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Local historians hope Ohio's new Underground Railroad trail will help bring patrons back to museums

John Brown House in Akron
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
The John Brown House, located off of Copley Road in Akron, is one of 15 sites featured on the recently launched Ohio Historical Underground Railroad Trail.

Northeast Ohio historians are hoping a new Ohio tourism trail will help museums continue to recover from pandemic-related drops in visitors.

The Ohio Department of Development and TourismOhio recently launched the Ohio Historic Underground Railroad Trail, a map featuring 15 stops across the state to commemorate people and places that played a major role in the movement.

“The story of the Underground Railroad is both the interconnectedness of people and communities in Ohio,” said Robb Hyde, executive director of the Haines House Underground Railroad Museum. “Ohio was the main line of the Underground Railroad, and so there are communities big and small, from the Ohio River all the way to Lake Erie, that were involved in the Underground Railroad.”

Located in Alliance, the Haines House is one of the four Northeast Ohio sites included on the trail. Ridgeway and Sarah Grant Haines, the daughter of some of Stark County’s early settlers, John and Nancy Grant, purchased the house in 1852. The Haines were abolitionists and opened their home to freedom-seekers as a station on the Underground Railroad, Hyde said.

Haines House museum in Alliance, Ohio
Alliance Area Preservation Society
The Haines House Underground Railroad Museum in Alliance is one of 15 stops on Ohio's new Historical Underground Railroad Trail.

Visitation to heritage museums has dropped in recent years due to COVID-19 pandemic-related closures and restrictions, Hyde added. Social media and digital outreach have helped the Haines House draw in more visitors and get admission back to where it was before the pandemic, he said.

The state’s new guide will be shared in Tourism Ohio’s print publications as well as its social media platforms, Hyde added.

“We’re proud that we’re included, but most especially because so much of their efforts are now focused into social media, into the Internet, and that’s what’s really brought visitors back to us,” Hyde said. “Being one of just 15 noted on the trail makes us feel special.”

TheJohn Brown House in Akron is also on the list.

The house was owned by the Perkins family, who founded the city of Akron. They rented it out to John Brown during the 1840s as he worked as a shepherd for the family, said Leianne Neff Heppner, executive director of the Summit County Historical Society. Brown was a conductor on the Underground Railroad while he lived in Akron.

Brown would go on to become a well-known abolitionist who infamously attempted a slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. The failed uprising resulted in 10 deaths. Brown was tried and hanged for treason.

Some people are surprised to learn that the influential abolitionist spent most of his life in Summit County, Neff Heppner said.

When she learned the site would be included on the state’s new list, she was surprised and excited, she said.

“It’s going to alert more people to the information and the knowledge of the past, and that the work of John Brown - although most people recognize him [for what he did in] 1859 – is still important in today’s society,” Neff Heppner said.

Like Hyde at the Haines House, Neff Heppner hopes the designation will attract new visitors to the site.

“It’s an opportunity, like the announcement of this trail, that ... really awakens and alerts others to the spaces that are right next door to them, to make sure that you're taking time to learn about your local history,” Neff Heppner said.

Hyde added that increased visitation ultimately helps historic sites stay open to the public.

“We’re an entirely volunteer organization, and so every person that comes in and donates to it, that money is going right into the care and maintenance of the Haines House, to the school programs we offer and to give everybody some really genuine insight into the really complex period that led up to a Civil War for our nation,” Hyde said.

The Hubbard House Underground Railroad Museum in Ashtabula and Follet House Museum in Sandusky are also included on the trail.

The Ohio Department of Development and TourismOhio launched the trail in September, which is International Underground Railroad Month in Ohio.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.