Glory, glory hallelujah.

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his house keeps marching on.

The 19th century abolitionist’s home at Copley and Diagonal roads in Akron feels as fresh as spring this year with a $375,000 project to restore its exterior. Funded in part with a $250,000 state grant, this phase of the painstaking work aims to keep the nearly 190-year-old building warm, safe and dry.

Most obvious to visitors is the home’s wood siding. The original old-growth tulip poplar had deteriorated beyond repair, so it has been carefully replaced to the precise dimensions with quarter-sawn cedar from Oregon.

“It’ll last forever, and it repels rodents and insects,” said Leianne Neff Heppner, president of the Summit County Historical Society.

The roof was redone with a polymer that resembles slate. The foundations and chimneys were pointed. The gutters and spouts were replaced.

And now interior work is beginning on the home.

A new exhibit, “Family, Farm, Freedom,” is being installed in the original two-room section of the 1830 house and will debut Thursday during a 219th birthday celebration for Brown.

Brown rented the home for $30 a year between 1844 and 1854 from Col. Simon Perkins, who lived in nearby Perkins Stone Mansion and was the son of Akron’s co-founder, Gen. Simon Perkins. The men were business partners in the wool industry, and Brown raised sheep on the Perkins property.

Brown was married twice and fathered 20 children, and lived with nine to 11 of them in the Akron home.

“Two or three were born in the house, and then two of them died here,” Neff Heppner said. “A young boy was buried out in the yard. John Brown did it kind of military style where he dug the hole and ran the wagon over it …”

“The other child died when she was scalded by the laundry. That child was buried at Glendale Cemetery. John Brown wasn’t home when that child died, and so the Perkinses actually did that on their behalf. She was placed in a potters field.”

The new exhibit features hands-on activities for visitors to learn more about the Summit County man who has been revered as a patriot and reviled as a terrorist.

“We want this to be an education resource for the community,” said Goodyear retiree Keith Collett, a member of the board of directors at the historical society.

The John Brown House is an official site of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The exhibit is funded with a $20,000 matching grant from the network through the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Communications Exhibits Inc. (CEI) of Canal Fulton built the displays.

“Family, Farm, Freedom” traces Brown’s life from his 1800 birth in an abolitionist household in Torrington, Conn., to his 1859 public execution in Virginia for leading a raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry in an attempt to start a slave rebellion. He lived most of his life in Summit County, including Hudson and Richfield Township.

A church pew in the exhibit is a reminder of how Brown denounced a Kent church for seating black parishioners in the back while white worshippers prayed up front. Deacons scolded Brown for allowing his family to switch seats with some of the African Americans, but during the next service, he did it again.

“He entertained African Americans in his home,” Collett said. “He sat them down at this table and he called them ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ Even though people called themselves abolitionists, John Brown was an exceptional one in that he actually believed black Americans were equals.”

The exhibit includes quotes about Brown from Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. There is a Bible, a rocking chair, a table, a family tree, a map of Brown’s travels. Historic photographs and personal letters are reproduced for visitors to view.

There are interactive displays for children, including color-coded blocks for kids to play with and put in order. Guests are invited to sit in a four-sided chair and contemplate provocative questions about Brown’s beliefs.

“We know we can’t tell them everything,” Collett said. “We want to get them interested in going to find out more for themselves.”

The exhibit does not shy away from Brown’s violent past in the Kansas territory. He became a federally wanted man in 1856 after he and his sons led a group that dragged five pro-slavery men from their homes and slaughtered them with broadswords.

“So that’s where the terrorist side comes in with John Brown,” Collett said.

In October 1859, Brown led 21 men in the ill-fated Harpers Ferry raid. Ten were killed, including two of Brown’s sons. He was captured, tried and condemned, and was hanged Dec. 2, 1859, in Charles Town, Va. Brown was buried in the free black community of North Elba, N.Y., on the farm where he once lived.

Akron artist Woodrow Nash, board director for the historical society, has sculpted busts of the five black men who served with Brown in the Harpers Ferry siege, and the lifelike artwork will be featured in the new exhibit.

Collett also credits Sarah Dannels, Bob Dill, Skip Scherer and Iris Bolar for their work on “Friends, Family, Freedom.”

“We want to use this as a way to bring people together,” he said. “People can see what the past was and how to make the future better.”

The work isn’t over at the John Brown House.

“We want to make the property accessible to all,” Leianne Neff Heppner said. “So here’s a man who gave his life for all people to be free, but not all people can get into his house. … And that’s just not acceptable.”

So this summer, work will begin on a ramp and accessible restroom. And the parking lot will finally be paved, allowing easier access to the landmark.

Perkins Stone Mansion is open for tours from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday through December. The John Brown House will have identical hours after its opening Thursday for the birthday party.

U.S. historians draw a line from Harpers Ferry to the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“You look at people that came from Summit County,” Collett said. “How many of them had the impact on the U.S. stage as much as John Brown?”

 

Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mprice@thebeaconjournal.com.