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Historical marker headed to Holley for home on Underground Railroad

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 22 January 2019 at 11:57 am

HOLLEY – A new historical marker will be erected this spring on South Main Street in Holley at the former home of Chauncey Robinson, who was an abolitionist who opened his home to hide escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

The county, Orleans County Historical Association and two local donors are sharing the cost for the marker at 35 South Main, west of Geddes Street.

Local historians have long suspected there were houses in Orleans County on the Underground Railroad, which was a secret network of trails and homes. But there wasn’t documentation to back it up, until Clarendon Historian Melissa Ierlan found a letter from Robinson’s grandson.

In the lengthy letter, the grandson details visiting his grandfather, who took him up to the second floor of the back side of the house. The grandfather pulled back a curtain, and there was a group of escaped slaves on beds.

“It’s pretty unusual to find descriptions like that,” said Matt Ballard, the county historian and president of the Orleans County Historical Association.

More research showed that Robinson was in fact an outspoken abolitionist,.

The Orleans County Historical Association considered other sites for a marker, but decided on Robinson and his work with the Underground Railroad. Ballard said this will be the second historical marker in Orleans County about African-American history. Medina in April 2015 unveiled a marker on Main Street in recognition of two speeches delivered in the community by Frederick Douglass, a leading abolitionist. Ballard likes how the Holley marker highlights a local resident advocating for escaped slaves.

“This is more a man who lived in the community who was well respected and was participating in the Underground Railroad,” Ballard said today. “There has been a lot of speculation and rumor with the Underground Railroad, but no written documentation.”

Ballard wants to see markers recognize underrepresented groups in the county’s history, and also bring attention to overlooked and unappreciated sites.

The Holley marker will be two-sided with one side highlighting Robinson and the Underground Railroad, and the other side noted the work of Ezra Brainerd, who built Robinson’s home and oversaw construction of the canal embankment over Sandy Creek, “which was a major undertaking,” Ballard said.

The Historical Association is considering other spots for historical markers in the future, including:

• The childhood home of Henry A. Spencer on Chamberlain Street in Albion. Spencer was the first African-American student at University of Rochester, a pall bearer for Frederick Douglass’s funeral, a member of Frederick Douglass Memorial Committee, and secretary for the NYS Assembly.

• Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church on Brown Street in Albion, the first Polish rural mission church outside of Buffalo, and center of Albion’s Polonia.

• George Pullman’s home on East State Street in the Village of Albion

• Silas Mainville Burroughs’ home at State Street Park in Medina. S.M. Burroughs Sr. was a NYS Assemblyman and a congressman. S.M. Burroughs Jr. was founder of Burroughs Wellcome & Co., now GlaxoSmithKline.

• Carlyon Calamity in the Town of Carlton on Yates-Carlton Townline, This is the site of a railroad accident on R.W.&O. Railroad, causing deaths of 17 passengers.

• Stangeland property on Norway Road in Kendall, the site of Andreas Stangeland home. Stangeland traveled with Cleng Peerson in 1824 to select land for Sloopers, and remained with Norwegians as Peerson traveled westward.

• Bidelman’s Tannery on Ridge Road near Rt. 279 in Gaines, which was originally Mather’s Tannery. Masons allegedly stopped at site while transporting the kidnapped William Morgan to Lewiston.

• Brady’s Quarry on Butts Road near the canal in Albion. The site allegedly provided sandstone for the Capitol Building in Albany. (Historians need to confirm location.)

• Sgt. Isaac Hawkins home near Glenwood & Ryan streets in Medina. Hawkins, an African-American, was a member of 54th Massachusetts Infantry. He was captured at Battle of Olustee, a prisoner at Andersonville, and buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

• Lake Alice in Carlton, a man-made lake that was constructed by Western New York Utilities Co. in 1917. The company purchased over 50 parcels of property and relocated buildings to create reservoir.

• Wilson Hanging at Courthouse Square in Albion, the site of only public execution in Orleans County.

Ballard welcomes suggestions from the community for other markers. To contact him, send an email to Matt.Ballard@orleanscountyny.gov.

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