John Brown

Akron, OH: Perkins Stone Mansion and John Brown House

Despite attending the University of Akron for four years, there are still a surprising amount of museums in Akron that I haven’t visited until recently, and the Perkins Stone Mansion is one of them.  It’s usually closed for the season by the time I’m home for Christmas, so I wanted to make sure and squeeze in a visit while I was there in September. It is a stone house (as you may have guessed from the name) built in the 1830s by Colonel Simon Perkins, the son of the founder of Akron. The area was once known as Mutton Hill because Perkins kept sheep, which is where John Brown (of Harpers Ferry/Bleeding Kansas fame) comes into the picture, as he was hired to manage the flocks and was given the house across the street to live in while he did so, from 1844 to the early 1850s. Both houses are included on the tour, but let’s begin with the Perkins Mansion, shown above.

  

Just like at Sherman House, we arrived just as a tour was starting, so we simply paid our $6 admission and joined the tour, without having time to watch the introductory video. We ended up watching it at the end of the tour instead, but I kind of wish we’d gotten to watch it beforehand, because the tour might have made more sense. My mother has been there a few times before, and commented that the quality of the tour varied dramatically depending on what tour guide you get. Unfortunately, I don’t think we ended up with one of the better ones. She was perfectly nice, but said off the bat that her degree was in architecture, not history, so she couldn’t tell us much about the history of the house, and she wasn’t joking. She made some pretty glaring errors both about the type of furnishings that would have been common in a house at that time, and just general historical ones; for example, she stated that John Brown was captured by the Confederate Army, which is odd, since the raid on Harpers Ferry took place two years before the Confederacy was founded (he was actually captured by U.S. Marines, though many officers who would later become prominent in the Confederacy were involved, like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart). I didn’t say anything about it at the time, so as not to embarrass her, but I’m mentioning it here because it would be one thing if she was new, but she said she had been working there for over a year, and I would hope that the historical society equips its employees/volunteers with at least a basic grasp of the historical facts relating to the property in the future.

 

But I digress…we did indeed begin with the Perkins Stone Mansion, and she did at least give us some background on the architecture, including the unusual inclusion of the widow’s walk, which is far more common in New England, where, you know, you can actually look out to sea (I guess in Cleveland you could at least look out over Lake Erie, but you’d be hard-pressed to see it 40 miles away in Akron). It was probably there because the Perkins family was originally from Connecticut, which, like I mentioned in the Sherman House post, was pretty common, because NE Ohio was originally part of the Western Reserve given to Connecticut after the Revolutionary War.

   

Also like Sherman House, it was a fairly standard historic home tour, with even less to distinguish it, because unlike William Tecumseh Sherman, the Perkins family isn’t particularly well-known, even locally (hell, I studied history at U of Akron, and except for a few things named after them on campus, I’d barely heard of them either). Unfortunately, most of the furnishings aren’t original to the house, so except for a few portraits and things, we were mostly looking at random Victorian (or American equivalent) crap (well, not crap maybe, but nothing terribly memorable aside from that clock above the previous paragraph). Once again, we played the “guess the ye olde implement” game in the kitchen, and I was kind of shocked when our guide couldn’t identify wool carders, given that they were prominently displayed and labelled over in the John Brown House (they weren’t part of the game, but the other people on our tour spotted them and asked what they were).

 

To be fair to our guide, she was giving us information about the Perkins family the whole time, but because I hadn’t watched the video, I had no idea who the hell the various family members were that she kept referencing (but I’d like to know who the guy in that middle portrait above is. He almost looks like Andrew Jackson, but with a ridiculous expression). Not only did they found Akron, but the Perkins family also had a lot to do with its growth. Apparently one of the women founded a children’s home that later became the Akron Children’s Hospital, and one of the men (maybe Simon?) convinced BF Goodrich to come to Akron, which is part of the reason why Akron became such a big rubber town (there’s also Goodyear and Firestone there).  The guide also told us some story about how one of the daughters came back to live in the house after she was married because her father didn’t want to lose her “feminine touch,” so he gave her and her husband a couple of rooms there, but it confused me because I thought she mentioned that one of the other daughters remained unmarried and lived in the house her whole life, so there would have already been a woman living there. She did kind of blur successive generations of the family together, so maybe I’m mistaken about who was actually living there at any given time.

  

After we finished with the Perkins house, we headed over to John Brown House, which is located across a busy street. To get there, we passed the field where sheep are kept in the summer, to stay true to the house’s heritage (though sadly, they were already gone at the time of my visit), and a nice wooded area on the grounds (which used to include most of Akron, but are now limited to a few acres), including the tree shown above left, which she said was planted by the Perkins family, and might be a poplar. I don’t know much about trees, but I’m not convinced by poplar. If anyone can identify it, please let me know! The house also has a couple of outbuildings, namely an office and a laundry/pool house, but they weren’t open to the public when we visited, so we couldn’t see inside either.  There was also once a pool on the grounds (hence the pool house), but the Summit County Historical Society decided to cover it up when they took over so they didn’t have to pay for upkeep, so instead of a lovely pool area there is just a grassy rectangle.

  

John Brown House was more interesting, both because of the John Brown connection (he actually lived in Ohio for 35 years, spending time in Kent, Richfield, and Hudson) and because there was actual signage in here to tell us about John Brown’s life (I love the cartoon version of him, above). I didn’t know that he had travelled to London whilst working for Simon Perkins to attempt to sell their wool, and although Perkins wasn’t publicly involved with abolitionism, there is evidence that he may have donated money to Brown at some point to help his cause. Although Brown comes across as kind of a flake about everything except abolition, he was actually a pretty diligent shepherd, even staying up all night with the sheep during lambing season. Unfortunately, his business sense didn’t match his shepherding skills, and he was eventually fired when the business failed, and they got kicked out of the house, which was a pity for his family because his long-suffering wife (2nd wife, actually) said it was the nicest house she’d ever lived in (they moved up to North Elba in New York, to the cabin that I blogged about some years ago with the incredibly nice and knowledgeable ranger working there who really put this tour guide to shame).

  

We watched the video when we returned to the visitors’ centre, which did clear up some of the confusion I had about the Perkins family, and told me a lot more about their sheep business. I also appreciated all the sheep themed merchandise in the museum shop, because I’m kind of a sucker for farm animals (we went there right after visiting the Howe Meadow Farmers’ Market, which is very nice and was where I was able to procure an excellent shirt with Ohio turned into a chicken on the front). Although the Perkins House isn’t terribly interesting in and of itself, John Brown House does have a fascinating history (mainly because of John Brown), and I was glad to see it at last. However, I think they really need to do something about the training of their guides, because the quality is evidently vastly inconsistent (my mother says she once had a guy who was actually from the area, and he was awesome, but the others have not been from around there and don’t seem to know much about Akron or the house). I’m not blaming the guides themselves so much as whoever is training them (or not, as the case may be)…if it was free, it’d be one thing, but a paid attraction should aim to provide a consistent experience. So I’ll give them 2/5, and hope that they improve in the future. I’d be willing to try it again with a different guide just to see how the experience changes.

Lake Placid, New York: John Brown’s Farm

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When my boyfriend and I were first planning this road trip, I decided I wanted to go up to the Adirondacks both to see Almanzo Wilder‘s childhood home, which is about 40 miles north of Lake Placid, and to see the old TB sanitariums in Saranac Lake.  Unfortunately, both these plans fell through thanks to a combination of poor planning on my part (the TB Museum was closed on the one day we were there), and the rather infrequently updated and unhelpful website of the Wilder House (it had the opening hours for the summer season listed, but it never stated when the summer season ended, and then, in mid-October, well after we’d booked our hotels, they posted they were closed for the season.  It would be great if they had just listed the end of the season in the first place!).  So after enjoying a superb waffle and mimosa from the Breakfast Club in Lake Placid, wandering in a few souvenir shops, and grabbing a soft serve from the local ice creamery, we needed to find something else to do.  I’d noticed signs pointing to John Brown’s Farm when we drove into Lake Placid, and was intrigued.  (Just to be clear, this is John Brown the abolitionist I’m talking about, not John Brown, servant and confidant of Queen Victoria.)

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The town I’m from in Ohio is actually quite near to some John Brown sites; his father owned a tannery in Hudson (there’s an Owen Brown Road running through Hudson’s rather posh shopping district), and John Brown also lived in Kent and Akron.  There’s even still a John Brown House standing in Akron, though I’ve never visited it (which is strange, since I went to a university right by it for four years), but the Summit County Historical Society has odd opening hours, and they don’t really advertise their properties.  I remembered reading about a farm in New York in Tony Horwitz’s excellent Midnight Rising (recommended if you want to learn more about John Brown’s life and the events leading up to Harper’s Ferry), but the town it was in was called North Elba, so I never made the connection with Lake Placid (apparently Lake Placid is a village within the larger town of North Elba).  John Brown was a peripatetic man, spending time in Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, and of course Kansas and Virginia, so he only lived at the New York farm for two years, having moved there to support a social experiment wherein land grants were given to poor black families to encourage them to become self-sufficient (which ultimately failed due to a combination of the bigotry of local residents and a lack of farming experience on the part of the settlers).  However, he is buried there, so has taken up a more permanent residence in death.

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We were greeted by the rather paternalistic statue above, having parked some ways down the road, as it wasn’t clear whether we could park in front of the property.  It is run by the National Park Service, who charge a modest $2 entry fee to the site.  After checking out Brown’s grave, which is under a massive rock, per his request, and the graves of a few other men who were killed as a result of the raid on Harpers Ferry, including two of his sons, we headed into the cabin, where we were greeted by a very enthusiastic ranger.  He gave us a detailed history of the farm and the cabin, and pointed out objects of interest in the house.

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These included a daguerreotype of Brown’s son Oliver (who was killed during the raid) and his wife, and a shaving cup made from a piece of the scaffold Brown was hanged from (Oliver seems like he might have been a bit of a looker, but I might just like his facial hair).  The cabin is pretty tiny, only four rooms, especially considering Brown had twenty children, though only half of them lived to adulthood, and some of them were grown men by the time he was living there, so probably weren’t under the same roof anymore.  I’m sure the ranger explained exactly who was living there, as he mentioned how one of Brown’s sons had the cabin built on his behalf to John Brown’s specifications, but the details escape me; not because they weren’t interesting, but because it was a lot to take in.

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I have to mention how nice the ranger was – I didn’t catch his name, but you could tell he was really passionate about John Brown, and wanted to know everything he could about him, which is really great to see .  I love fellow history nerds (we talked for a bit after he finished his presentation, and he seemed genuinely interested in my background in history as well).   I was so impressed with the staff of the National Park Service on this trip, especially relative to the much more reserved (dare I say, occasionally snobby) employees you get at National Trust properties.  Anyway, after finishing exploring the cabin, we headed down to the barn, which had a video about slavery and the Underground Railroad inside.

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John Brown’s Farm is a small site with a fascinating history, and I’m glad we stopped by.  It makes a nice change if you’re tired of all the Olympic and touristy stuff in Lake Placid (although you can see some of the ski jumps from the property, as pictured above, so you won’t be escaping entirely), but bear in mind that it is only open from May-October.  It won’t take you very long to look around, but I think it’s well worth seeing the final resting place of a man who played such a pivotal role in American history due to engineering a link in the chain of events that would ultimately trigger the Civil War.  3/5