Shirley Willard was appointed Fulton County Historian 20 years ago by the Indiana Historical Society. She
writes a column of history that appears in the Rochester Sentinel, South Bend Tribune and other Indiana
newspapers. Shirley was president of the Fulton County Historical Society for 30 years, 1971-2001, until she
retired on her 65th birthday in Sept. 2001. Shirley does not believe in copyrighting history but if you want to
use any of her materials, please let her know and give her credit in your writings.
Fulton County had Underground Railroad stations
By Shirley Willard, Fulton County Historian
The Underground Railroads are now called Freedom Trails. Escaped slaves crossed Indiana and Fulton
County on their way to freedom in Michigan or Canada. Historians and African-American groups have been
researching Underground Railroads (UGRR) and the "stations" or safe houses across Indiana and other
northern states. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Historic Preservation and
Archaeology began in 1999 researching Indiana's Freedom Trails, asking all counties to contribute help in
February is Black History Month, which began in 1926 as "Negro History Week," started by Dr. Carter G.
Woodson, who was born to former slaves. So in honor of Black History Month, I want to share with you the
information I sent to Indiana's Freedom Trails.
Fulton County had several homes near Akron, Rochester and Kewanna that served as safe havens or
Underground Railroad stations. The abolitionists and Quakers helped runaway slaves in their fleeing to
northern states and Canada by hiding them during daylight hours and transporting them at night on to the next
station. The Federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 required that escaped slaves be returned to their owners and
stated that it was a crime to help a slave escape. After the 1850 Fugitive Slave Laws was passed by Congress,
the amount of activity on the UGRR increased, despite the heavy penalties imposed by the law on anyone who
helped runaway slaves. It is estimated that some 50,000 slaves made it to freedom through the UGRR from
The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, published in 1968, has a map showing "Routes Through
Indiana and Michigan in 1848." It shows one route through Rochester. It shows two places where the UGRR
crossed into Michigan: one between South Bend and Niles, and another north of Fort Wayne and Auburn.
UGRR stations included houses, barns, haymows, strawstacks that were hollowed out, corncribs, woodsheds,
secret chambers, and smokehouses. The runaway slaves were hidden in attics, root cellars, basements,
closets, and secret rooms. Caves and swamps made great natural hiding places. Unfortunately for today's
historians, not much was written about them. It was a very dangerous undertaking, and sometimes the slaves
and the people trying to help them were killed by slave hunters who came to catch the runaways. Only a few
Fulton County residents involved with the actual stations wrote anything that has been preserved. However,
the old county histories did record the names of some individuals who helped the escaping slaves in their flight
from the South to freedom in Michigan or Canada.
I found references to seven different safe houses, or UGRR stations, where escaping slaves were given
shelter and then escorted on the next evening to another safe house further north. Akron had three.
1. Dr. Joseph Sippy house in Akron, located on Rochester Street east of the stoplight where parking lot is now,
east of Lake City Bank and Akron Floral & Gift Shop. Samuel Essick operated an Underground Railroad
station in the stables of his tannery at Gilead in Miami County. About 11 o'clock at night, his son Michael
Essick later reported, he and father Samuel led them by a trail in the woods to Akron where they were housed
another day by Dr. Sippy, founder of Akron in 1836. I would like to suggest that Akron erect a historical marker
for Dr. Sippy in the parking lot, as they plan to turn it into a small park. Be sure to mention the Underground
2. John Ball house at Akron, located northwest of Akron near Ball one-room school at 100 N and 1075 E,
where David Starner lives now. John's son, Ancil B. Ball, wrote his memories, published in Home Folks c. 1910:
"When I was a boy I used to see one or two negroes come down from our loft in the evening, to get into a
wagon with a white driver and go north toward the Canadian line. Dr. Sippy and my father both kept
3. Alexander Curtis house, located on the south side of Indiana 14 about a mile west of Akron, a three-story
brick farmhouse, pictured in the 1883 Fulton County Historical Atlas. Curtis and his brother Nathaniel came
from North Carolina and were Quakers. According to Nathaniel Curtis' great- granddaughter Frances Curtis
Bond, their safe haven was in a concealed room in the dug-out basement of his farm house. Not only slaves
but also immigrants who were escaping from their oppressive countries were helped, as they looked for better
lives in the USA. The house still stands and is lived in by Margaret and Roma Webb. The house has two
fireplaces in the basement but the Webbs know of no hidden room. Perhaps the UGRR station was the house
that existed there before the present house. Henry Barnhart's History of Fulton County states that Curtis had a
double log cabin with large fireplace, later replaced by a commodious house. Either house or both might have
served as UGRR stations.
There were four more UGRR stations in Fulton County, which will be my subject tomorrow.
Ellen the Champion Cow
Rochester's Giant Bear
Jim Talbott Memorial
|Fulton County Historical Society