Traveling the Underground Railroad to Vermont

Free-&-Safe-Title-Panel-copy2WORDS // PAMELA HUNT
PHOTOS // Lindsay Raymondjack

Mention the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh to many Vermonters, and they’ll say, “Oh, I’ve driven by there for years. I should stop in someday.” From Route 7, the compound initially doesn’t draw much attention—just another old farmhouse set back from the road, with perhaps a stone building or two in the back. But to turn in the driveway and start up the path is to experience life through the words of a Vermont family during a critical time in Vermont’s, and the nation’s, history.

A tour of the ninety-acre property, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997, begins at the brand-new Education Center. Thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a generous donation from the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation, the 2,500-square-foot facility opened in 2013 after a decade of planning. The center supports the museum’s mission to “connect visitors with the human experience of the Underground Railroad and with the lives of the Robinson family,” according to the director, Jane Williams. A gift shop and restrooms as well as space for special programs also reside in the new building.

A permanent exhibit, Free & Safe, The Underground Railroad in Vermont, earned an award of merit from the American Association of State and Local History, a national membership association for heritage organizations. The display features a multimedia overview of the history of the slave trade and work of Vermont abolitionists, setting the stage for guests to understand how a thriving Merino sheep farm became a safe haven for slaves on the run. Letters written to and by Rowland T. Robinson, master of the house during the mid-1830s, as well as dramatized audio readings and a fifteen-minute reenactment of one slave’s experience at Rokeby “humanize and scale down slavery, so everyone can relate to the exhibit’s story not only intellectually, but emotionally as well,” says Williams.

Rokeby also features seasonal exhibits, such as 2014’s Rachel’s New York Postcards at 100. Rachel Robinson Elmer, granddaughter of abolitionist Rowland, was one of many Robinsons with artistic talent. Her Impressionist-style postcards, created in 1914, feature scenes from New York City, where she worked as a book illustrator.

A stroll around the grounds between the Education Center and the main home paints a picture of what life was like for the Robinsons, who called Rokeby home from 1793 until 1961. Typical of the time period, the farm supported most of its needs onsite: a granary to store grains and to dry corn; a stone smokehouse to preserve meat; a creamery, which contains both the original ice house as well as a 1940s-era refrigerated room; a slaughterhouse, complete with a pulley and hoist suspended over a drain in the floor; and, last but not least, the three-seater outhouse. Visitors can wander in and out of the buildings, many of which contain tools and other items from the Robinsons’ days.

Beyond the buildings, a trailhead awaits, with two paths wending through the back of the property. The trails, each less than a mile long, invite visitors to investigate this forest that took over former farmland. The museum provides interpretive maps that detail some of the features visible from the paths, including an old well used to water livestock and a seasonal waterfall.
Knowledgeable volunteers lead tours of the main house, Friday through Monday, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. As is common with many homes that have survived since the eighteen century, the Robinsons’ house comprises the original building, with additions made throughout the years. The home, though sparely decorated—in accordance with the family’s Quaker lifestyle—contains numerous documents, books, and artwork that speak to the loves and interests of the family: faith, nature, and art. During the forty-five-minute tour, guides bring the four generations of Robinsons to life, sharing anecdotes about the family and pointing out handwritten notes and sketches.

Unlike other stops on the Underground Railroad, Rokeby doesn’t feature concealed rooms or secret hiding spots. In Vermont, the abolitionist movement was strong, and runaway slaves could live safe from arrest. Some stayed briefly before continuing on to Canada and freedom; others remained in Vermont, helping on farms. Rowland and his wife, Rachel Gilpin Robinson, were devout Quakers who believed that enslavement of another person was a sin. They took in fugitive slaves, taught them to read and write, and even boycotted slave-produced goods (i.e., cotton). When standing in the east chamber, tucked behind a chimney on the second floor of the original portion of the house, guests can gaze upon the same view from the window of what had likely been a fugitive slave’s room.

The museum offers learning and field trip opportunities to teach students about the Underground Railroad and Vermont’s role in helping to bring about emancipation. An education kit features an actor-read recording of a speech delivered by former slave Frederick Douglass in Ferrisburgh in 1843. The oration was part of the “Hundred Conventions,” a series of meetings that the American Anti-Slavery Society convened throughout New England the Midwest, with the Ferrisburgh gathering organized by Rowland T. Robinson.
Whether to understand everyday life of early Vermonters, to learn about a piece of America’s history, or to just take a contemplative stroll through the forest, the Rokeby Museum shines as a hidden gem on a well-traveled path.

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., from mid-May until the end of October.

4334 Route 7
Ferrisburgh, VT