkard’s path and follow the stars.”

Each panel in the quilt the Ohio Star Quilters donated to the museum represents a symbol from the story. Vance said it’s not a precise map of how to get to Canada but it does offer clues on what paths to take.

The quilt has 15 blocks. One is a panel of squiggly lines to represent “the drunkard’s path,” indicating that escaping slaves were advised never to go in a straight line.

Another panel represents the North Star, which the escaping slaves would follow as they headed north toward Canada.

The reference to “Shoofly” represents a person who helps the escaping slaves, in effect shooing them away, Wickerham said. This, too, is represented on the quilt.

There is some controversy over how authentic the story of the quilt is. Wickerham said it was based on oral history. Bennett noted that those involved in the Underground Railroad deliberately did not write down what they were doing, which makes it hard for historians today to document it.

The quilt will be used in a trunk of items related to the Underground Railroad. Wickerham is available to give presentations to classroom teachers and can then leave the trunk with them for a week so they can use it in their lessons.

The trunk also includes music, books and DVDs related to the Underground Railroad as well as reproductions of items residents of the time would have owned, such as candles. It also contains notebooks with activities for teachers to lead in their classrooms and photographs of the Underground Railroad “conductors.”

Wickerham said the historical museum has had trunks like this in the past but they were not widely used.

An open house and reception for teachers to learn about these resources will be held at the museum from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 28.

Wickerham already had some smaller quilt pieces but said the museum benefits from having the entire quilt that illustrates the story.

“The work you ladies put into that quilt is so impressive,” Bennett said.

Bennett said when the museum held a brown bag luncheon with the Underground Railroad as a topic, it attracted a large crowd. She has found that both children and adults are interested in the topic.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
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