Monday, May 24, 1999

Museum buys historic house


Slaves once hid under the floor

BY SUSAN VELA
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MAYSVILLE — When Jerry Gore stepped into the space that once gave safe haven to freedom-bound slaves, a sense of “oneness and reverence” swept over him.

        It was just another sign that a three-story house, built more than 150 years ago and with an expansive view of the Ohio River, was meant to be the new home of the National Underground Railroad Museum.

        “The feeling is very spirit-filled,” said Mr. Gore, the museum's executive director, of what he felt in the underground space that stretches between the old slave quarters and the kitchen at 38 W. Fourth St.

        In cramped circumstances, it could have housed up to 50 slaves before they either moved further along the network of homes and trails known as the Underground Railroad or made a break to freedom, right across the Ohio River.

        “You can feel their presence,” Mr. Gore said. “It's an awesome feeling to be in that kind of presence. The spirits of our ancestors want their story told.”

        Within the past week, the museum bought the former Bierbower home for $52,000, complete with the false floorboards that, long ago, were removed to hide escaping slaves.

        They were able to finance the purchase thanks to a state grant that paid for all but $2,000 of the asking price. Mr. Gore believes the house, upon restoration, will complement the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which will open on Cincinnati's riverfront in 2003.

        “It's going to be a fantastic boost to the history and the culture and the economic base of our region,” Mr. Gore said. “This is a major part of history; and, for the most part, it's untold history.”

        The Maysville museum now is housed at the Maysville Welcome Center, 115 E. Third St. Mr. Gore noted that museum officials have known they would need larger quarters ever since opening in February 1995.

        Discovering that 38 W. Fourth St. was available was a dream come true, he said, becauseit had everything museum officials have been looking for: a lot of space; an expansive view of downtown, historic Maysville and the river; and actual ties to the Underground Railroad.

        “That was ideal, very much ideal,” Mr. Gore said. “All of this is a real blessing.”

        Luck came the museum's way about two months ago in the form of Alice Gallenstein. In December, she had become executor of the estate of Christine Maher, a long-time friend who had grown up across the street from the historic house and spent her last years living there.

Took 10 years to build
        Mrs. Maher had been a private person but, every once in a while, would share the house's history with her friend. This is what she told Mrs. Gallenstein:

        Jonathan Bierbower, a buggy and carriage maker from Pennsylvania, arrived in Maysville in 1837. It took him 10 years to complete construction of his home.

        He and his wife, Lucitta, owned one slave in 1840 and had five by 1850. But they had sold them by 1860, and were active in the Underground Railroad.

        Family members fed Union Army soldiers from a window in the kitchen.

        Two Bierbower girls, Fannie and Grace, were the last to live in the family's house. The spinster sisters eventually shared the house's rich history with a young girl, Christine, from across the street.

        Mrs. Maher's father bought the house, which was converted into three apartments after the Bierbower sisters died, in the 1940s. Mrs. Maher eventually moved in.

Shared tales with few
        She was careful about to whom she told the house's history.

        “She didn't want everybody to know,” Mrs. Gallenstein said. “She wasn't that type of person. (But) I was just enthralled, because I love history. I felt the house deserved to be preserved (so) I approached Mr. Gore.

        “Mrs. Maher would be pleased that it's going to be preserved and that it's going to be historical.”

        Mr. Gore wants to restore the house to its original condition. The structural foundation remains sound, but most of the rooms need work. In the next months, a consultant will tell museum officials how much the restoration could cost.

        Mr. Gore is well aware that the price tag could total into the millions. The museum will apply for grant money and embark on a capital campaign to finance the project, he said.

        He expects complete restoration to take several years, but he would like by 2000 to at least open to the public the house's kitchen and a balcony overlooking downtown Maysville and the Ohio River.

        Getting a view of the river, a mile wide between Maysville and Aberdeen, Ohio, and the downtown area where slaves were once sold will take visitors back in time, he said.

        “They'll have appreciation for the thirst for freedom that the enslaved Africans would've had,” he said.

        The museum, which features actual slave leg irons and anti-slave newspapers, has received more than 6,000 visitors since it opened four years ago.

        Mr. Gore is hoping that people will come forward with more artifacts from Maysville's rich Underground Railroad past as the museum's relocation approaches.

       



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