Funding will help better tell the story of nation’s ‘most militant abolitionist,’ Akron’s role in fight against slavery
— Summit County has taken a major step forward in the restoration of the historic John Brown House, owned and operated by the Summit County Historical Society.
The State of Ohio’s biennial Capital Budget for fiscal years 2017-2018 includes an allocation of $250,000 for major improvements to the property that the abolitionist called home between 1844 and 1854.
“John Brown was the single most consequential person ever to come out of Summit County,” said Dave Lieberth, historian and Chairman of the Historical Society’s board of directors. “The raid that he led on Harpers Ferry is often referred to as the spark that began the American Civil War.”
The property at the southwest corner of Copley Road and Diagonal Road was listed on the National Park Service’s “National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom” in 2015 in light of evidence that Brown also used the property to conceal runaway slaves during the time of the Fugitive Slave Law.
“This property is a key link to Summit County’s history of abolition and the fight against slavery,” said Leianne Neff Heppner, president & CEO of the Society. “And it is a key component of the Historic Homes of Mutton Hill.”
Across the street from ‘founding family’
The two-room white frame house that John Brown called home for a decade was built in 1830. Across the street is the home of Akron’s founding family – Simon Perkins was a farmer, Ohio Senator, and the founder of Summit County. Four generations of the Perkins family lived here – Civil War heroes and industrialists. It’s where George Perkins convened the board of the BF Goodrich Company, which grew to become one of America’s largest manufacturers of rubber products.
In 2014, the Society received an initial grant of $50,000 in the state capital budget to conduct repairs on the historic dry stone wall that identifies the home’s perimeter boundary, and to conduct an evaluation and assessment of the property. A plan for rehabilitation was completed in 2015 by restoration architects Chambers, Murphy and Burge. An 80-page plan provides a roadmap for further work to maintain and restore the property.
“We appreciate the support of Summit County’s delegation to the Ohio General Assembly,” said Lieberth. “We are particularly grateful for the leadership of Sen. Frank LaRose in securing funding for this historic project.” The Greater Akron Chamber also listed the Brown House restoration as a regional priority for the capital improvements bill.
“A central purpose of the project is to better tell the story of the nation’s most militant abolitionist and the story of Akron and Summit County’s role in the national fight against the institution of slavery,” said Lieberth, “And to prepare the historic homes for the City of Akron’s Bicentennial in 2025.”
The total cost of restoring the house and grounds and adding museum-quality exhibits on abolition in Summit County will approach $1 million, according to Lieberth. The Society will engage in additional fundraising to complete the work proposed in the landmark analysis.
By the end of 2017, the Society expects to finish repair of the perimeter dry stone fence; complete repairs to the basement wall, do exterior painting, siding repairs and create an accessible bathroom and entrance to the 186-year old property.
In the future, work will include electrical and plumbing upgrades; roof, gutter and downspout replacement; HVAC upgrades; chimney repair, and landscape design. A future phase will also focus on repurposing the existing barn and outbuildings for interpretation.
Development of the John Brown House will be a major step in the nascent progress seen on Copley Road, the gateway to Akron’s largest African-American neighborhood. The corridor has 11 million travelers annually (calculated by the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study.) New highway markers installed by ODOT on Interstate 77 have substantially increased visitors to the Historic Homes of Mutton Hill in recent years.
“Mutton Hill” is the name that residents of 19th century Akron gave to this 150-acre farm, known for its 1,500 sheep that were reputed to produce some of the finest wool in the world.
In 1844, Perkins invited Brown to join him in the wool business. The Brown House property is an essential link in John Brown’s personal history as an abolitionist and militant guerilla in the fight to end African slavery in America. This is where the Society will tell the story of the Abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad and the growth of the city’s African-American community during the industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The John Brown House was also the home of one of the nation’s first golf clubs in 1895 – Portage Country Club – where early versions of a rubber-core golf ball were produced by the BF Goodrich Company in Akron and tested on the city’s first golf course.
The Perkins Stone Mansion and John Brown House are located on the Portage Path, the boundary for the western-most part of the U.S. in 1795, beyond which no European settlement was to occur. The Portage Path was used as a trail by Native Americans to travel between the Cuyahoga River and the Tuscarawas River.
In 1943, the Summit County Historical Society acquired the John Brown House by bequest from Mrs. Charles Perkins.
In May, 2014, SCHS was notified that the John Brown property was accepted on The National Park Service’s Network to Freedom. A related Discovery Trunk circulated among schools, tells the comprehensive story of the people and events associated with the struggle for freedom from enslavement.
Importance of John Brown to Ohio History
John Brown is one of the most consequential Americans of the 19th century. The writer and historian Evan Carton says he was the first U.S. citizen committed to absolute racial equality.
In 1837, at the Hudson Congregational Church, he expressed publicly, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”
Brown stated that between 1844 and 1854, his home was Akron, and members of his family lived in the house until 1858. His son Jason, daughter-in-law and grandchildren are buried at Glendale Cemetery in Akron. He paid rent to Perkins for the cottage of $30 per year, which included a garden and firewood. Jason and Owen Brown would tend the Perkins flock, manage the gathering of wool according to their father’s direction and butcher meat for the use of both the Perkins and Brown families.
American wool was generally regarded as inferior to Europe’s. Brown understood that farmers were ignorant of what made their wool so poor: they routinely gathered all wool from all sheep in their flock, together with whatever mud, sticks, dirt and burrs stuck to it, and bundled it off to market. Brown developed a scale of nine wool grades. Cleaner wool brought higher prices, and more profits for their owners.
Brown spent much of his time between 1844 and 1854 in Springfield, Mass., where he formed a depot for the storage of wool- for his products and for other farmers. There was also a federal armory there and he watched the comings and goings of soldiers with much interest. He toured Europe to identify new markets for their wool.
Brown met with other abolitionists of the time, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Brown would cross the Ohio River on his return from trips to Pennsylvania and Virginia in the company of fugitive slaves. Brown delivered the runaways to other Ohio conductors, who arranged for their final passage to Lake Erie and across to Canada. When there was danger, he brought them to Akron concealing them in his house and barn for days or weeks at a time. Colonel Perkins’s wife wrote, “He was always concerning himself with Negroes, often having several hidden at once about his place.”
A colleague of Brown’s in the Ohio Underground Railroad said, “He had a consuming idea in life, and that was to free the black man. He had no other aim.”
By 1852, the Perkins-Brown flock of Merino and Saxony sheep numbered 1,300 head, and was regarded in national publications as one of the best herds in the United States.
By 1854, Perkins and Brown agreed to part company, and John Brown relocated his family to North Elba, New York.
On June 23, 1859 Brown last came through Akron. General Bierce, Samuel Lane, Hadley and others — equipped him with gold and silver, cash and weapons, and on Oct. 18, 1859, Brown staged his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Ten of his men were killed, five escaped, and seven, including Brown – were hanged by the State of Virginia for treason against the state—even though none of them were residents. Two of John Brown’s sons gave their lives at Harpers Ferry: Watson and Oliver. Frederick died in the battles of Kansas.
Brown was executed at Charlestown, Va. (now West Virginia) on Dec. 2, 1859. Between his capture and arrest at the hands of Union Army Colonel Robert E. Lee in October, and his execution, John Brown was perhaps the most famous man in the western world.