Local group wants to honor city-owned Underground Railroad site, currently being used for storage
Though Lawrence proudly touts its abolitionist past, one of the only standing Underground Railroad stops in the city is being used for nothing more than storage.
The city-owned property was originally the barn of abolitionist settlers Joel and Emily Grover, and dates back to the territorial days of Kansas. Its limestone walls once hid fleeing slaves, including a group led by well-known abolitionist John Brown. Now, the space and those stories seem locked away.
But a local preservation group is trying to change that. Kerry Altenbernd, chair of the recently formed Guardians of Grover Barn, said he thinks the site has the potential to be a showpiece for Lawrence.
“The history of that building compels us to do more, I think, to honor the people who were there: the Grovers, the freedom seekers, John Brown, his men,” Altenbernd said. “All the toil and suffering that they went through to do what they did there makes that so important that that story gets out.”
Altenbernd, who is also known for his portrayals of Brown, is one of about 10 members of the group, which includes historians and local residents such as Judy Sweets, Steve Nowak and Jeanne Klein. Members of the group worked with the city to apply for a National Park Service program that would officially recognize the site as a stop on the Underground Railroad. But the group’s hopes for the site, which for years has been used to store city police equipment, go beyond that. Ideally, they’d like to see the site be more accessible to the public.
Nowak, who is also the executive director at the Watkins Museum of History, said the ultimate goal is that the building fulfill some kind of public function, such as an exhibit space, community center, public archive or research center. Nowak said the building is a rarity not only because of its age and hard-to-come-by documentation as an Underground Railroad stop, but because it is one of only two standing stops in Lawrence.
The other stop, a private residence, is the Robert H. Miller home and farm at 1111 E. 19th St.
“The building itself is older than the state of Kansas,” Nowak said of the Grover Barn. “There aren’t a lot of structures, partly because Quantrill’s Raid burned down town, that can say that they were here before the state was established.”
But the effort to make something more of the landmark faces challenges, including a lack of designated funding and the city’s initiative to consolidate rather than expand its operations.
A question of money
Even if passersby don’t know its history, the property will likely still catch their attention. The rough-cut limestone barn with a gable roof was built in 1858 and once sat alone on the small hill that at the time was located on Grover’s 160-acre homestead a few miles outside town, according to the city’s application. Now, the 160-year-old building, located at 2819 Stone Barn Terrace, sits between single-family suburban homes.
The city acquired the building in 1980 and used the property as a fire station, but its use turned to storage once the station relocated in 2006. Previous efforts were undertaken to make the barn into some kind of museum but they never came to fruition.
Though City Commissioner Matthew Herbert, who also teaches history at Lawrence High School, recognized the building’s historic significance, he said the site’s future is ultimately a budget decision.
“When you approach things from a City Commission standpoint, while there is certainly emotion involved in any decision, you have an obligation to make sure that your decision falls within a budget that you adopt,” Herbert said.
However, some improvements to the site might be possible that could be funded through other sources. Currently, no outside marker announces the site’s historic significance or the stories of those who took shelter there.
If the barn receives the national Underground Railroad designation, it would be eligible for certain national grants. Those grants range from $1,000 to $20,000, and the city’s historic resources administrator, Lynne Braddock Zollner, said they could be used for educational programming such as markers, signage or other visuals to tell the story of the site.
Braddock Zollner said a lot of research has been done about the history of the property, and making that information available is important.
“It’s a tangible piece of history,” Braddock Zollner said. “…It is very important to not only the history of Lawrence, the county and the state, but to the national history.”
The barn’s stories
Sweets, one of the group members, helped conduct research for the city’s application.
It’s not known how many slaves sought shelter at the barn, but a group of 12 people led by Brown is the best documented, according to the application. Brown and his men helped the group escape from plantations during raids in Missouri in 1858, events that were recorded in letters, diaries and newspaper accounts.
Sweets said most of the names of the people who escaped are known, and she has been able to get in touch with the descendants of one couple, Sam and Jane Harper. She said they continue to live in Canada and did not know the details of their ancestors’ escape.
Because the Underground Railroad was by nature a secretive operation, Sweets said it’s very rare to have documented proof that a structure was part of the network. She said she thinks if the barn receives the designation, it will help increase heritage tourism.
“It’s such a treasure that it’s still standing and we’re still discovering the stories that went on,” Sweets said. “I’m still doing research myself on the people who came through there.”
Sweets said she wants to make sure the structure is in good condition so it can be there for future generations to see. Although arranged events have been held at the former barn with special permission from the city, it would be great if the building could be even more accessible to the public, she said.
The Guardians of Grover Barn group has been working with another historically focused organization, Freedom’s Frontier. The Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area highlights the role eastern Kansas and western Missouri played in the days leading up to the Civil War.
Freedom’s Frontier Executive Director Jim Ogle said in an email to the Journal-World that the heritage area strongly supports the local effort to officially recognize the Grover Barn as a stop on the Underground Railroad and make it more accessible to the public. Like Sweets, he noted that few sites are as well-documented as the Grover Barn.
Even so, what the city does with the property will ultimately be up to the City Commission, whose goals may not be in line with such efforts. Herbert pointed to the city’s recent efforts to consolidate its operations to save money. While he is open to discussing other uses for the site, he said using it for storage is a “productive use” right now.
“We’re looking at consolidating city facilities, not really expanding them,” Herbert said. “Particularly as we talk about whether the city will move into Riverfront, I guess I want to make sure that any time we spend money, that we are spending it for a reason and not just because we want to.”
Though Altenbernd acknowledged that cost is an issue, he said the site could potentially be staffed with volunteers and that the group plans to work with the city to figure out the possibilities. Ultimately, he said the Grover Barn is a publicly owned building and that the residents of Lawrence should have a say in how it’s used.
“We’re the city; the city is the people of Lawrence,” Altenbernd said. “So each one of us is a co-owner in that building, and each one of us should be able to have a say in what happens to it.”