Kids learn about town’s historic role
NEW MILFORD — At one time, a series of tunnels and hidden chambers in homes around town served as sanctuaries to slaves trying to flee to freedom in Canada using the Underground Railroad.
Several of them are still standing, not far from where a dozen children recently sat at the historical museum as they learned about the Underground Railroad and the role New Milford played in helping slaves escape.
“There are periods in our history that we’re not proud of, but they have to know and they have to learn,” said Anita Regan, who leads the educational programs at the historical society and museum.
She said former librarian Kathy Elmore approached the historical society with the idea for the Black History Month program, specifically geared toward second- through fifth-graders, and it readily agreed.
The program featured stories, an activity that allowed the kids to create paper quilt squares while learning how symbols on quilts relayed messages on the route north and the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” sung to represent the slaves’ journey to freedom by following the Big Dipper.
Nia Evans, a third-grader there with members of her Girl Scout troop , said she knew of the Underground Railroad from her Harriet Tubman and American Girl books, but was excited to learn New Milford was a part of it.
There are at least eight houses believed to have been a part of the Underground Railroad in New Milford, all of which were included on a walking tour in 2003.
Curator Lisa Roush said none of the New Milford sites are included on the Freedom Trail because those require two primary source documents and these houses only have one primary source document.
“It’s hard to do because it was a secret so not many people were writing about it,” she said.
She said it was very likely slaves stayed in New Milford because Frederick Gunn in Washington was a known abolitionist and they would have traveled through town to meet him.
Regan focused on the large brick house on Grove Street, that once belonged to Elisha Bostwick, a prominent man in town and the town clerk. He had owned slaves but freed them when he realized it was wrong, instead leading a campaign for others to follow suit and opening his house to serve as a station.
“If you go in the house today, you’ll see the little tunnels and passageways where the slaves hid,” she said.
The other houses include the Boardman house, which now serves as the Cramer and Anderson law office, two houses on Second Hill Road, the Knowles house on Old Town Park Road, the Sabin house and Quaker meeting house on Route 7, and the Thayer House on Route 67, which is now a dentist’s office.
Josh Violette, a fourth-grader, said he’s working on a nonfiction chapter book for school about the Underground Railroad and plans to use the information he learned Thursday in that.
He said he didn’t know the Big Dipper was also called the “drinking gourd” and will see the constellation in a new light now when it appears in the sky. It’s also why he decided to draw it above a field of green for his quilt square.
“I’m going to think about how it was a big part of the Underground Railroad,” he said.
Lydia Hyde, a third-grader there with her troop, said she enjoyed hearing the stories and creating the quilt square.
“Art can help you learn about things,” she said. “Through the art project I got to learn about freedom quilts and what they mean.”
Different symbols or colors shared secret messages with the slaves without having to speak. The books spoke about how a blue center square showed a house was safe and the monkey wrench pattern could signal to other slaves that that family was leaving.
“It’s quite amazing,” she said.