The two-story Slave Pen on the second floor of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is the defining artifact of the nation’s newest monument to freedom and the most visited exhibit. It is also the starkest and most poignant symbol of freedom’s hard-won journey.
Discovered in a field in Germantown, Kentucky, 13 miles from Maysville and seven miles inland, the log structure was originally thought to be a tobacco stripping shed. Carl Westmoreland, senior advisor and curator of the slave pen, knew otherwise. He saw the imprint chains had left where enslaved African Americans had been shackled. Further evidence was found in the probate inventory of the structure’s original owner, J.W. Anderson, where it was recorded in 1834 as a “slave jail.”
The Freedom Center, which opened in August 2003, overlooks the Ohio River and Kentucky from its perch on the edge of Cincinnati’s northern bank and at the center of the “freedom corridor,” a 200-mile stretch of 19th-century towns that played leading roles in the freedom stories of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio.
The 158,000-square-foot monument is actually three five-story structures connected by skywalks. According to Steve DeVillez of the museum, the various stylist elements, including the undulated exterior walls, copper roofing, rough-hewn stone, and glass enclosed bridge-ways, help to frame the facility as a beacon for an imagined fugitive 150 years prior.
Outside are the Flame of Freedom sculptures, lighting the pathway to this “station” on the Underground Railroad and recalling the city’s role in providing refuge to thousands of enslaved black Americans in the 1800s; many fugitive slaves first set foot on free soil in this very location.
Most visitors are immediately drawn to the Slave Pen, but there are many other history exhibits that add their own chapters to the story of the Underground Railroad. ESCAPE! Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad is an exhibit designed for elementary school children (and a favorite with them) that covers the period of 1830 to 1861. Brothers of the Borderland presents an interactive environmental theater experience focused on the Underground Railroad heroes of the local region. From Slavery to Freedom provides historical context to understanding how slavery could coexist in the land of the Declaration of Independence and how this gave rise to the Underground Railroad, particularly during the period of 1776 to 1865.
In the interactive Hall of Everyday Freedom Heroes, visitors meet key individuals who throughout history have helped shape the world’s landscape of freedom. The Struggle Today examines the legacy of the Underground Railroad. Reflect, Respond, Resolve is a safe place to reflect and carry on one-to-one or group dialogues about the experiences and issues that the visitors have just encountered.
One exhibit that is tucked away from the main reception and exhibit areas on the ground floor of the museum’s main entrance, but shouldn’t be overlooked, is a beautiful quilt made by Jane Burch Cochran. Vibrant in a color palette of blues, reds, and yellows is a quilt that fully embodies the mood, message, and meaning of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
50 East Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202
(877) 648-4838, (513) 333-7500
Tickets: $12/adults; $10/students and seniors; $8/children ages six to 12. Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. The North Star Café offers a light menu and the Freedom Center Gift Shop has an array of interesting and unusual gift items.
Kentucky’s freedom heritage
The Underground Railroad was a path that led thousands of slaves from the South to freedom in the North. In the border state of Kentucky, an estimated 2,000 slaves crossed the Ohio River each year to freedom. The remarkable history unfolds at the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville, (606) 564-9419, www.cityofmaysville.com, an area surrounded by Underground Railroad stations.
Nearby is the 1785 village of Old Washington, (606) 759-7411, www.washingtonky.com. Here visitors will find the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum, (606) 759-4860, in an early antebellum home where the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin visited and witnessed a slave auction in 1833, and the Paxton Inn, a station on the Underground Railroad. Runaway slaves were hidden in a secret stairway between the first and second floor until they could be safely transported across the Ohio River under the cover of darkness.
The Riverside Drive Historic District in Covington, (859) 655-4159, www.staynky.com/things/ historic2/secretpassage.html, just across the bridge from the Freedom Center, features the Carneal House, where fugitive slaves were hidden in its basement.
Camp Nelson Heritage Park, (859) 881-9126, www.campnelson.org, south of Nicholasville, is a National Historic Landmark and an interpretive trail, site of the third largest recruiting and training depot for African Americans during the Civil War.
Old Bardstown Village is home to the Civil War Museum (the fourth largest such museum in the country) and the Women of the Civil War Museum, (502) 348-4877, www.visitbardstown.com/tourism.
Kathy Witt is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
Approaching the Snug Hollow Farm Bed & Breakfast in Estill County in central Kentucky is like slowly unwrapping a gift. If you arrive via I-75, you’ll motor past Berea’s craft shops, antique stores, and the famous college that bears its name. Then you’ll take KY 594, which winds like a ribbon among a landscape wrapped in limestone and shale knobs. Finally, you’ll turn up a gravel road and crunch to a stop by your prize: two log houses at the mouth of 300 acres. If the word “respite” has a physical incarnation, this is it.
Owner Barbara Napier simply calls it, as she has since first setting eyes upon the hollow 25 years ago, “the most beautiful place in the world.”
Her strong bond with the landscape explains why the former native of Harlan and Breathitt counties struggled so hard to remain there. She worked to support herself and her two sons until she could open Snug Hollow five years ago, and often since, “to keep the bed and breakfast alive until it became viable.”
This singular passion—Napier once nearly lost the farm; her tale of its rescue is a passion play in itself—also explains Snug Hollow’s welcoming aura. The same hand that feeds the songbirds each morning, brews fresh coffee for guests at 7 a.m., and waters the giant split-leaf philodendron cascading from the second-floor balcony, also guided the design, construction, and interior decoration of her dream house.
“I’m an artist,” Napier says. “I used to paint and now I use this as my canvas.”
Her two-story, 3,500-square-foot masterpiece took 10 years to complete. One enters Snug Hollow by the kitchen. Immersion in the aroma of baking biscuits or apple cobbler is like wiping your feet on a spiritual welcome mat, so to speak.
Upstairs are two bedrooms, each with a private bath. There’s also a balcony and a library, guarded by the pampered, venerable philodendron. In the larger bedroom, a king-sized bed faces a private porch overlooking the farm. Its bathroom boasts a Jacuzzi.
Off the kitchen is a long dining table where guests enjoy gourmet vegetarian fare. But banish thoughts of bean sprouts, granola, and other vegan stereotypes.
“It’s not tofu and seaweed,” Napier explains. She and new assistant Meg Alexander, a recent graduate of Indiana State University’s Travel and Tourism program, serve up biscuits and gravy, smoked cheddar frittata, and blackberry shortcake; or they may seat you in front of oatmeal/cornmeal waffles and fruit smoothies. Supper, an extra option, might be a hearty chili soup followed by thick slices of eggplant parmigiana or pizzas served with fresh baked bread, farm-grown salad, and finished, of course, with a baked-from-scratch dessert.
Following breakfast, you can sightsee in Estill County or nearby Berea, or walk the farm’s broad paths through meadows and woods, past the small reservoir/swimming hole and hilltop family graveyard. Or you can simply hang out downstairs in the sunroom, by the fireplace in the living room, or on one of three porches.
Next to the main house is Napier’s latest “canvas,” a restored, tastefully furnished 130-year-old log cabin. It’s a self-contained guesthouse, with a small kitchen, sitting room, bath and shower, living room, porch, and upstairs bedroom.
Snug Hollow Farm Bed and Breakfast
790 McSwain Branch, Irvine
Rates: $145–$165 double occupancy per night; cabin: $210 double occupancy per night (includes gourmet breakfast). Dinners available by reservation for an extra charge.
In the Area
Appalachian Mountain Dulcimers
114 Main Street, Berea
The South’s renowned first integrated college is not to be missed. Tour the campus, attend a recital, lecture, or play.
Visitors Center, 6 Main Street, Berea
Berea Tourism Center
Your first stop for guides to local destinations.
201 N. Broadway, Berea
Berea’s newest coffee house features artistic ambiance and big-city specialty coffees. Weekend music performances.
440 Chestnut Street, Berea
Estill County Web site
Historic Berea Hotel Building
Tater Knob Pottery
Owner/artisans Sarah Culbreth and Jeff Enge will be happy to show you around.
260 Wolf Gap Road, Berea