John Mattox is so dedicated to preserving our past that he is making history himself - his Underground Railroad Museum is taking the historic step of purchasing the former home of anti-slavery leader Benjamin Lundy.
Mattox and attorney Michael P. McCormick, a member of the museum's board of directors, believe the institution will be the first in the nation to educate the public from the actual home of such a prominent abolitionist. Mattox signed a letter of intent to purchase the property Friday, and he and the board decided to mark the occasion by publicly announcing the move today - Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
History seeps from the very walls and floors of Lundy's red brick structure at 164 E. Main St. in St. Clairsville. He moved to the home in 1815 and occupied it with his new bride and their first two children for about five years. An American eagle carved from sandstone guards the entryway. Inside, a stone step that once marked the rear exit is worn smooth and concave from the thousands of footsteps that have crossed it.
The relatively small building now houses tenants, including the shop of a local seamstress, and will continue to do so under the board's plan. McCormick pointed out that the building does not have the capacity to hold the Underground Railroad Museum's collection, which already numbers more than 16,000 pieces. Instead, Mattox plans to utilize the building as a satellite of the main museum, located on High Street in Flushing. He will use one room of the house for historical displays that will be changed on a regular basis. Those leasing space in the building can serve as docents of that portion of the collection when visitors stop by, he said.
The purchase price has not yet been finalized, Mattox said, because the museum is seeking a grant to cover at least a portion of the cost. He said the board will have the structure appraised and noted that the current owner, local landscape architect Gabe Hays, has been generous in working with the museum thus far.
McCormick praised Mattox for his dedication and integrity and noted that the board intends to ensure that the museum will continue to serve generations of Americans.
"Bar none: Dr. Mattox is currently the most recognized, respected and revered man in Belmont County. ... He has never wanted to appear to be asking anyone for money. ... ," McCormick said. Members of the board "have absolutely no qualms in seeking public donations to operate and to ensure that the museum survives both before and long after Dr. Mattox is gone.
"Accordingly, we are asking the pubic to make unrestricted donations to the museum, so we can use them for ongoing operating expenses, to help buy the Lundy House or to fund anything else that the museum needs."
Gabe Hays, a landscape architect, is the current owner of the Lundy House. He formed the real estate preservationist organization Boa Constructors a few years ago with his wife, Sarah Mahan-Hays, and partners Michael McTeague and the late Patricia McTeague. That organization purchased the building to preserve it, and Gabe Hays recently acquired all the others' shares in the home.
"This is what we have been trying to accomplish for years ... ," Hays said of the sale to the museum. "We are blessed for this to come together as it has so the house can be under the stewardship of the museum."
Hays said that while the appraisal of the building has not been completed, he expects the purchase price to be slightly more than $100,000. He believes it is the last St. Clairsville structure of its era to still retain its original back yard - complete with evidence of the old privy pit and the barn where Lundy would have worked. It also is the only city structure he is aware of that has a basement-level kitchen. This unique feature led him to speculate that Lundy or another occupant may have concealed fugitive slaves there, though no evidence of that has been confirmed.
Born in New Jersey in 1789 to parents who were members of the Society of Friends, Lundy was raised according to Quaker principles that included opposition to the enslavement of other human beings. But it was not until he was working as an apprentice to a saddle maker in Wheeling that Lundy became a passionate abolitionist. Mattox explained that because Wheeling was then part of Virginia, a slave state, Lundy saw men and women in chains being marched to and from the auction block there.
After moving to St. Clairsville, Lundy invited some of his associates to the very home the museum is buying to establish the Union Humane Society, an organization dedicated to ending racial prejudice and assisting freed slaves. The society quickly grew from six members to 500.
Lundy traveled about the nation working for the abolitionist cause. Locally, he also lived at Mount Pleasant, where he founded the anti-slavery newspaper known as The Genius of Universal Emancipation.
Lundy's St. Clairsville home already is recognized as an official Underground Railroad Site. Hays said it is not listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places because it is part of the larger downtown Historic District in St. Clairsville.
For more information about the museum or the Lundy House, call Mattox at 740-968-2080, visit ugrrf.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.