Oct. 6, 2006
Lowe's Hosts Dedication of Significant Underground Railroad Site
ABOLITIONIST SITE IS DEDICATED - Several organizations were involved in the dedication of the Clarke family cemetery near Lowe's Home Improvement Center in Oswego. From left are Kevin Kane, Development Manger of The Widewaters Group; State Senator James W. Wright; Guy Washington, National Park Service Pacific West Region; Mark Hofmeier, Lowe's store manager; Barbara Tagger, National Park Service Southeast Region; James Hill, National Park Service Midwest Region; David Turner, Director of Oswego County Community Development, Tourism and Planning; Jenny Masur, National Park Service National Capital Region; Gary Candalario, National Park Service; Mary Krause, National Park Service; Judy Wellman, Principal Investigator of Historical New York Research Associates; Sheri Jackson, National Park Service Northeast Region; and Diane Miller, National Park Service National Coordinator.
OSWEGO - The Clarke family cemetery, a historic landmark that represents abolition, freedom, and courage, was dedicated to its new location on the east side of the Lowe's Home Improvement Center in September.
The theme of the dedication was "progress and preservation reaching a common ground," said David Turner, Oswego County Director of Community Development, Tourism and Planning. For nearly two years, Turner and many others worked together to resolve an issue that potentially could have blocked several million dollars in new investment and hundreds of jobs associated with it.
Lowe's Home Improvement Center stands on what was once the Clarke family farm, an important Underground Railroad stop that harbored more than 125 freedom seekers during the 1800s.
"To develop the site would jeopardize a fascinating piece of Oswego County history," said Turner. "Eventually, a solution emerged. Today the Clarke cemetery remains intact, alongside the Lowe's store."
State Senator James Wright, who played a key role in the project, also spoke at the dedication ceremony.
"The Underground Railroad was very active in Oswego County; so much so, that Oswego County has more -- 11 counting the Clarke Cemetery -- Underground Railroad sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places than any other county in the U.S.," said Senator Wright. "A formal dedication was indeed appropriate for such an important preservation project."
"This project is a wonderful example of a public-private partnership," said Kevin Kane, development manager of The Widewaters Group.
Judith Wellman, Ph.D., Principal Investigator of the Historical New York Research Associates and Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Oswego, has conducted extensive research in Oswego County's role in the abolitionist movement.
"The cemetery is located on the property that once belonged to Sidney and Olive Jackson Clarke," said Wellman. Sidney, born in 1803, and his older brother, Edwin W. Clarke, born in 1801, were key figures in the network of Underground Railroad supporters in the city of Oswego. Edwin and his wife, Charlotte, lived in a house on the corner of East Seventh and Mohawk streets, which still stands today.
"My father and uncle conducted the northern terminus of these clandestine operations," wrote John Jackson Clarke, son of Sidney. Freedom seekers came first to Edwin and Charlotte's home in Oswego and then "were hurried out to the farm and hidden in or about the barns until an opportunity could be found for passing them on. The great majority was sent across to Canada on sailing vessels, but some few continued on to Sackets Harbor or points further north."
Edwin Clarke became president of the Oswego County Anti-Slavery Society in 1842. He was very proud of his role in the abolitionist movement and was vocal in expressing his beliefs. In a letter to the Oswego Palladium, Clarke proclaimed that "the principles of slavery and liberty are never dormant, never stand still. They are at constant war, each striving for its own life, and conscious that it can exist only by the annihilation of the other."
The Clarkes are known to have corresponded with fellow abolitionist, Gerrit Smith. Smith and the Clarke family both helped with the famous rescue of William "Jerry" Henry, a fugitive slave who was arrested in Syracuse. In 1851 local abolitionists broke into Henry's cell, rescued him, sent him through Mexico to Oswego, where he stayed at the Clarke farm for four days, then to Kingston, Ontario where he remained safe. A monument of this rescue stands in downtown Syracuse.
Dr. Wellman was joined at the site by representatives of the various parties who all contributed to the effort of preserving and relocating the Clarke cemetery. Among those present were members of the Oswego County Freedom Trail Commission, Senator Wright, the Heritage Foundation of Oswego, Oswego County Department of Community Development, Tourism and Planning, the Widewaters Group and Lowe's. Other support for the project came from the Preservation League of New York State, Heritage New York Underground Railroad Trail, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and the National Park Service's Network to Freedom.
In his opening remarks at the dedication ceremony, Turner reminded those present that "as the project began, a thorough archaeological dig on the site was funded by Lowe's and Widewaters. Thousands of artifacts were recovered at the site and sent to the Rochester Museum and Science Center."
Turner noted that "Lowe's is also an active partner with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They recently contributed $1 million towards preservation efforts in the Northeast alone."
The actual moving of the cemetery, however, presented some challenges. Since it appeared the Clarke family members were not buried in caskets, there were few actual remains left.
"When the excavation reached the level where the remains were uncovered, the soil color, texture, and composition were darker and clearly different from the surrounding earth," said Kane. "All of the material was carefully placed into new caskets and transported to their new internment location. The coffins were buried in concrete vaults just like a burial takes place today."
The entire cemetery, exactly as it stood on its original location, was moved stone by stone to its current site on the eastern end of the Lowe's parking lot. In early 2004, a licensed funeral director and a local minister supervised the moving of the cemetery and the re-interment of the remains. In a demonstration of their respect, construction workers involved with the project dressed in business suits and acted as pallbearers as they moved the family 800 feet to their new and final resting place.
"The store employees take great pride in maintaining the cemetery grounds and the company is pleased to be a partner in the effort," said Mark Hofmeier, manager of the Oswego Lowe's store. This was evident on the day of the ceremony, as the site featured a well-manicured lawn area adorned with several varieties of flowers and shrubs.
Wellman added, "We think it is also a very important national model for how private corporations and local not-for-profit preservation groups can cooperate to create a win-win situation. It is a fine example of the very best community effort."
The Sept. 12 event concluded with a final prayer offered by the Rev. James Hinman, pastor of the Bristol Hill Church in Volney. The church is another important local site on the Network to Freedom Trail.
The Clarke Cemetery is only one of many Oswego County sites that were part of the Underground Railroad. For those who would like to research or visit other sites, the following information will help you get started on your local search:
Questions about the Oswego County Public Information Office?