Archive for February, 2010

The Underground Railroad in Piedmont North Carolina

February 22, 2010


Before the American Civil War, opposition to the institution of human slavery took many forms. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Quakers and other thoughtful people opposed treating human beings as property on religious, philosophical, moral and ethical grounds. Some formed groups or “manumission societies” to urge individuals to free slaves; other raised funds and organized groups of “freedmen” to return to Africa through “colonization societies”; others promoted the outright legal and governmental prohibition of slavery as “abolitionists.” Randolph and Guilford counties, the heart of North Carolina’s “Quaker Belt,” had examples of all of these organizations. But by 1835, that kind of individual action had gradually come to be prohibited by new state laws put forward by slaveowners to protect their increasingly-valuable investment in slave property. It became illegal to free slaves, or for freed slaves to move freely around North Carolina, and this promoted clandestine resistance to slave laws by brave local residents who cooperated to smuggle runaway slaves to free states in the North. When Fugitive Slave laws were passed by Congress seeking to force the return of escaped slaves from free states, the slave-smuggler’s network was extended all the way to Canada. This cooperative network supporting the escape of southern slaves to freedom became known as the “underground railroad,” despite the fact that the system began operating years before the time actual steam-powered trains were invented.

The “Underground Railroad” was, first and foremost, secret.  That was what it took to protect the people who helped the slaves escape, as what they did was against the law, punishable by prison and fines, and in fact, the punishments increased almost yearly from the early 19th century to the civil war.  The secrecy of it all makes it very difficult to document. There are very few direct sources of information on underground railroad activities in NC, and only one makes a tangential connection to Randolph County: that is the actual route taken by Elisha Coffin (1779-1872, who built my house in Franklinville), with his sister and his father in March 1822, and described in detail in the autobiography of his first cousin Levi Coffin (1798-1877).


From Levi Coffin’s book it is clear that escaped slaves knew to head generally for the Quaker heart of North Carolina.  Escaped slave advertisements collected by UNCG Loren Schweniger clearly show that eastern NC slave owners assumed that escapees were headed west.  Fugitives coming through Randolph County might have gone toward the Friends meeting houses, or toward individual Quakers, but sooner or later they ended up around New Garden, where the Quaker families descended from Nantucket emigrants of 1771 pretty much headed up the underground railroad in North Carolina.  The Nantucket Quakers (including Levi, Bethuel and Elisha Coffin) were the majority of the active participants in the North Carolina Manumission and Colonization Society which was organized in 1816 and pursued fitful activities until 1832. Some of the largest slaveholders in the area, such as General Alexander Gray, were supporters of the organization until the state’s constitution of 1835 made such activities illegal.

The Coffin family, like most other local Quaker families, was seeing most of its younger generation emigrate West. Some of this was due to the availability of cheap vacant land in the “Northwest Territories” (Indiana, Illinois, Ohio); some of it was the desire to get their children away from the dominant slave-holding ethic. No matter what local Quakers taught their children about the equality of human nature and the evil of slaveholding, the law of the land and the culture of their neighbors promoted and protected the ownership and exploitation of Negroes. It was a conflict that could only be resolved by leaving North Carolina. By 1818, so many residents of Randolph County, NC, had relocated to the Indiana that a Randolph County was created in memory of the “old country”. One of Bethuel Coffin’s daughters had already moved her family to Indiana, and Bethuel himself would soon follow.


It is a glaring omission that Levi Coffin’s autobiography (Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad: Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, Who Gained Their Freedom through His Instrumentality, and Many Other Incidents. Cincinnati: Robert Clark & Co., 1880.) has not been more used as a source for antebellum NC history. The entire book has been made available online by the UNC-Chapel Hill Library at http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/menu.html . The first chapter of Coffin’s book recounts a number of incidents of slave mistreatment which nurtured his abolitionist views, and at least three appear to have involved legal action, which could be confirmed from historical records.


Chapter 2, the story of Jack Barnes, is a fascinating account of one of Levi Coffin’s first efforts to smuggle an escaped slave to freedom, and the fact that he enlisted his uncle and first cousins as co-conspirators illustrates the close-knit family nature of the underground railroad activities. Jack Barnes had fled “the eastern part” of North Carolina after the heirs of his owner refused to follow his will’s instructions to grant him freedom “for faithfulness and meritorious conduct”. He reached the vicinity of New Garden Friends meeting in the fall of 1821, boarding and working for members of the Coffin family. In March 1822 he “received the news that the case in court had been decided against him. The property that had been willed to him was turned over to the relatives of his master, and he was consigned again to slavery. The judge decided that Barnes was not in his right mind at the time he made the will… [Jack] was not to be found, and [the heirs] advertised in the papers, offering one hundred dollars reward to any one who would secure him till they could get hold of him, or give information that would lead to his discovery. This advertisement appeared in the paper published at Greensboro.” [p.33]


Putting Jack into hiding, Vestal and Levi Coffin devised a plan to smuggle Barnes to Indiana in a travelling party of Coffin relatives.


“Bethuel Coffin, my uncle, who lived a few miles distant, was then preparing to go to Indiana, on a visit to his children and relatives who had settled there. He would be accompanied by his son Elisha, then living in Randolph County, and by his daughter Mary. They intended to make the journey in a two-horse wagon, taking with them provisions and cooking utensils, and camp out on the way…. The road they proposed to take was called the Kanawha road. It was the nearest route, but led through a mountainous wilderness, most of the way. Crossing Dan River, it led by way of Patrick Court-House, Virginia, to Maberry’s Gap, in the Blue Ridge mountains, thence across Clinch mountain, by way of Pack’s ferry on New River, thence across White Oak mountain to the falls of the Kanawha, and down that river to the Ohio, crossing at Gallipolis.

“This was thought to be a safe route for Jack to travel, as it was very thinly inhabited, and it was decided that my cousin Vestal and I should go see our uncle, and learn if he was willing to incur the risk and take Jack with him to Indiana. He said he was willing, and all the arrangements were made…” [pp.34-35]


This trip was less than two years since 43-year-old Elisha Coffin had purchased the mill and several hundred acres of land on Deep River that later became Franklinville. He either had just been or was about to be elected a Justice of the Peace of the Randolph County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (the equivalent of a modern County Commissioner), so it was truly a legal and political risk for him to make this trip. But my purpose here is to focus on the route from North Carolina to Indiana rather than on Elisha Coffin or the rather thrilling adventure of Levi Coffin, who was forced to follow the Coffins on horseback to thwart the efforts of a slave-catcher who appeared on their trail. [But all my readers should check out that story in the original—chapter 2,
http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/menu.html .]


It is an interesting aspect of modern scholarship of the Underground Railroad, as promoted by the National Park Service and dozens of local historical societies in northern states, that all the maps of “routes” out of the slave-holding states completely ignore the route from central NC to Indiana and Ohio called by Levi Coffin as the “Kanawah” road. In fact, most “maps” of the underground railroad only clearly define the route after it reaches a free state and starts toward Canada.

There is an internet-published record (“The Kanawah Trace Waybill”) which documents an almost identical route from New Garden to Ohio (its first stop appears to go west toward Winston-Salem (Clemmons) instead of north to the Dan River); see http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~maggieoh/Migrate/merle.htm .


The only Piedmont NC museum interpretation of the underground railroad of which I am aware is at Mendenhall Plantation, in Jamestown, Guilford County. See http://www.mendenhallplantation.org/. A false-bottomed wagon from the Centre Friends Meeting community some 15 miles southeast is the museum’s primary artifact of the underground railroad, and it too confirms the importance of the Kanawah route. The wagon was preserved by Centre historian Joshua Edgar Murrow (1892-1980), grandson of Andrew Murrow (1820-1908), who with his foster brother Isaac Stanley (1832-1927), used the wagon to transport runaway slaves to Ohio on the Kanawah Road [see http://www.mendenhallplantation.org/Wagon.htm ].

Given the numerous primary sources and confirmation of this route from the heart of Piedmont NC to Ohio and Indiana, and the confirmation of its regular use in underground railroad activities, why is it not listed on the National Park Service websites and maps? Neither is it common knowledge here in North Carolina, and I think both omissions stem from a common source—the fact that the antebellum history of Guilford and Randolph Counties, and its Quaker inhabitants, does not follow the popular “Gone with the Wind” narrative of the antebellum South. Our region was another story, not the romatic lost world of the plantation gentry, but a Shadow South, of abolition and manumission activities, of industry and internal improvements, and steady moral and political opposition to the status quo. Our history is much more nuanced and interesting than the standard black and white (or blue and gray) textbook version, and our culture is lessened by the fact that we forget and ignore the work and sacrifices of the men and women who fought against heavy odds to change the fundamental basis of the society they lived in.

Ches Thrift’s Pickling Pear Tree

February 1, 2010

[Chess Thrift, date unknown, from Robins, Reminiscences of My Asheboro.]

Researching and writing local history often runs up against the veil of Time, which is often much more of an iron, not a lace, curtain. We have no real idea of the aboriginal name of Deep River, for example, and no real way to ever find out. Agricultural history is another area where information was such common knowledge it was seldom written down. One of these days I’ll write here about Greeson Wheat, our once-premier local variety of winter wheat. But here’s the story of one adventure in identification: Chester Thrift and the Pickling Pear Tree.

For many years my way to and from work took me past an elderly and not-very-healthy-looking tree growing on the north side of Old Cedar Falls Road in Asheboro. For most of the year it was nondescript and virtually invisible, but for a couple of weeks in late March it sported a striking cloud of white blossoms; and I confess I ignored it because I thought it was yet another Bradford Pear, that darling of 70s and 80s landscapers. I call them lolly-pop trees, because they have that perfect shape for preschool artists; they’re pretty twice a year, when they flower and when the leaves turn red in the fall, and they are sterile so they never have fruit. Bradford Pears are originally native to Korea and China, grow really fast, and rarely live more than 25 years without limbs splitting off. Plant a real tree, people, not Bradford Pears.

But then one September I noticed the tree was raining hundreds of mottled yellow fruits the size of ping pong balls.

The first time I stopped to investigate this phenomenon, I discovered that what I thought were yellow crab apples were actually some kind of pear: exquisitely sweet, miniature round pears profusely dropping from a scrawny, thorny tree. I never knew there were such things, and when I investigated, I found that the tree shouldn’t exist. Only wild pears have thorns, I discovered; they taste bitter and are only used to provide the rootstock for the usual named varieties: Bosc, Seckel, Keifer, etc. Because, like roses and apples, all of the historic named varieties of these plants are perpetuated by grafts, so that each Old Blush rose and each Macintosh apple is literally a clone of the ancient original of that name.

My tree on Old Cedar Falls Road was too elderly to tell if it had once been grafted; it had been cut back and pruned repeatedly, and had sprouted out time and again from an old stump. I asked the neighbors, but that intersection was in transition, and no one knew the story of the tree, but they did know its name: The Pickling Pear Tree.

Another gap in my knowledge revealed: I’ve seen plenty of pickles from cucumbers; I’ve heard of pickled peppers, pickled beets, pickled eggs; pickles from watermelon, okra and crabapples—lots of odd things, but never pears. But there it was on the internet: not just one but many recipes for pickling pears [http://www.cooks.com/rec/search/0,1-0,pickle_pear,FF.html ], especially Seckel pears, which are usually considered the smallest variety of pear (about the size of a tulip blossom). The end result was a sweet, spicy dessert treat that I’m told people ate like candy.

The whole point of pickling, historically, was to preserve perishable food so that it was available in some form during the winter months. Without refrigeration or freezing, drying and canning were the best ways to make the glut of the summer vegetable and fall fruit harvests last until the next year. Pickling can be accomplished by anaerobic fermentation using salt or salty water, which is how beef and pork were pickled to feed sailors on long voyages. Fruits and vegetables are usually pickled by marinating them in vinegar, often with added herbs like garlic, mustard seed, cloves and cinnamon, which have antimicrobial properties. Any kind of pear could be pickled, but larger pickles required peeling and slicing, which makes the finished product fragile and mushy, and reduces the shelf life. So these tiny bite-sized pears would have been the perfect size to core and pickle like crab apples.

It was only by chance that I found out anything more. One day while talking with Miss MacRae, an elderly teacher I had known since elementary school, I mentioned my pickling pear tree. “I don’t know about that tree,” she said. “People used to have pickling pears, used to put up quarts and quarts of them. But the only one around here who had pickling pear trees was Ches Thrift. He had apples, pears, peaches, all sorts of trees in his garden. He had a pickling pear tree.”

What little I knew of Chester Thrift (c.1853-1929) came from Sidney Swaim Robins, the first boy from Asheboro to go to Harvard, back before World War I. When I went to Harvard he was still living in Wayland, Massachusetts, and several times I went to dinner with Sidney at the instigation of Marion Stedman Covington, his cousin. Sidney was the author of a number of books, most of them related to his profession as a Unitarian-Universalist minister. His little book, “Sketches of My Asheboro, 1880-1910,” (published by the Randolph Historical Society in 1972) is an invaluable source for anyone interested in the daily life of 19th century Asheboro. “…’Chess’ Thrift was a mighty cook, often sent for to help in putting on and serving banquets. You often saw him around with white cap and apron, dressing the part of a chef. For a considerable time he served as major domo for Hal M. Worth” [p.37]. “Cooks were known and appreciated in Asheboro. It seemed that each one had a special receipt and routine to be famous for. And of course they ran loose in the branch of famous desserts. I have spoken of Chester Thrift as a famous cook (I wondered if Chess cakes were named for him), and I guess there were as many well-known ones among the colored people as among the whites. In fact, they had the more professional cooks anyhow” [p. 40].

An unpublished source has even more information. Walter Makepeace Curtis (1867-1955 ) was born in Franklinville and served as the President of Greensboro College in the 1940s.  His grandfather, George Makepeace, lived in my house. In 1940 Curtis wrote his autobiography, a manuscript copy of which was given to me by his daughter Marion Moser.   On page 9 of the manuscript, Curtis writes:

“One of my Negro friends during my boyhood days was ‘Ches’- Chester Thrift. He worked for my uncle, G.H. Makepeace, and I often saw him when I was with my cousins, which was a good deal of the time. Ches was also frequently at my home. He was easily amused, and his laugh was hilarious. He would often lie down on the floor and roll over several times with uncontrollable laughter. Ches was a good cook and was famous for his cakes. He was often called upon to bake cakes for weddings, and years later when his home was in Asheboro, scarcely a wedding occurred there without cakes furnished by Ches. Years later when my oldest daughter graduated at Greensboro College, Ches, then an old man, was there. Lucy had sent him a commencement invitation and he came up from Asheboro, bringing with him cakes which he make especially for the occasion. Lucy invited her classmates into our home, Ches served, and all present had a good time. Ches preached occasionally, but I never had the pleasure of hearing him. His hobby was educating young Negro girls who never could have gone to school without his aid. A large number of girls were recipients of his generosity.”

I discovered even more in a circa-1913 Courier note entitled “Uncle Chester Thrift Gives Interesting Item of History.”

“Uncle Chester Thrift, one of the town’s oldest and most respected colored citizens, was in The Courier office last week and told of some interesting bits of old history.  Uncle Ches went to Franklinville last August, where he lived in childhood.  His mother, Annie Thrift, belonged to Isham Thrift, who lived where the hotel now stands [the Grove Hotel, or "The Teacherage," stood facing Deep River in Franklinville just north of what was the Randolph Mills Office building].  Aunt Annie took her two sons, Solomon and Chester, to a secluded place there each Sunday morning to pray.  The place then used for her ‘prayer spot’ is now the site on which Franklinville’s new M.E. church stands [built 1912].  Uncle Chester feels very kindly toward the church and feels it was built on holy ground.  It would be well if more of the mothers in this day and time would take time to teach their sons to pray.”

And my final discovery was his obituary, published in the Greensboro Daily News on December 24, 1928:

HEART ATTACK CLAIMS “UNCLE” CHES THRIFT /  Former Slave Negro Had Been Servant to Many Prominent Families/ RESPECTED BY WHITES.

“Asheboro, Dec. 23.– ‘Uncle’ Chester Thrift, ancient, honorable and much beloved negro man of Asheboro, died in his home here last night from a heart attack.  He was a familiar figure on the streets, and was out yesterday afternoon greeting his white friends, and carrying a large split basket that he always had with him.

“Uncle” Chester was born about 75 years ago in New Orleans, he and his mother being bought in Louisiana by Isham Thrift of Franklinville Township, and brought here just prior to the Civil War.  After the war was over and the negroes were freed, Chester’s mother lived with the Makepeace and Curtis families of Franklinville until Chester was 15 or 16 years old.  When Chester was just a boy, he went into the homes of the Worth and McAlister families of Asheboro, serving them almost continuously until his death.  He was the servant of H.M. Worth for more than twenty years on a stretch.  He also served the families of Curtis, Foust, Penn, Kelly and McAlister of Greensboro, and the Worth families now of Durham.

“He was one of the most expert cooks North Carolina ever produced, especially being noted for his cakes, persimmon puddings and pies.  He was an authority on cooking possum.  He has probably baked more wedding cakes than any other cook, his services being in demand in many cities of the state when a fine meal was to have been prepared.  His cakes and persimmon puddings have been sent all over the United States.

“Uncle Chester was one of the few of the old school, and was a welcome visitor in any home in Asheboro, or elsewhere where he was known.  He was deeply religious and philosophical, and gave much sound advice to the younger generation, both white and colored.  He lived in North Asheboro [north of Salisbury Street and east of Fayetteville Street] in a comfortable little cottage that was kept immaculately clean, and was nicely furnished with things that his white friends had given him.  At Christmas times “Uncle” Chester was the recipient of loads of gifts from his innumerable white friends.  He went home last night with a load that had been given him while he was down town.  He lived alone, with the exception of a negro boy that he furnished a room for company.

“Funeral services will be held Christmas day at two o’clock and interment made here [Asheboro].  Services will be in charge of the local negro Odd Fellows, of which he was a member, together with his white friends.  He had always requested that he be buried three days after his death, as the Saviour rose the third day, and he expected to.  The third day now falls on Christmas.”

That’s quite a tribute, especially for a black man in the 1920s, published in an out-of-town newspaper.  There’s no doubt Chester Thrift was one of the most respected members of the entire Randolph County community.

I can’t say that my Cedar Falls Road pickling pear tree was actually one of Chester Thrift’s pickling pear Trees. But it was someone’s, because fruit trees only survive if someone grafts new ones before they die. That’s why, last fall, I got some water sprouts from the tree and sent them off for grafting. This spring, I’ll be able to plant my own Pickling Pear Trees at the house where Chester Thrift once worked for G.H. Makepeace, and when I do, I’m calling them Ches Thrift’s Pickling Pears. You can’t tell me I’m wrong.


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