Its importance isn’t usually discovered until it is taken away.
Perhaps you have felt like running away from a bad situation. That’s how most of the slaves felt in their quest for freedom. The Underground Railroad helped them succeed in finding this special liberation.
Even before the time of the Civil War, Anti-Slavery organizations were very active. A center of activity in Ohio was the Old Stone Academy in Putnam on the Muskingum River.
While the Stone Academy served as a station on the Underground Railroad in the 1830s, that wasn’t the reason it was built back in 1809. The oldest building in Muskingum County was designed to be the new state capitol building. It was built by Dr. Increase Mathews, Levi Whipple and Ebenezer Buckingham.
However, across the river in Zanesville, then a separate community, John McIntire and others constructed a building for that same purpose. Zanesville did serve as the capital of Ohio from 1810 to 1812.
The Stone Academy became a school and had public offices for several years. It was the center of abolitionist activity in Putnam with the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society holding state conventions there in 1835 and 1839. Both years, mobs of pro-slavery disrupted their meetings threatening to burn all of Putnam. The people of Putnam were very unpopular with their neighbors across the river in Zanesville.
These abolitionists were mainly from New England and had a very strong religious background that made most of them desire to have equal rights for all. However, there was a section of this group that proposed sending the blacks back to Africa in the 1830s.
The Stone Academy has been accepted by the National Park Service as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. There is a new Ohio historical marker at the Stone Academy.
Nearby the Putnam Presbyterian Church held many anti-slavery meetings. Their pastor was the brother of Harriette Beecher Stowe. One of their popular speakers was Frederick Douglass, an African American orator who spoke of slavery issues across the state.
A story was published about Douglass in “The Anti-Slavery Bugle”, which told of his purchasing a ride from Columbus to Putnam to speak at the Presbyterian Church. Douglass paid $3 in order to ride inside the stagecoach that day, but when they saw he was an African American, he was not permitted to ride. He took the case to court and won an out of court settlement for $15.
The slaves who came through this direction were understandably not very trusting of the station masters. These brave souls took a lot of chances during their flight. They wanted above all else to be free.
Nelson Gant was one of those freed blacks who settled in Muskingum County. He had to raise money to purchase his wife’s freedom as she was still a slave in Virginia. Gant became one of the wealthiest men in the county with a successful produce business, which originated that famous cantaloupe, the Dresden Melon. He worked hard and transported slaves in his wagons.
In speaking with Jim Geyer, museum director, he tells of interesting programs they are developing to attract more people to the museum and the area. There are several UGRR stops involved in the area, not just the Stone Academy.
Jim and other volunteers are reaching out to the community with a power point presentation suitable for schools, civic groups or retirement communities. He serves as a step-on guide for bus groups that come to the area. They are taken to various places in the Putnam Historic District that have a part in the UGRR story. At present, they have six sites locally that were part of that UGRR. These were called “safe houses”.
Soon they are planning to add another interesting spot to their tours – The Wilds! There the Lett Settlement consisted of a group of “free people of color” who later assisted the fleeing slaves.
Since the Stone Academy has been filled with so much activity over the years, it is no surprise that paranormal activity is frequently observed in the house and in the area. They have one special program called “History, Mystery, and Unsettled Spirits” that speaks of this phenomenon as well as some folklore. Ghost tours are conducted and paranormal investigations continue.
Henry Howell managed the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society and gave fiery speeches. The residents across the river were not happy with his speeches and came to burn his house down. Howell escaped but his dog was left behind. They found the dog later hung in the back yard. Claims are made that the spirit of the dog can still be heard barking today.
One problem they have at the Stone Academy is limited floor space and they have been discouraged from attaching pictures and displays to the walls. There are few artifacts here but much information in the form of charts and pictures. Due to the limited space, exhibits in the hallways are frequently changed.
The best part of the tour are the stories told by volunteers, who are very knowledgeable about its history.
The building served as a station for the Underground Railroad. A popular feature is a hidden trap door under the staircase that led to the crawl space under the building where the runaway slaves hid.
In the 1870s, Stone Academy became the private residence of Elizabeth Robbins, well-known actress, activist and writer. Today it is home to the display of the UGRR directed by Muskingum County History and located in the Putnam Historic District.
Freedom remains an important element of our lives today. May we remain a nation where our freedom of choice is never extinguished.
The Old Stone Academy is located in Zanesville, Ohio. From I-70, take Exit 155 to Underwood Street. Best to use your GPS to 115 Jefferson Street, which is across the Muskingum River using the 6th Street Bridge. There is an easy access parking lot beside the Stone Academy.