Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Hiding Place for Slaves?

This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here

A center-chimney colonial home is, because of the way it is constructed, filled with good hiding places. To understand why, you must first travel in your imagination to the cellar, where you will see the base of the huge central chimney. I tried very hard to find a photo or diagram of one of these chimneys, with no luck, so we will have to use the imagination method.

Back to the cellar--a good part of it is taken up by the base of the chimney which, amazingly, is about 10 feet by 10 feet square. I don't know anything about engineering, but this chimney supports a number of structural beams and is thus necessarily large. The base is built with a big arch, further strengthening its load bearing capacity (I'm on shaky ground here--please comment if you know more about colonial chimney construction than I do). 

Now, picture the chimney where it comes out of the roof of the house. It is probably no more than 2 feet square at this point, and if you were to stand on the roof and look down its center, you would see that four separate fireplaces have flues built into it.

Given that the chimney is surrounded by square rooms of equal dimensions, and since it is reduced in size between the cellar and the roofline, you will begin to see that there must be a number of spaces around it not visible from the rooms built next to it. Our children found one right away when they noticed a small triangular opening under the attic stairs. It was too little for any adult to enter, which added to their delight when they found that by wriggling through, taking an immediate left and crawling up over a half wall, they discovered a tiny "room." The first one through into the little room screamed and backed out hurriedly, as she had seen a sweater hanging up in there that made her think she was seeing a person. Obviously, the "B" children had used these hiding places, too.

Downstairs in the original kitchen, one of the square front rooms, there was a door to the left of the fireplace that led into a sort of small storeroom. Not visible from the storeroom doorway, however, was an area to the right that was located between the back of the kitchen fireplace and the back of The Pretty Room fireplace on the other side of the house. Several adults could fit in that space. 

The third hiding place that we found was under the floorboards in one of the upstairs front bedrooms. There was a tiny closet in this room, a rarity in such an old house, and one day I noticed that one of the boards in the floor looked a little "off." My son obligingly lifted the board, crawled in, and soon found himself behind the mantel of the keeping room fireplace downstairs. 

The kids, as you can well imagine, had a wonderful time showing these secret spots to their friends. One day there was a line of kids at the door, on their way home from a baseball game across the street at the park. They were apparently waiting to come through for a tour being given by one of the boys. Imagine our embarrassment when we found out that a cache of Playboy Magazines belonging to one of the older "B" boys had been found in a secret room, leading to added interest in the tour being given that day!

These secret places in old colonial homes give rise to stories about the Underground Railroad, a secret network of homes with hiding places where slaves were hidden on their way to freedom in Canada. After all, there are plenty of places in such a home to hide people out of sight. However, anyone who lives in an old New Hampshire town would know this about the houses in the neighborhood, making the hiding places not so secret after all. So, we were never able to document any real historical background to the rumors about our particular house being used as a hiding place for runaway slaves traveling north. 

There was actually a play written by a local teacher that was inspired by the stories surrounding our house. 


Sylvia K said...

Really fascinating, Clair! What fun for kids to live in such a house with all it's secret places! I remember one in my Grandmother's house where I use to love to sneak into and hide. Thanks for another great chapter!

June Saville said...

Absorbing Claire - I can feel the ghosts ...
You have quite a responsibility living in such a house.
June in Oz

June Saville said...

I've found my way right to the beginning of your blog and it's been worth it. Am really enjoying your adventures when newly arrived in Clovis et al. You've really captured the place. What character!
June in Oz

Judy said...

Maybe, there was two hidden fireplaces. lol. This house gets more fascinating by the minute. What an adventure.

Rebecca Zarges-Joy said...

The "secret hiding places" I used to call them! I loved those rooms! They were always my favorite thing in the house! Mostly because my friends were fascinated by them and they always wanted to come over to explore. The other reason (oh boy was this a good one) was, as you said, only children could fit in them so when I knew I was in trouble I used to go in the one under the attic stairs,climb over the chimney and sit in the room.(I'm sure to your frustration). Luckily you had Ben to "fetch" me. Lol. The best was when Ben became the size of an adult and could no longer fit through the hole!(Haha!) Lol. One more thing- I once shared with my class that my house may have been a part of the Underground Railroad and she argued with me and made me feel stupid by saying,"there is no way it could have been because the house is too far North. The slaves could walk freely up North. They had no reason to hide." Well.. Maybe she shouldn't have been a teacher after-all.(Epecially one teaching about the Underground Railroad!) Lol