~"OUR LOG CABIN AT THE CENTRE OF RICHFIELD (is) A PLACE OF FAR MORE INTEREST TO ME."
A number of years after John Brown and his family had moved away from Richfield and Akron, he wrote a letter to his wife. By then they had lived in Torrington, Conn. ~Hudson, Ohio ~Plainfield, Mass. ~Guys Mills, Penn. ~New Franklin, Ohio ~Richfield, Ohio ~Akron, Ohio ~Springfield, Massachusetts and New Alba, N. Y. As he wrote, he was staying at the Massasoit Hotel in Springfield, Massachusetts. At the time, Springfield was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Mass. and the Massasoit was the best hotel.
But despite living in all those states and all those towns, both wealthy & settled or pioneer, his fondest memory was of living in Richfield. In 1850 he wrote to Mary: "While here, & at almost all places where I stop, I am treated with all Kindness, & attention; but it does not make home. I feel lonely & restless no matter how neat & comfortable my room & bed, nor how richly loaded may be the Table; they have very few charms for me, away from home. I can look back to our Log Cabin at the Centre of Richfield with a Supper of Porridge, & Johny Cake, as a place of far more interest to me, than the Massasoit of Springfield."
The story of John Brown's years of living in Richfield has been largely overlooked by most authors writing about John Brown's life. That is most unfortunate and a poor telling of history. John Brown buried four children in Richfield, he attended the Richfield Congregational Church which had such influence on his developing Abolitionist views, he ran a well used stop on the UGRR here, his best friend lived here, he ran two very successful businesses here, and his happiest and worst memories of all the places he lived occurred at their homes in Richfield.
John Brown and his growing family lived in three houses in Richfield. The first was a "rather crude cabin" at the meeting of what would later be named Fountain and Brecksville Rds. (Fountain Rd., so named perhaps because of the flowing spring there, was somewhat later renamed Boston Mills Rd.) The house's exact location has long since been obscured by more recent building, but it still stood as recently as the very early 1940's. In those days, just before the war, there was a spring next to the house, and what was described as a "lonely, gaunt pine tree, one of two planted by John Brown." Local teenagers used to meet at the then abandoned cabin and enjoyed time without adults. Those same teenagers were soon to serve in the Pacific and European theaters of WW2. There is no other known writing or story or history about the house, just the stories of aging veterans, some the descendants of Richfield families who had known the Browns and who remembered their living there.
But a reasonable guess is that since the land was owned by the Farnum's, and John Brown worked for them, that they leased the cabin to the Brown's when they first came to Richfield to work at the Farnum Estate. John and his family probably lived there less than a year.
They then moved to another cabin farther south on later named Brecksville Rd., to land owned by O.M. Oviatt. It was there that John Brown built his Richfield tannery, and became partners with his friend Mason Oviatt in the breeding and raising of large numbers of sheep. It was all those thousands of Farnum and Oviatt/Brown sheep that required the building of the tannery. The huge numbers of tanned hides the tannery produced were shipped by canal boat to cities on the East Coast and south to the Gulf. They accounted for a large profit. It was at that cabin that John Brown was to form his fondest memories of anywhere he ever lived.
That cabin is also long gone. In a newspaper article from 1949, it was reported that the tanning vats and foundation stones of the tannery were "re-discovered", when Brecksville Rd. was widened. In the same story a picture also appeared of two gentlemen of that time pointing to the cabin front step stone.
It remains a very pretty site. There is still the free flowing stream that both supplied the cabin needs and the requirements of the tannery. Those foundation stones still rest nearby where they had originally held up the tanning building, old pine trees give their shade, and that cabin step stone still sits in its place. Those pines are believed to be descendants of earlier pines that surrounded the cabin when the Brown's lived there. One might wonder if John Brown had also planted those first pine trees, just as he had at the earlier cabin.
Then the Brown's moved once again.
It has been interesting to try to document the houses the Brown's lived in while in Richfield. Documents simply do not exist for the first two cabins the Brown's lived in, just recorded "folk lore". The 1840's was just a relative few years after Ohio became a state. Early in those years Richfield was still mostly composed of log cabins, but this was beginning to change as John Brown's friend, Ebenezer Palmer, began building many of the frame houses that still stand today. In Richfield, the roads mostly remained unnamed and there were no numbered addresses until the 1940's. Folks gave directions for going somewhere by saying, "just beyond the church", or, "turn at the spring and watering trough", or, "left at the bottom of the hill", and certainly, "just past the (somebody's) farm." We in Richfield have always known where the Brown's lived, with locals like the Davis, Oviatt and Knopp families possessing direct family memories. But to "prove it" has been a bit more difficult.
Fortunately, the West Virginia Historical Society Archive has found in their collection (at our request) the: "Articles of agreement made and entered into by Everett Farnum and John Brown of Richfield, Summit Co Ohio 24th Jany 1843". They read: "The said Farnum agrees to lease to said Brown a certain farm being about One Hundred and fifty acres contained in what is called the Marcus Newton farm; and Twenty acres lying directly West and adjoining the same, to connect it with the Road leading by Leamon Farnums House; and to give said Brown possession of the same for Two years from the first day of April next, …. . Said Brown is to have timber for fuel from said farm (not suitable for sawing, hewing, or Rail timber,) for the supply of his own fires, and Slabs when there are such at said Farnums Saw Mill, what he may kneed for the construction of Hovels from time, to time as he may wish without charge.
Said Brown agrees to pay said Farnum Two Hundred Dollars yearly for the use of said farm on or before the first day of April of each year, …. . Said Brown agrees to keep buildings and fences in as good repair as he receives them, excepting unavoidable disasters by Lightening, Fire, Wind &c, and the ordinary waste of time. Said Brown agrees to cut the brush from the field of said farm, and to use said farm in all respects in a good and husbandlike maner, as respects manures, saveing timber, &c.
...… The parties above named are to divide equally the labour of moveing the fence so as to set off the Twenty Acres above named from the field in which it lies. In testimony of our mutual assent to the within agreement we hereunto set our hands and seals the day and year first before written.
It is understood that said Brown is not to plough any more land on said farm than is now already under plough, and that he is to prune the orchard yearly on said farm.
This lease agreement would seem to present a problem for researchers. The roads and exact locations are not named, as they would have been years later. Fortunately there is a little known map held at the Richfield Historical Society. The 1856 map clearly shows the M. Newton farm near the SE corner of what became Brecksville and Streetsboro Rds., and an additional "Twenty acres lying directly West and adjoining the same." Those twenty acres are shown to "connect it (the larger farm acreage ) with the Road leading by Leamon Farnums House; …". Those described acres are the same as has always been known as the location of "John Brown's House", which is now listed as 4811 Streetsboro Rd. Richfield. The road (now named Brecksville Rd.) that the twenty acres connects to leads on north on the map "by Leamon Farnums House".
It is interesting when recording the Brown history is to see that this lease agreement was signed in January 1843, to begin effect for two years in April of 1843. The Brown's four children died September of 1843, and the most of the Browns moved to Akron in April of 1844, one year after the lease went into effect. They only lived on the lease land for one year, despite it being so ideal for sheep raising, being next to their church, and being so close to their very successful tannery. It may be that John and Mary left this very favored farm because it was simply too difficult to remain in the house where so many of their children died, were laid upon the dining table, and then buried at nearby East Cemetery.
But, the family may well have completed the two year lease, because when John & Mary left Richfield, two of their sons remained, Jason to run the tannery and Frederick to care for the 250 sheep and sheep dog left in Richfield. And John Brown also kept his other connections to Richfield by continuing to conduct the escaped, "5 or 6 at a time, to stations north", from his Perkins home in Akron. Those escaped would have arrived at the same Farnum/Newton/Brown house cellar, to be picked up and conducted along the further trails of the UGRR.
It is not known how long the family kept their strong ties with Richfield and their residence beyond the end of the two year 1843 to 1845 Farnum lease. But, what is certain is that eventually the Gilmer Davis family was to live in the John Brown house at 4138 Streetsboro Rd., and they kept alive the memory of the Brown's time there. The Davis residence and the record of the Browns earlier stay there are recorded in many newspaper articles, most notably beginning in 1947 and continuing to present. Later, beginning many years ago, it has also been widely written that the Balog's owned the property and ran Benedict's Antiques there. They have also always testified to the earlier times that the Brown's lived there. There is a sign by the front door listing the house as a stop on the UGRR. And, to this day, the cellar door still hangs, leading the way from the cellar where the escaped hid.
So, it is at the end of this story about the Richfield homes the John Brown family lived in that we find that one of them is the cabin about which John years later wrote to his wife, naming it, "... a place of far more interest to me, ..", than anywhere else he had lived in the first 50 years of his life. And that the house they last lived in in Richfield was the place of (in the words of John Jr.) "..a calamity from which father never fully recovered." Some years later, John himself wrote of those days of such awful loss, "I felt for a number of years a steady, strong desire: to Die." It was here, in Richfield, that he experienced the best and worst times of his life to age 50.
~~~As a last note to the story of where John Brown lived in Richfield (and later Akron) The Brown family lived at houses owned by Messrs. Farnum, Oviatt and Perkins. They were three of the richest men in Ohio at the time. John Brown and his many skills at surveying, sheep & cattle and horse husbandry, and as an excellent tanner of hides, made him so valuable that those very rich men eagerly sought his advice and presence on their farms. John Brown was not "unsuccessful" as some other authors have posited, he was one of the most highly skilled, knowledgeable and noted men of his day.
Copyright © Jim Fry 2018