There is a wonderful story of the Richfield Underground. Mason Oviatt of Richfield hitched up his horses on a moonless night and drove up Streetsboro Rd. to John Brown's house and picked up a load of "cargo" (in the term used in those days to disguise the fact that they were illegally transporting escaped slaves on their way to freedom in Canada). Then Mason traveled back down the dirt road and delivered five men to the next stop on the Underground Railroad. A journey that took over three days. It is a story of the goodness and commitment of those former Connecticut Yankees. And a story of the incredible endurance and will and desire for Liberty of those former slaves, now nearly free men and women.
The Oviatt house is located at (and owned by) the Richfield Heritage Preserve. We would like to see it restored and used as the opening stop of the proposed John Brown Freedom Trail Byway. Available at that stop would be entrance into what is called one of 'Ohio's Hidden Treasures', a 336 acre park of woods, trails, lakes and beauty. This acreage includes what was once the several hundred acre Oviatt farm where John Brown once raised his sheep. In the Oviatt house would be extensive displays of the operations of Richfield's large number of Underground Railroad safe houses and its "operators". Also on display would be one of the hiding spaces once used by those seeking freedom.
As the visitors to the Byway begin their journey following Mason's late night ride, they would pass by the natural bridge that Streetsboro Rd. once crossed in the time of John Brown. Following Mason's route, present day visitors would pass by many of the homes and business's that are still standing from John Brown's day. These include the Ellsworth home (another stop on the UGRR), the Jackson-Phelps Harness Shop (once frequented by John Brown), the Heman Oviatt house (also a UGRR stop), the Richfield United Church of Christ (direct descendant of the Congregational Church John Brown attended), the Stagecoach Stop from where John Brown began many of his business trips, and that stands close by where the Brown Tannery stood. And finally the eastern end of Mason's late night ride, the house John Brown lived in and in which he hid the escaped in the cellar.
John Brown's house would include extensive displays depicting the Brown family's life and times in Richfield. These displays would include home furnishings similar to what the Brown's used (as listed in the records of the times). Also open to view by Byway visitors would be the cellar door from which John Brown's oldest son, John Jr., directed the escaped into the hidden space in the Oviatt wagon. Additionally on display would be the Wheatly farm wagon and its false bottom that concealed fleeing persons. For those who would like just a small experience of what escaping men and women had to endure, Byway visitors could try lying down in the very tight and confining and claustrophobic concealed space in the wagon bottom. (That wagon is presently stored in a barn in Richfield.)
When Byway visitors are ready to leave the John Brown house, take one last moment to go stand at the front door of the house. As John Brown stood there every morning, he could look to his left and see the Congregational Church he attended. When he looked straight ahead to the northwest, he could see his tannery, and on beyond, the hill and the grave marker where his four children lay buried. It must have been an awfully sorrowful view every morning.
As you leave the Brown home, turn left and go a very short distance then turn right onto Brecksville Rd. About a 1/4 mile north on the left is the site of John Brown's tannery. There you can still see the foundation stones of the tanning building he built. The stone tanning vats he once used were covered over by dirt when Brecksville Rd. was widened in 1947. They lay just beside the road, in the side yard. Hopefully they will soon see the light of day again. Behind the present day modern building at the site is the still flowing stream that once supplied the water used in the tanning process. In the trees along the stream is the stone front step of the cabin that John Brown and his family lived in for a short while before they moved into the much larger John Brown house on Streetsboro Rd.
When you leave the tannery site turn left, then immediately left again into the East Cemetery entrance. Follow the drive as it loops around behind the cemetery and begin to follow it back out. Stop just past the windmill at the top of the cemetery hill. Just ahead and to the right you will see a very large maple tree with a five foot tall rectangular gravestone standing next to it. John and Mary's four children lie there for eternity. At their grave which is very nearly at the peak of the hill, look back towards the family home. Just as John Brown could see his children's grave every morning, his children could look down upon their family. It is a rather sad and in some ways wonderful view and connection of family.
When you leave the cemetery turn right and travel the short distance back to Streetsboro Rd. Turn right and head back towards Mason Oviatt's house and farm. You'll shortly come the West Richfield Center and Liberty Hall Pub (presently called the Dugout) where Richfield's finest were honored as they left to join the fight for freedom for all men and women during the American Civil War. Cater-corner from Liberty Hall is The Tavern of Richfield. Either restaurant would be a lovely place to enjoy a meal and rest from your Byway journey. At the Tavern you could view the subterranean room once called 'The Underground' in honor and memory of Richfield's strong Abolitionist history (it has long been rumored that The Underground was once a hiding place for the escaped, although that has never been confirmed). After a meal, visitors could return to following Mason's journey and continue west to pass his farm, then drive up the extraordinarily steep West Hill, where Mason had to stop three times to rest his horses, as he continued on to his distant western destination.
If visitors were to continue west on Streetsboro Rd. they would eventually come to Oberlin, a very important stop on the UGRR. Or, if visitors continued east to Peninsula and through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (with all its abundant visitor attractions, including the Ohio-Erie Canal that John Brown once used to ship his wool to the eastern cities, and on which it is believed the fleeing floated to freedom) and on to Hudson, folks could visit the Hudson Historical Society now housed in the Hudson Library. The Historical Society now archives one of the largest collections of John Brown materials in the United States.
The John Brown Freedom Trail Byway would provide an unparalleled modern day look at the workings, locations and history of the Underground Railroad. Visitors could experience in the present day the unequalled experience of what it was like to escape in a time of so much danger. The John Brown Freedom Trail Byway is a piece of American history not found anywhere else. It tells a story of the quest for American justice and freedom. And how those seeking it were able to achieve that universal goal.
~~In addition to the many stops along the Byway, visitors can also visit a number of nearby attractions.
The Museum of Western Reserve Farms & Equipment is nearby. Southern Rd. heads south off Streetsboro Rd. about midway between the Oviatt house and West Richfield Center (at Broadview Rd. & Streetsboro Rd.). A mile and a half south down Southern you will find a large sign announcing Stone Garden Farm & Village. The museum is a collection of 40+ buildings arranged as a Western Reserve village would have looked about 1845, when John Brown lived in Richfield. The museum includes a Gen'l Store, an 1825 Post Office, a one room school house, and many of the same shops and trades John Brown would have commonly frequented (including the actual collar shop he knew). Folks will also see chickens, pigs, dairy cows, sheep and goats wondering the museum grounds just as they did in John Brown's day. When visiting the museum visitors will experience the same sights, sounds and smells that John Brown lived. The museum is open 7 days a week, daylight. There is no admission charge. Please visit http://www.ohiofarmmuseum.com .
The Richfield Historical Society is located on Broadview Rd. just south of Streetsboro Rd. The Society in housed in the old Richfield Township Hall, circa 1876. The museum includes a nice collection of John Brown information and memorabilia. The Society is open every Tuesday morning, and by appointment most anytime. http://www.richfieldhistoricalsociety.com .
About a mile north on Broadview Rd. from Streetsboro Rd., lies West Cemetery. At the cemetery many of Richfield's fallen veterans and numerous early settlers and citizens know their final peace and rest. Every Memorial Day Richfield gathers here to observe the day and honor those who gave so much for our great country.
~When available, please see the brochures at the Oviatt & Brown houses, for additional sites of interest nearby the Byway.
Copyright © Jim Fry 2018