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Eight Miles That Changed a Nation

Wellington/Oberlin History and the Underground Railroad
Part I

Photo: Holly Miller

We’re all dreading the rising price of gas this summer. If you can’t afford to travel far, give your family a meaningful experience this summer and show them the real origins of the Civil War – right here in Lorain County. This year, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War in America, and it all began in the towns of Wellington and Oberlin on September 13, 1858.

Back then, Northeast Ohio was a hotbed of the abolition movement in the U.S.  An “Underground Railroad” had been operating for years, bringing slaves to freedom in Ohio and then to Canada, which had, under the British Slavery Abolition Act, banned slavery in 1833. 

But it was a secret railroad with no engine or whistle, no iron tracks or depots, no tickets or schedules. In the darkness of night, slaves made their way up from the South to Ohio via “conductors,” or guides. They found shelter in hiding places and safe houses called “stations.” Wellington, OH, was “Stop 98” on the Underground Railroad; Oberlin, farther north, was “Stop 99” on the way to Lake Erie and the boat trip to freedom in southern Ontario, Canada.

The Wellington-Oberlin Rescue

On September 13, 1858, a scared and fragile 17-year-old former slave, John Price, was tricked into being captured in Oberlin by Federal marshals, who were acting under the laws of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850). The marshals planned to return Price to Kentucky and his “owners,” despite the fact that Price had lived as a free man in Oberlin for two years. There had been three attempted captures of former slaves in the area in 1858 alone. The marshals drove Price in stealth to the American House (Wadsworth Hotel) in Wellington. 

American House Hotel in Wellington.
Photo courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

Passions ran so high against slavery in Northeast Ohio that few residents of Oberlin or Wellington dallied or debated when they learned that Price had been captured. They took action. They sped off in buggies for the eight-mile journey to Wellington, along what is now Hallauer Road.

More than 200 Wellington and Oberlin residents — former slaves and free men, lawyers, college students and professors, religious leaders and ordinary citizens – gathered at the American House in Wellington to pressure the Federal marshals into releasing Price. The marshals refused. Finally, 37 men — 11 from Wellington, 24 from Oberlin and two from Pittsfield and Penfield – orchestrated the dramatic re-capture of young Price and returned him to Oberlin. It was a bloodless event. Price was hidden in the home of Dr. James Fairchild, who later became President of Oberlin College. The 37 men who led the rescue were arrested and sent to Cleveland for trial.

The Rescuers at the Cleveland Jail
Charles Henry Langston, one of the African-American rescuers who was tried, plead to the Cleveland court:

“We have a common humanity. You would do so; your manhood would require it; and no matter what the laws might be, you would honor yourself for doing it; your friends would honor you for doing it; your children to all generations would honor you for doing it; and every good and honest man would say, you had done right!”

Anti-slavery sentiments prevailed, and Langston was given a light sentence. The “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue” was reported as a triumph throughout the Union media and further roused anti-slavery sentiment, which spurred the start of the Civil War in America. While John Price finally made his way to Canada as a free man, no further evidence of his life there has been discovered.

When you retrace the dramatic history of Lorain County this summer or beyond, make sure to visit these sites:

Wellington: “Stop 98” on the Underground Railroad

Webster House
Lorain Public Library photo

You can literally drive by “Stop 98” on the Underground Railroad: the Alonzo Webster House [located at 46785 Route 18 West], which hid many runaway slaves. The house is now a private residence and is not open to the public. Webster was a cousin of statesman Daniel Webster.

Be sure to chat with Tim Simonson, owner of the Simonson Clock Shop [226 South Main Street], who lives and breathes Wellington history. Curator of The Spirit of ’76 Museum in town, Tim recalls how, as a boy, his parents proudly showed him houses that harbored runaway slaves. His great-, great-grandparents were witnesses to the Rescue.

Spirit of ’76 Museum, Wellington

The site of the Wellington-Oberlin Rescue, American House, was torn down, and its place is the Herrick Memorial Library [101 Willard Memorial Square]. A must-stop is The Spirit of ’76 Museum [201 North Main Street], which houses hundreds of artifacts on the Wellington-Oberlin Rescue, the Civil War and more. Here you’ll find original photographs of the Rescuers, court proceedings related to them and a bust of the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, who led the Harpers Ferry raid. Scott Markel, vice president of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, is proud to announce the recent, exciting discovery of abolitionist meeting documents, a rarity in the secret anti-slavery movement. The Museum will begin transcribing these papers this summer for display at a future date.
Also housed in the Museum are a complete collection of Civil War guns and bullets, plus Grand Army of the Republic uniforms. A special bonus, you’ll find prints by artist Archibald Willard, who is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery in Wellington. Willard crafted the famous painting “The Spirit of ’76” after he saw a parade pass through Wellington’s town square.

Wellington Town Hall

Because of its extensive collection, you’ll want to linger longer in the Museum, but why not take a break? Head for lunch at the Bread-N-Brew [100 South Main Street], a bakery and gourmet coffee shop with delectable sandwiches and bread. Across the street you can’t miss Wellington Town Hall, with its stunning Byzantine cupolas. Later, take a spin around town to view Wellington’s breathtaking, Victorian-era mansions.
Wellington is also rich in fairs and festivals, including the Scottish Games, the Lorain County Fair, the Wellington Cheese Festival and Harvest of the Arts.

-Margaret Swendseid

posted by lorain at 3:03 pm

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