WEST MIDDLETOWN – Mike Hixenbaugh didn’t want to see a house that has stood for two centuries in the heart of West Middletown demolished or turned into a garage over someone else’s lack of caring for history.
His passion for saving old treasures prompted him to buy the partially gutted frame house at 56 E. Main St. last year after hearing it was once the home of a prominent abolitionist who helped escaped slaves seek freedom on the Underground Railroad.
“Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” said Hixenbaugh, a Hopewell Township man who deals in antiques and scrap metal. “It’s just a neat house.”
Washington County deed records show the two-story frame house was sold by Thomas McKeever in 1855. Hixenbaugh believes it was built in the early 1800s.
McKeever’s brother, Matthew, was a leader of local abolitionists who all participated in the Underground Railroad, journalist Osborne Mitchell wrote in a 1908 article in The Reporter about the freedom route.
“Any member of the society was ready to conceal Negroes near his home at a minute’s notice,” the story stated.
Matthew McKeever went on to confess in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1880 his involvement in the Underground Railroad. McKeever said he led the railroad in West Middletown – a remote town on Route 844 halfway between Washington and Wellsburg, W.Va. – for 40 years and remembered helping about 35 of 40 slaves on the run during those decades. He also identified his brother, who was a magistrate, as a participant in the operation.
“My brother Tommy shipped a good many,” he wrote.
Mitchell indicated the abolitionists rarely took the escapees inside their houses, but when they did, the slaves were hidden in places that “disregard the obvious.”
There are oral histories from 1910 in the McKeever Study historical society archives in West Middletown, as well as an account written by one of Matthew McKeever’s daughters, discussing how slaves were hidden inside Matthew McKeever’s house.
They described a trap door in the floor inside the kitchen door that led to a crawl space where the slaves were hidden. A rug was placed over the trap door to further disguise the hiding place from slave hunters.
Hixenbaugh believes he found evidence in the floor joists above a crawl space in the Thomas McKeever house suggesting a similarly constructed trap door had been built there into the kitchen floor.
“There are notches on the cross beams to support a trap door,” Hixenbaugh said. “There is nowhere else in the house with a setup like this.”
Some white abolitionists who participated in helping fugitive slaves did hide them in their houses, said Richard Cooper, historian for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“It’s pretty hard in the dead of winter to not take them into their homes,” Cooper said.
He said he’s cautious about believing stories he hears regarding Underground Railroad sites because some towns overstate their connections to them to attract tourists, while others tend to “romanticize” the events.
In the McKeever case, he said, there appears to be enough evidence in the archives of the historical society, including eyewitness testimony of another local abolitionist who helped transport slaves, to support the story.
In addition, there are letters involving the McKeevers in the files at the LeMoyne House in East Maiden Street in Washington, a stop on the Underground Railroad that has been verified by the National Register of Historic Landmarks, said Clay Kilgore, director of Washington County Historical Society.
Kilgore said the LeMoyne House also has a letter to Francis LeMoyne, who was a physician and philanthropist, from the infamous abolitionist John Brown that confirms Brown had an association with Washington County.
Most abolitionists destroyed their records on the Underground Railroad because it was illegal for them to be involved in helping slaves escape from the antebellum South, he said.
“Why LeMoyne (kept his), we have no idea, but we are glad he did,” Kilgore said.
As for the McKeevers’ involvement, he said, “I believe it to be a true story.”
The McKeevers are discussed, he said, in every tour given at the LeMoyne House.