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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

New York State Will Restore Siding on John Brown's Farm House

LAKE PLACID - The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will be undertaking a number of repairs at the John Brown Farm Historic Site this winter.

The project will include window restoration, as well as putting on new eastern white cedar siding to replicate how the farm looked more than 150 years ago when the radical abolitionist lived there, according to a press release from the state.

None of the building's current siding is historic, having been replaced a number of times, most recently in the 1970s. Over the years, "the exterior siding has deteriorated to the point that air and water infiltration threaten to damage the house," the press release says. "The old siding has warped and cracked, window frames are cracked and caulking is missing, and other exterior building elements need repair."

This year marked the 150th anniversary of Brown's raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, (now W.) Va. and his subsequent hanging. It was marked and written about nationally, and a series of events, re-enactments and presentations were held in Lake Placid and elsewhere in Essex County to mark the anniversary.

Brown is buried on the farm along with a number of his followers, and the farmhouse and gravesite are open for tours from May through October.

Insulating the Farm for the Winter of 1855-56

Perhaps some of my readers share my obsessive interest in all things Brown, from Harper's Ferry to fine sheep and wool. The present plans to renovate the Brown farm house bring to mind two letters that the Old Man wrote after leaving New York State for the Kansas territory in 1855. The first, dated August 9, 1855, was written from Brown's home town of Hudson, Ohio, where he stopped to see his father (as it turned out, for the last time), family members, anti-slavery associates, and to gather money and weapons for the protection of free state settlers. The second, dated November 11, 1855, was written from Osawatomie, Kansas, probably from the home of his half-sister and brother-in-law, Florella and Samuel Adair (Brown arrived in the territory the month before).

My interest in these letters in this case pertain to Brown's plans to winterize the North Elba farm house despite his absence from home. Always one to plan in great detail, Brown was clearly contemplating the concerns of his wife and family during his extended (and possibly permanent) absence. Writing from Hudson, Brown thus informed Mary that before leaving North Elba he had talked with his son-in-law, Henry Thompson (Ruth's husband) about finishing the exterior of the house, particularly the shingles and clapboarding. Henry, a skilled carpenter, had built the house for his father-in-law in advance of the Brown's move back to the Adirondacks from Akron in the spring of 1855. Since Brown evidently was hoping to get Henry Thompson to join him in Kansas (which he did), he asked Henry to get his older brother, John Thompson, to finish the exterior work. Brown wrote:

I wish Watson would at once see Mr Nash, & secure enough of good Clapboards, & haul them into the Barn from the Mill after he gets through Haying. I want him to get John Thompson if he can; to take hold after Haying off while the weather is warm; & finish off the outside of the House good. I will see that the money is sent to pay for it. If he cannot get John Thompson; he must try to find some other good man; & have it done as the House will be as doubly as warm through the Winter. If he can get Lime, & Sand; & have some of the rooms plastered, I would be glad before freezeing weather comes; but the covering of the House properly will do most towards making it comfortable. I am anxious to have the Cellar dug, & walled up; as that you will greatly need, & will try to send money sufficient to enable Watson to bring it about; if good advice be had; & good management be had in those matters; before it gets too late in the season.1
The letter reminds us that when Brown left home, his son Watson (then nearly 20-years-old) was "the man of the house," and was left to manage the Brown farm and concerns for his mother, along with hired help. (Watson married Isabelle Thompson in September 1856, thus further tying together the Brown and Thompson families.2 He died as a result of wounds sustained during the battle of Harper's Ferry in October 1859). Brown had probably made prior arrangements with a neighbor, Pliny Nash, to purchase clapboards for the house and wanted Watson to follow through by obtaining the boards and storing them in the barn. It was Watson's job to get either John Thompson or another competent man to do the work. Brown also wanted the inside walls to be plastered, although he was particularly concerned to have the boards placed on the outside in order to make sure the family dwelling was warm during the long, cold mountain winter months. Recall that the Browns had lived in the Adirondacks previous to 1855, having rented a farm in North Elba from 1849-1851, after which they returned to Akron, Ohio, at the bequest of magnate Simon Perkins Jr. After Brown and Perkins dissolved their partnership, Brown decided to return to North Elba, while his elder sons had determined to migrate to Kansas. Lastly, Brown wanted to have an adequate cellar dug and walled for the house, which would be needful for storage. Regardless, Brown states that he would have to send the money for these projects to be completed, which likely means he would have to raise the funds in order to do so.

Incidentally, Brown says in this same letter that he had seen Frederick Douglass on August 7, 1855. Although he does not say where they met, it is possible that Brown met Douglass in Rochester, New York. Furthermore, this letter enables us to correct Villard's chronology at this point, which mistakenly says that Brown arrived in Hudson on August 15.3 He actually arrived on August 9, but even so, extant correspondence cannot adequately account for Brown's precise movements between June 28, when he attended an anti-slavery conference in Syracuse, New York (where he also saw Douglass), and his arrival in Hudson on August 9th.

Over a month after arriving in the Kansas territory, Brown thus wrote home to Mary at North Elba on November 23, 1855.4 Clearly his intentions to have had the exterior work done on the house were disappointed, perhaps because he had not been able to raise the cash necessary to pay for the materials and/or labor. In a letter to his father, Owen Brown, in Hudson, dated November 9, Brown wrote asking for a loan of $50. "I am looking for money from a number of sources but I may not get any for some time," he concluded.5 Regardless, now his son had written to him from New York, apparently confirming the failure of all efforts to complete the work.

Watson had written on October 3, undoubtedly reporting that things were not going well back in North Elba. They had hoped to raise some money by selling livestock to a man named Hurlbut in Connecticut, but this does not seem to have materialized. Meanwhile, Brown's sons were doing so poorly in Kansas that he was caught between a rock and a hard place. Desperate to help his freezing, struggling sons and their families on the prairie, he also had his own wife and younger children to worry about back in the Adirondacks. He already responded once to Watson's letter, writing to Mary on November 2, sharing the dismal news of their family's condition in Kansas. Typically optimistic about things getting "brighter here before long," nevertheless Brown assured Mary that his sad report was not done to make her "more unhappy," but point out that they were not doing any better out west. Brown did not want them to think that Kansas was "paradise" even though they had "to stay in that miserable Frosty region" of the Adirondacks.6

Having written so bluntly may have bothered him afterward, particularly as he was so far away from Mary and his tireless mind probably was working over time to figure a solution for the insulation of the farm house. On November 23, he finally dashed off another letter, this time offering a tentative solution:
Since Watson wrote, I have felt a great deal troubled about your prospects of a cold house to winter in, and since I wrote last I have thought of a cheap ready way to help it much, at any rate. Take any common straight-edged boards, and run them from the ground up to the eaves, barn fashion, not driving the nails in so far but that they may easily be drawn, covering all but doors and windows as close as may be in that way, and breaking joints if need be. This can be done by any one, and in any weather not very severe, and the boards may afterwards be mostly saved for other uses.7
John Brown followed up on this improvisational method, mentioning it again in a letter written on November 30, wherein he also expressed concern over whether they had sold their livestock. He also complained that he had not heard from home,8 which is why he could also write to his father in Ohio saying that he could only assume that his family in New York had successfully made the sale. In fact, old Owen had written to him, informing him that his family in North Elba had written to Ohio, seeking financial assistance for their Adirondack problems. To learn that his father had had to bail out his family back home only after the fact was a real source of anxiety and embarrassment to John Brown. Writing to his father on December 5, he thus explained:
I did suppose full provision had been made (by way of Cattle to be sold for me in Connecticut) for those at North Elba; but it seems they had received nothing from that source when they applied to you for help. I still hope they are relieved from that quarter before now; & I would not have asked you to send assistance this way had I thought of your getting a call from them. . . .9
In fact, the worried old man in Ohio had no intention of overlooking either his family in New York or Kansas, and had sent money to both. Whatever was ultimately done to the Brown farm house is not clear, but apparently the money that Mary sought and received was applied to some extent in securing an insulated home for the winter months. Writing to Mary on December 16, 1855, John Brown reported how his father's generosity had flowed both east and west, and the matter now seems to have been settled: "We have received Fifty Dollars from Father, & learn from him that he has sent you the same amount for which we ought to be grateful; as we are much relieved both as respects ourselves; & you. . . . Do write often & let me know all about how you get along through the Winter."10

In fact, his letter was lengthy, filled with the details of the growing crisis in Kansas. Ever the optimist, Brown's 1855 letters regarding the political condition of the territory were hopeful and positive in anticipating the success of the free state cause. Things shifted in late 1855 and with the coming of spring, his attentions would be fully drawn into conflict with pro-slavery terrorism. In August 1856, after his son Frederick was murdered by a pro-slavery preacher named Martin White, young Watson himself would set out for Kansas, along with his brother Salmon, with the intention of tracking down White and killing him. Brown would turn them back from their revenge, but Watson would ultimately follow his father down to Virginia and die, along with his brother Oliver, in a failed effort to launch a liberation movement in Virginia. Father and sons would be carried home to North Elba and interred just outside the humble farm house.

Interestingly, after her husband's death, Mary Brown came into some money through the royalties from Redpath's biography of her husband as well as donations sent from black and white friends and supporters. While she hardly made a fortune in this way, she was able to make significant additions to the farm house's structure. When she relocated to the west coast in 1864, she left behind a finished, expanded structure that would have made her husband proud. In the 20th century the John Brown farm house was restored to its form of 1855, the way Brown himself knew it. But once again, John Brown's farm house is in need of work.


1 Exact transcription of portion of letter from John Brown, Hudson, Ohio, to Mary Brown, North Elba, New York, August 9, 1855, from the original in the Gee Collection, Hudson Library & Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio.
2 The Thompson family was large and Isabell (known affectionately as "Bell") was the only daughter among the eleven children of Roswell and Jane Thompson, ages . In 1855, the Thompson siblings were: John (36), Archibald (35), Henry (33), Franklin (31), Samuel (29), Leander (26), twins William and Willard (23), Isabell (19), Roby (21), and Dauphin (17). The Browns were tied to the Thompsons through love and death, as it were: Isabell married Watson Brown, Henry married Ruth Brown, and William and Dauphin died as Brown's men at Harper's Ferry in 1859. See 1850 Census of North Elba, Essex County, New York, September 6, 1850.
4 See John Brown, Osawatomie, Kansas territory, to Mary Brown et al., North Elba, New York, November 23, 1855, in Franklin B. Sanborn, The Life and Letters of John Brown, 3rd Edition (Concord, Mass.: Published by the Author ), pp. 204-05.
7 See note 4.
10 John Brown, Osawatomie, Kansas Territory, to Mary Brown, North Elba, N.Y., December 16, 1855, 1:15, Kansas State Historical Society.

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