FAIRFIELD — It was standing room only at the Fairfield Public Library Saturday afternoon when Stan Plum, curator of collections at the Carnegie Fairfield Museum, stopped by to give a presentation on the history of the underground railroad in Fairfield.
The lecture was the second in a series that aimed to share the history of Fairfield with the area. He said the underground railroad and Iowa have a unique connection because it became a hot spot for freedom seekers because of its geography.
“Iowa had the advantage of having a dry border with no river to cross,” he said.
He said in the 1930s, a man named Cecil Turton created a map to show how slaves would come from Missouri and Kansas up to Iowa in hopes of making it to Chicago and further north to Canada where they could seek freedom. Locally, he said Salem became a big part of the underground railroad.
Plum said freedom seekers knew the town as a stopover where they could hide. Slave hunters, however, also heard about Salem and its importance to the Underground Railroad. Plum said slave hunters would come and harass the towns people.
In 1848, nine escaped slaves came to Salem with slave hunters right behind them. The men from Salem were able to rescue them all, but the slave hunters returned and threatened to burn down the town. Six freedom seekers were able to run off but the remaining three had to be given to the slave hunters in order to save the town, he said.
Although Salem was just a stop over for many, Fairfield became the central hub for others who came in from Libertyville, Keosaqua and Ottumwa. The reason people chose Fairfield is unknown, but Plum said his theory is because of the Masons in the area.
Joseph McKinney came to the area in the 1840s and settled as saddle maker. Plum said through his research, he found a story McKenny told where he was approached by seven men from the area to help organize a group that would help slaves escape their captors. The same seven men later formed the Clinton Lodge of the Masons, he said.
The last known slave to use the underground railroad, Robert Winn, came through Salem, Fairfield and Pleasant Plain while on his way to Washington to seek freedom, Plum said. After being sold into slavery in Missouri, he made a run for it one night and left his wife and child to run north.
Plum said as he was waiting to catch the ferry that would carry him across the Skunk River in Washington County, the ferryman told him he did not have to run any longer because he was a freeman. Upon hearing of the emancipation proclamation, Winn returned to Fairfield and joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War.
After the war, he was able to find his way back to Missouri, find his family and bring them back to Fairfield where they continued to live as free people. Plum said stories like these are why having presentations are so important. By reminding people of the rich history of the area, he hoped people would learn to appreciate it and learn from the past.
“We want to keep history alive and to remind people that they are walking on the landscape of our ancestors,” he said. “I think the lessons of the 1850s are very important, especially today.”