Flight of Freedom

Screen Shot 2021 01 21 at 2 46 33 PM

The Underground Railroad was a secretive organization by necessity. We know it existed in some way in Holmes and Wayne counties, but the punishments for escaped slaves or the people harboring them were so steep that written records were only rarely kept.

One invaluable resource does exist, however, a book written by William H. Siebert, who was born in the Civil War era and went on to document the experiences of the people involved in the Underground Railroad in his book, “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom.” In this book, among other accounts, there are statements that place the Underground Railroad in both Holmes and Wayne counties and that the illicit slave smuggling may have in part been the work of the Free Presbyterians.

Siebert wrote, “It is not strange that the region in Ohio where the Free Presbyterian Church was founded was plentifully dotted with stations of the Underground Railroad. At Savannah, Ashland County, Iberia, Morrow County and a point near Millersburg, Holmes County, Ohio, the work is associated with Free Presbyterian societies once existing in those neighborhoods.”

Most of what we know about the Underground Railroad in Holmes and Wayne counties have been collected from family stories, letters written by people who worked on the Railroad and other scarce sources. It is estimated between 1830 and 1860, some 40,000 slaves passed through Ohio using disguises, hidden cellars and attics, wagons with hidden compartments, and the cover of darkness to make their escape to Canada.

There were different routes that ran through Holmes and Wayne counties. Runaways would enter Holmes County in two places: near the center of the southern border with Coshocton County and at the southwest corner of Holmes County. From there, family histories say they would travel to the Lukehart and Kelley farms, just a few miles south of Millersburg. At the Kelley farm it is thought slaves hid in the basement by day, waiting for nightfall to head north.

On the northward journey escaped slaves and their conductors steered clear of Millersburg, instead taking a roundabout route to Holmesville and the farms of the Croco brothers: Keifer and John. At Keifer Croco’s Railroad Station, the Croco House, slaves stayed in the attic of the home, which had a concealed trapdoor, and at his brother John’s farm slaves could stay in a hidden cellar in a barn.

One of the reasons the Croco House is so well-known as an Underground Railroad station is there are several legends surrounding the home and the brothers. One of the most interesting legends deals with a daring escape. As the story goes, the Crocos were harboring escaped slaves and had just laid out a large breakfast when they received word that slave hunters were on their way to the Croco House.

With breakfast interrupted, the extra tables were torn down as quickly as pos-sible, and the slaves were spirited away, presumably onward to the next station. Meanwhile the slave hunters arrived at the Croco House, where they were invited in for breakfast. One of the Croco brothers decided to recite Psalm 119 as the breakfast prayer because it was the longest Psalm in the Bible and thus would give the runaways more time to escape.

So once slaves left the Croco House, where did they go? Lydia Thompson, a Wooster historian who has spent her life studying Harriet Tubman and the Under-ground Railroad, said escaped slaves would come from places like Ripley, Ohio, on the Ohio River to Wayne County.
“All of those old towns,” Thompson said, “On down to Fredericksburg and Wooster, Smithville. Those are some of the places that the slaves came through.”

Surviving tales indicate some journeyed to Shreve or Millbrook in Wayne County while others went to Wooster. At some point, however, the western route though Holmes and Wayne was discovered and became heavily guarded, so escaped slaves were redirected to Fredericksburg.

Thomas L. Smith, who was a conductor on the Railroad, wrote to historian Siebert in 1894, “The two routes between Millersburg and Lodi in Northern Ohio are explained by the statement that the most direct route, the western one, fell under suspicion for awhile, and in the meantime a more circuitous path was followed through Holmesville and Seville.”

According to Thompson, Wooster had three prominent Underground Railroad Stations. Indeed historical records from the Wayne County Historical Society indicate the Freedlander House on Bever Street, the Jeffries House on Pittsburg Avenue or the Jean Zapponi House on Massaro Avenue, which was owned by Eugene Pardee, may all have been stations on the Railroad.

Pardee was elected the Wayne County prosecutor in 1842. The 1968 book, “A Touch of Italy in Wooster,” says, “Opposition to slavery was one of the great purposes in his life, and [he] early identified himself with the Abolition Party and remained an active and hard worker against that ‘sum of human villainies’ until it was abolished.”

After Wooster, slaves headed north once more, sometimes stopping in Smithville before continuing northward and other times journeying due north to Seville in Medina County. From those points, if the runaways and their conductors avoided the dangers posed by slave hunters, they would make their way to places like Detroit, where they could pass safely into Canada.