A Cause To Believe In

A quick hit before I get to the main topic. People interested in overhauling the country’s public schools are proposing national standards. The NYTimes article includes Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad as one of the suggested books for middle schools, along with Little Women and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Of course I am thrilled. I also received a chill because I discovered the mention right after I had written about my first encounter with the abolitionist John Brown. Another oddity: Joseph Hopkins Twichell, whom I also mention in this, was best friends with Mark Twain. I wrote that part of the post before I read the Times article, too. Weird.

Now for the main topic.

The state of New York must not close the John Brown Farm in North Elba. Such action will force his memory even farther into the background and render future generations more ignorant of the role played by this giant of the abolitionist movement.

My knowledge and understanding of the man began, as I said, with my mother. When she was researching what would become Harriet Tubman she encountered “Bloody Brown.” Mother grew fascinated by him and wrote and rewrote variations of his name in her journal: “Old Brown,” “Bloody Brown,” “Osawatomie Brown.” This last referred to the town in Kansas where proslavery thugs fought Brown and other abolitionists.

Mother decided after much reading and thinking and analyzing that the only way to capture the magnificence of the man was through poetry. Only Stephen Vincent Benét approached the essence in John Brown: “He dreamed of a man unchained/And God’s great chariot rolling.”

At the time I think I learned that Brown had been born in Torrington, Connecticut. Over the years there were efforts to create a John Brown homestead but the local residents generally objected.

I discovered the John Brown Farm in recent years. This is the place the state wants to close to save a pitiful $40,000 out of its $8 million or $9 million deficit. While everyone else in our group was off doing whatever in Lake Placid, I took the shuttle out to the little airport and then walked up the hill to the site.

The approach is dramatic with a wide paved road that curves around to reveal glimpses of the mountains framed by fragrant pine and fir and cedar and blue spruce. The only negative is the giant leftover piece of Olympic equipment that looks like a huge Lego jutting through the trees. At the end of the road is the Brown compound with a modest house that remains as it was when he lived there, outbuildings, and the graveyard where he was buried after his execution at the hands of the slave owners and vigilantes in Harper’s Ferry.

I took the brief tour conducted by a descendant of the family who helped young Mrs. Brown, as she struggled against the impossible winters to raise two children while her husband traveled the country in the cause of abolition. How, I wondered, did they survive with single panes of glass covered by wooden shutters, spotty insulation, gaps in the floor boards and fireplaces whose heat couldn’t reach much beyond the hearth?

The Browns also helped runaway slaves who settled in the area. What must these people from Virginia and parts south have thought as the wind roared down off the mountains and blizzards made passage impossible for weeks at a time?

After the tour I spent some time by the graves of John, two of his sons and several other men who fought and died for the abolitionist cause. I didn’t want to return to Lake Placid and face to all those happy people with tears still threatening so I took a quick hike around the property to clear my head. A nice young couple who had shared the tour gave me a ride back to the shuttle. I’ve cherished the memory of that day ever since.

This website gives some indication of the beauty of the place although the photos don’t show the magnificent surroundings.

A great many things connected last year when I read Joseph Hopkins Twichell written by my friend and former colleague Steve Courtney. (See “Family Ties,” February 21, 2009). Twichell and his friend Hartford Courant owner Charles Dudley Warner walked a “horrible road” to the John Brown Farm in the 1870s. I wrote after reading Steve’s description that there were no more weeds choking out the flowers as they did in Twichell’s day, and the path is smooth and paved. If New York abandons the site it will revert to what it was in the nineteenth century.

Please don’t let that happen. Please don’t let John Brown die again.


3 Responses to “A Cause To Believe In”

  1. Gerry Rowland Says:

    Hi Liz,

    This is very interesting. My family is now located in this area. My sister Suzanne and her daughter live in Saranac Lake, very near Lake Placid.

    John Brown is honored in Iowa. This state was a huge supporter of the abolitionists. The underground railroad ran through Iowa, the state capitol even displays battle flags from the Civil War.

    Best wishes for your presentation.


    • lizr128 Says:

      Hi, Gerry,
      Thanks for your best wishes. I’m trying to approach it with the idea that the others on the panel will do the “scholarly” part and I’ll supply the personal but I don’t want to disappoint them.
      The Lake Placid area is gorgeous and I can still see the hills and fields around the John Brown Farm. Back before the tech bubble burst I had toyed with the idea of buying a vacation home up there but alas that won’t happen now.
      It’s always saddened me that Torrington never did much to acknowledge his birth, though there is a Harper’s Ferry Road in Waterbury that seems to be clogged with traffic every morning. That’s probably the best Connecticut can do.
      Take care,

  2. Redux, Redux IV, Chapter 1 « Lizr128′s Blog Says:

    […] John Brown Farm (“A Cause To Believe In”) remains open. It looks like North Elba might assume […]

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