Wandering around Ashtabula, Ohio, I spotted a sign identifying the Hubbard House as an Underground Railroad terminus. We stopped to take a closer look and learn the story of a station along the network of homes serving as havens for runaway slaves traveling towards Canada and freedom during the mid-1800s.
I'm not sure if I'll ever think the same about the familiar nursery rhyme, "Old Mother Hubbard", after learning that fugitive slaves knew this home as "Mother Hubbard's Cupboard" or "The Great Emporium". You may feel sorry that the woman in the rhyme failed to find a bone for her dog in the cupboard, but the reputation of Ashtabula's Hubbard House as a safe haven for runaway slaves makes the idea of those hunting for something at the home and not finding anything seem like a good thing.
William Hubbard was a captain in a New York regiment during the War of 1812 and a colonel in that state's militia after the war. He and his wife Catherine came to Ashtabula in spring of 1834 to establish his post-military life as a farmer, land agent for his uncle Nehemiah Hubbard Jr., and to work in his family's warehouse and lumber business.
William's brothers Matthew and Henry already lived in the area, were active in the local abolitionist movement, and founded an abolitionist newspaper called the "Ashtabula Sentinel". William joined the Ashtabula County Anti-Slavery Society within weeks of arriving in town and became active in local politics.
William and Catherine bought almost 50 acres from Nehemiah in 1836. By 1841, the couple had a beautiful brick home perched along the south shore of Lake Erie. Accounts say that a fugitive slave named Uncle Jake did much of the masonry work at the house.
Ohio is important in the history of the Underground Railroad. Ohio residents helped runaway slaves as early at the 1810s, and estimates say there were about 3,000 miles of Underground Railroad trails established in Ohio with as many as 40,000 people using them to escape slavery. There were over 30 known Underground Railroad stations in Ashtabula County.
The Hubbard House quickly became a station on the Underground Railroad. A steady stream of runaway slaves arrived at the home seeking shelter, and the Hubbards hid them in the cellar or in their hayloft. One account that says the couple hid as many as 39 slaves at their home at one time.
The house was not open during the week, but we could still wander around the grounds and take photos. We peeked through foliage bordering the rear of the property and imagined how someone running towards freedom might take heart in catching a glimpse of the lake, knowing that freedom was hopefully close at hand. The next leg on the journey would be a short one-quarter mile walk to the Hubbard warehouse on the Ashtabula River to catch a ferry to Canada.
William Hubbard died in 1863, and the home passed out of the family by the late 1870s.
The home housed many things over the years, including a women's social club, a temporary kindergarten, and a local parks and recreation department office.
The house earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, but the then-shabby building earned a date with the wrecking ball in 1979.
Fortunately for the house and history buffs, a group that included Thomas (Tim) Huntington Hubbard (a great-great-grandson of the original owners), purchased the building. The group gave the house to the City of Ashtabula, requiring the city to restore it as a public museum.
The Hubbard House is open weekends during the summer. Groups can also schedule tours by appointment year round. Check the Web site for information about the museum exhibits, business hours, and directions to the home.
Interested in learning more about Ashtabula? Check out these stories:
Learn more about Ohio's important role in the history of the Underground Railroad here:
Are you waiting? (Our visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati)
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved