Springfield residents can connect to the history of resistance to slavery by visiting The Gammon House, a stop on the 19th-Century Underground Railroad for people seeking freedom.
Camille Hall, a board member of The Gammon House Committee, says preserving the structure has provided a physical reminder of important struggles by African-Americans and abolitionists.
“This house touches on a dark time in history,” Hall says. “It shows what side we stood on in Springfield. The fact you can touch the walls and stand in the house – it’s living history.”
George and Sarah Gammon built the small (about 30 foot, by 30 foot) brick house, located at 620 Piqua Place, around 1850, and they lived there until their deaths in 1902 and 1904, respectively. They raised six children there, as well as providing shelter to people escaping to freedom. Out of about known 100 Underground Railroad sites in Ohio, the house is one of three owned by African Americans.
The Underground Railroad was a loosely organized, secretive network that provided transportation and safe houses to people escaping slavery by heading north into non-slave states and usually all the way to Canada. The Ohio River was the divide between slave states and free states, so Ohio became an important location for Underground Railroad activity.
John Bailey, who has been active in the restoration of and research about The Gammon House for more than 20 years, says detailed documentation about the period is difficult to locate because the Underground Railroad was an illegal operation.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 imposed a prison term of up to six months and a fine of $1,000 (equivalent to $36,000 today) for anyone who aided a person fleeing slavery.
“The Underground Railroad operation was very secretive, very closely held,” Bailey says. Each “station” usually only knew about the next stop on the journey north. So, someone in Xenia might send an escapee on to the Gammons, who would instruct them to go to Urbana or Mechanicsburg.
Art Thomas and Dale Henry were also part of the group that worked to preserve The Gammon House starting in the late 1990s, when the structure was slated for demolition. They worked with the South Fountain Preservation Association, which took over ownership of the property and eventually deeded it to The Gammon House Committee.
“The Gammon House is the only real African-American landmark in Springfield,” Henry says. “We have an obligation to pass it on to future generations.”
The house was “in pretty bad shape” after being modified into a duplex, having a succession of renters, and sitting vacant for at least 20 years, Thomas says.
Bailey called it “derelict to the point of being hazardous” with a failing roof, collapsed chimneys, and a deteriorating interior. He said the first tasks were to demolish the unsafe parts, such as the floor and roof, then work to stabilize the walls and openings for doors and windows.
The group hired Hardlines Design Company, a Columbus architectural firm specializing in historic preservation, to guide them in restoring the house to look as it would have when the Gammon family lived in it. The renovation proceeded in fits and starts, as money could be raised to pay for the work. Through the years, support has come from the City of Springfield, The Turner Foundation, the Springfield Foundation, individual donors, and others.
For years, the group kept working in phases: first, installing proper doors and windows and a solid floor; then, restoring the interior walls and installing a ceiling, interior trim, mantles, and lights.
Last September, the successful restoration was celebrated with the installation of a plaque recognizing the house as an Ohio Underground Railroad site. Hall says the plaque, which faces Center Street, helps people to notice the house.
“Before, when you passed by, it just seemed like a small brick house,” Hall says. “Now, with the plaque, you see this hidden treasure.”
Also, last fall, the Springfield Rotary Club sponsored the installation of a concrete ramp to make the house handicapped-accessible.
Another recent touch has been the painting of “Signal Quilt” designs on nearby Center Street, with young artists sponsored by Springfield Promise Neighborhood and the Project Choice program of the Springfield Metropolitan Housing Authority. Folklore holds that these designs were coded messages meant to guide freedom seekers on their way.
The committee hopes to develop the site more extensively in the future, creating space for more educational programming and other activities, Henry says. They want to improve the website and undertake more ambitious marketing.
The house serves as peg on which to tell the wider story of Springfield’s significance as a hub of the Underground Railroad, Bailey says.
“We know this house is a community treasure, but we want it to evolve to a regional point of interest,” Henry says.
Hall sees the preservation of The Gammon House as something that future generations can learn from.
“We’re doing something and creating something that will live long beyond us,” Hall says. “When the Gammons started utilizing their house to help their fellow citizens, they created a legacy we can learn from to help others.”