John Brown's body
Oct 16, 2008
|And John Brown's farm at North Elba - Thursday, October 16
Most people have heard the song that goes “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave . . .” but how many people know that John is doing his ‘mouldering’ in the shadow of the Lake Placid ski jumps? He is - and today we visited both venues.
John Brown occupies an honored place on my short list of heroes. Men like John Brown and Nat Turner struck terror into the hearts of southern slave owners, who despite their righteous rhetoric knew all too well that their ‘peculiar institution’ was an evil one. John Brown and Nat Turner stood up to that evil, and their actions exposed it to the rest of the world.
Their violence told the south there'd be a price to pay, and that payment would be made in southern blood. This was a hard reality check for a culture whose justification for existance depended on denying the reality of what they were doing. It’s hard to maintain the illusion that your ‘darkies’ are happy and 'better off' when they are risking their lives to cut your throat.
John Brown’s father was an abolitionist before him, and John grew up Christian with a passionate belief that slavery was a sin against God. With two wives he fathered 20 children, 11 of whom lived to maturity. Three of his sons died in the cause of ending slavery, one in Kansas where he was murdered by a southern preacher, and the other two fighting with their father at Harper’s Ferry. Those two are buried with him at Lake Placid.
In 1849 John purchased 244 acres of land in the Adirondack Mountain settlement of North Elba, New York. That community is now known as Lake Placid. He bought the land from friend and fellow abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who had started a community for free blacks called Timbucto. At Timbucto blacks could obtain a grant of free land from Smith, which they could then live on and farm in safety and freedom. Brown moved his family to North Elba to help Smith with that vision, and to provide instruction and aid to the developing community.
The project ultimately failed for several reasons. The land was not fertile and the growing season was too short for most crops. Black families were inexperienced in this kind of farming and few could make it a success. Nevertheless, the property Smith granted them gave them the right to vote, and even after they were forced to abandon the land many of them maintained the property taxes so they would still be property owners and therefore voters.
Brown spent little time at his farm. He was away most of the time, either trying to make a living as a tanner, surveyor or businessman, or busily involved in his anti-slavery efforts. In the late 1850’s he became involved in the fight to keep Kansas free, and in helping run-away slaves escape to Canada. Those activities paved the way for his venture at Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
On the night of October 16, 1859 Brown and a small band of followers assaulted the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Their purpose was to secure arms for the battle of liberating the slaves of the south. The battle ended on October 18 when Brown was wounded and captured by a contingent of U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and was subsequently convicted of armed insurrection. On December 2, 1859 he was hanged.
His widow, Mary, took possession of the body and transported it back to New York, where it was interred six days after the execution. Mary continued to live on the farm until 1867 when she sold it to a local farmer. In 1870 it was purchased by a group of people who wanted to preserve it in John Brown’s memory. It has been preserved from that day, and it is now a State Historic Park. A nice and very knowledgeable woman gave us a fine tour. She is related to the woman whom John Brown hired to help his wife with the work on the farm, and her husband is related to Robert E. Lee.
The 244 acres of the original farm are still in tact, and a short ways from the farm’s boundaries stand the two Lake Placid Olympic Ski Jumps. You can see them from the farm and they loom over the woods like two giants. Leaving the farm it was a drive of only a few minutes to the entrance to the ski jump parking lot. We pulled in and watched for nearly an hour as several young men made practice jumps from the smaller 90 meter jump. They were sliding and jumping onto plastic ‘snow’ and while we couldn’t see them on the slide we could hear the sound of their skis as they went by. The were all boys who looked to be in their teens.
From the ski jumps we drove into the town of Lake Placid, and while Madolyn went to the Post Office I checked out the arena and convention center to see about tours for tomorrow. They have held two Winter Olympics here, one in 1932, and the other in 1980. This is where the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ took place and we want to see the rink and arena. This is the last weekend of the season for tours, so it’s good we came now.
We looked around town a little and then headed back to our campground in the dark again. The days are getting short, and the nights are getting cold. But we stay warm and happy in our home away from home.