John Brown House added to Underground Railroad Network site

by Dan Holland

The Richfield community now has a second historic home listed with the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The John Brown House, located at 4138 W. Streetsboro Rd., was officially awarded the designation this fall.

According to a NPS news release, noted abolitionist John Brown lived in the Cape Cod-style home from 1842-1844 and was employed as a shepherd by fellow abolitionist and friend Mason Oviatt. Oviatt’s 1836 home, which is now part of Richfield Heritage Preserve, was added to the NPS registry in 2021.

Richfield resident Serena Juchnowski wrote the applications to the NPS for both homes. Linda Fleming and Juanita Taylor, members of the Richfield Historical Society, helped with the research.

According to Juchnowski, Brown lived in three homes during his time in Richfield, and hid runaway slaves in the cellar of the home on state Route 303 near Brecksville Road. It is believed that an outside trap door led to a door in the basement with a room where slaves were hidden. The home is the only remaining structure of the three associated with Brown.

Juchnowski said the applications for the Mason Oviatt and John Brown homes included in-depth reports with sources for all information, maps, photos, transcripts and scans of old documents. The application for Oviatt House was 62 pages long, and the John Brown House application was 56 pages long. The effort required approximately 400 hours of research combined.

Taylor first became interested in the program when she learned of it while visiting another Ohio historical site in summer 2020 and decided to initiate efforts to call attention to local sites associated with the Underground Railroad beginning with Oviatt House.

A tombstone in Fairview Cemetery (then called East Cemetery) bears the name of five of John Brown’s children, as additional proof that he lived with his family in Richfield. Photo courtesy of Richfield Historical Society.

“It highlights that Richfield had a part in this,” she said. “Documenting that John Brown’s house is definitely here, and that he was a part of the community, is huge. … I think it’s significant that a small village like this took the chance of taking in runaway slaves to lead them to freedom; just that they had that much of an abolitionist fervor.”

According to Taylor, it is thought that several other historic homes in Richfield had ties to the Underground Railroad, but the NPS designation requires very specific documentation. She noted that aiding runaway slaves was forbidden by federal and state laws, and could incur sizable financial penalties and prison time, so records of those activities were generally not kept.

“It’s a feather in the cap of the community for the people who are working on the research and working on the Oviatt House; people who weren’t necessarily involved in history are now pitching in,” said Fleming. “Whether we pursue the designation for any other houses or buildings, we won’t know until we do further research, but I think it’s amazing what Juanita and Serena have done in digging for details, which is what was needed for these applications to be approved.”

The current owners of the home, Ricky Hayes and Anna Gentry, were made aware of the connection to John Brown when they purchased the home, which was formerly Benedict’s Antiques, in 2020. They approved of the application going forward for the NPS designation. The home will remain a private residence, not open to the public.

“The ladies [from the historical society] approached me about putting it on the national register,” said Hayes. “The pictures I sent them on the originality of the house I think helped with that process. It still has the original timbers and stone foundation. It’s probably one of the oldest homes here along with the Oviatt House.”

Other restored John Brown homes in Northeast Ohio include locations in Akron and Hudson. ∞

Featured Photo: One of the homes of John Brown still stands today on Route 303, one of the earliest roads in the 1800s. Photo by S. Serdinak