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Local history gets financial boost

County gets grant to study Underground Railroad

November 17, 2010
By EDWARD J. HUNT, The Leader-Herald

ST. JOHNSVILLE - The search for hidden history about the Underground Railroad and the plight of slaves in Montgomery County received a boost Tuesday from a statewide historic preservation group.

The Preservation League of New York State, in partnership with the state Council on the Arts, presented county Historian Kelly Farquhar a check for $10,000 so the county can continue to uncover and preserve local history of the movement to free and protect escaped slaves.

"The county has a rich history, and this grant will go a long way in continuing the effort to discover even more history," Farquhar said. She's found evidence of anti-slavery activity in several sites and intends to extend the current research.

Article Photos

A former grain mill in St. Johnsville may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. The sub-basement of the 1835 building has a tunnel leading to the road.

The Leader-Herald/Edward J. Hunt

"This project will tie together all of these loose ends into a comprehensive account of the anti-slavery activity in Montgomery County and its contribution to our nation's history," she said.

In addition to paying for additional research, the grant will allow the county to hire historic-structure consultant Judith Wellman to provide information about historic buildings in the area, including the former grain mill along Timmerman Creek in St. Johnsville, where the grant presentation was held Tuesday.

The mill, which was built around 1835, is now a bed and breakfast, The INn by the Mill, and features a sub-basement whose narrow tunnel leads out to the road. Ronald Hezel, who bought the building in 1988, said the bottom of the mill was a perfect place for escaped slaves to hide from bounty hunters sent by slave owners.

New York abolished slavery in 1827, but escaped slaves were still considered stolen property in the state, effectively stealing themselves from their masters when they ran away, Farquhar said. Anyone caught harboring an escaped slave was subject to arrest and jail.

The close proximity to the Erie Canal and the frequent grain wagons from the waterway to the mill made it a safe place for escapees to rest before continuing their journey to freedom, usually to Canada, explained Hezel.

Jay DiLorenzo, president of the Preservation League, said the group received $300,000 in grant requests. Seventeen projects in 14 counties were selected, with grants totaling $109,149. "The county's request really measured up, as there is a tremendous amount of history here," he said.

Farquhar's research showed a free black man from Canajoharie, Chester Bromley Hoke, joined the Union Army and fought in the nation's first all-black unit, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was the subject of the 1989 movie "Glory." He returned from the war to become a porter in his hometown.

Documents show some African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches were helping slaves to escape to freedom through Montgomery County. The churches were prominent in the anti-slavery movement, with members that included black abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.

Halcyon Farm, a bed and breakfast in the town of Florida, also likely served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, Farquhar said, along with another site in Fort Plain.

"This grant will allow us to continue finding new information in this historically rich county," Farquhar said.

Edward J. Hunt covers Montgomery County news. He can be reached by e-mail at



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