Thursday, September 2, 2004

Springboro feels snubbed by museum

Click here to e-mail Peter Bronson
'If you stand in that closet at night, turn off the lights and look into that hiding place, you have to wonder what it must have been like for slaves hiding there while bounty hunters went through the house."

Sterling Gardner was talking about his historic home in Springboro, the Jonathan Wright House.

It's a bed-and-breakfast, also available for public tours. Guests can rent a bedroom with something extra you can't order from room service: a secret hideaway once used by runaway slaves. It's dark and cramped, like looking into a grave where fear was buried a long time ago.

"As far as I know, we're the only home where you can stay that has an authentic hiding place," Gardner said.

So here's the ticket: Stay overnight in a room haunted by runaway slaves, then spend the day at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center 45 minutes south in downtown Cincinnati.

Springboro was founded by Quakers, who built their homes as Underground Railroad depots. It has 27 sites and its own Underground Railroad Museum. But it's not on the Freedom Center's map, Gardner said. "There has been no outreach to include us."

Freedom Center officials visited three times, he said. "They picked our brains on how to build a successful program, but there was no payback."

Gardner, who is president of the Springboro Area Historical Society, said he was disappointed that he was not invited to a pre-opening tour. There is no mention of Springboro on the Freedom Center Web site. And there has been no recognition of Springboro's historic contributions to freedom, Gardner said.

Freedom Center officials said Gardner and a Springboro group came to the grand opening.

Ripley, one hour east of downtown Cincinnati, has the John H. Parker House and the John Rankin House. Betty Campbell, president of the John H. Parker Historical Society, said they have "absolutely" been helped by the Freedom Center, with mentions on the Web site and in three exhibits. "They have focused quite a bit on Ripley," she said. "The Freedom Center will be a tremendous asset for everyone."

At an Underground Railroad site in Lancaster, Ind., Elbert Hinds, vice president of the advisory committee at Eleutherian College, said, "In the past two weeks, we've had tremendous contacts with the Freedom Center."

He said no visitors or contacts have resulted yet, but that's no surprise because the Freedom Center is "still just getting their own act together," he said.

Lancaster, one hour and 40 minutes west, made the list. Springboro, 45 minutes north, which claims to be the third-fastest growing town in Ohio, did not.

"There are so many stories, it's impossible to put every last town and story in the exhibit, but the door is not closed on Springboro,'' said Naomi Nelson, director of education and freedom stations at the Freedom Center. "It's in my plan."

But Gardner's complaint about poor public relations is not news to most of the local media.

Sen. Mike DeWine, who worked to get the Freedom Center $12 million in federal grants, said he thinks the next mission of the Freedom Center should be to share its resources by publicizing places like Springboro and offering expert help.

"There are locations from Lake Erie to the Ohio River," he said. "Even a map would be helpful, so that it would be very easy for people to get in their car at the Freedom Center and get to these sites like Springboro."

Good idea. Springboro's story shouldn't stay in the dark.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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