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Susquehanna Life

Day-Trips: Experience a Desperate Route to Freedom

Mar 17, 2019 06:24AM

Woodlawn Manor's sturdy three-story stone barn, tucked into a hillside to provide access to all three levels.

Imagine a flight from slavery at Woodlawn Manor, a former plantation transformed into a Maryland State Park. This day-trip includes a museum visit, walking trails and an earful of history. 

By Whitney Pipkin


Woodlawn Manor, now a Montgomery County, MD, park, would eventually depend on the labor of more than a dozen enslaved people.

Dr. William Palmer married his second wife, Cleorah Duvall, shortly after moving to Woodlawn Manor in Sandy Spring, MD, in the mid-1820s. The marriage came with a dowry gift that would change his plantation’s future: its first slave.

The choice to become a slave owner brought personal consequences, too. Palmer was a Quaker, and Quakers were opposed to slavery. Maryland Quakers freed their enslaved workers in 1777, nearly a century before Maryland gave them land and back wages along with their freedom. Because he accepted slavery, Palmer was “read out” of the still-active Sandy Spring Friends Meeting—much like being excommunicated from Catholicism.

“Dr. Palmer was an interesting guy because he was one of the few that maintained his slaves, to serve the property and his growing family,” said Mark Thorne, program manager at Montgomery County’s Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park.

A trip back in time

The 1809 mansion at Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park is open for tours.

Today the immaculately maintained grounds are still home to the Palmers’ 1809 mansion, which is now open for public tours. The slaves were housed in a tiny board-and-batten tenant house and a log cabin near the manor house.

Several outbuildings speak to agricultural operations at the 750-acre plantation during the 1800s. Among them is a distinctive three-story barn that opened as a museum to depict the lives of religious slaveholders and the plight of enslaved people considering their prospects as runaways.

Along with a trail system that weaves through the woods, the property tells the story of an era when most of the nation was beginning to look askance at slavery while a growing number of enslaved workers were looking—and running—north for freedom.

By the early 1830s, rumors were spreading about the Underground Railroad, a system of trails and secret safe houses (“stations”) that, though treacherous, could lead runaways to freedom in the North.

At Woodlawn Manor, a two-mile Underground Railroad Experience Trail cuts through the woods at the park’s edge to help visitors imagine the experience of people fleeing slavery through Montgomery County.

The trail is part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and, though nobody can say for certain whether runaway slaves trod through these woods, the pathway’s natural setting and thoughtful prompts provide a backdrop for considering the risks of a desperate route to freedom.

“We often tell people that no slave would have used a trail like this, because too many other people use it,” Thorne said. “If it was a great route for the Underground Railroad, we would never know about it.”

Method in motion

The Underground Railroad’s “conductors,” those who moved fugitives from one station to another, used natural landmarks such as distinctive trees and hiding places like the ones along this trail to help thousands of people make their way through the woods, especially when the North Star was not visible.

“Just imagine if you were having to stay in these brambles overnight and hope that nobody would come through here,” Thorne said.

As we walked the trail, and reached the third marker on the self-guided tour, to our right was a thick mass of thorny bushes that would have kept dogs, horses or men scouring the woods for runaways at bay while providing cover for a nap. A guidepost tells hikers that this is “The Brambles,” and a map available at the visitor’s center provides details about what traversing these woods would have been like for freedom seekers in the 1850s.

Program manager Mark Thorne pauses by a stone building at Woodlawn Manor once used to smoke meats and store food.

Thorne likes to use his imagination while walking the trail. A large tree in the shape of the letter Y, for example, strikes him as significant. He asks visitors how they would describe its shape to an illiterate escapee on whom comparison to the letter Y would be lost.

“If I were a slave working in the wheat fields, maybe that’s a pitchfork,” he said. Though the guidepost suggests the brambles as a good—if uncomfortable—hiding place, Thorne thinks he’d rather scramble into one of the trees’ branches for cover.

“The whole time we are walking along this trail, we are looking down,” he said, noting that a slave hunter concerned about his footing might be, too.

That’s partly because there are tree roots to avoid tripping over on the otherwise easy-to-walk path. Though not ideal for strollers, the trail is relatively flat and connects with several other paths in the Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park. It ends at Meeting House Road, a private road that leads to the Sandy Spring Museum or the Sandy Spring Slave Museum, each within three miles of Woodlawn Manor. (Visitors are asked to stay on the road to respect the privacy of area residents.)

Slave catchers often would be waiting at the end of bridges, knowing that fugitives would have to cross bodies of water along the way. But following Sandy Spring Creek corridor, a tributary to the Anacostia River, also had its advantages.

A way out

In the mid-1800s, Washington, DC, had the largest slave market in the country. Those who escaped could have followed a waterway northward from the city in lieu of the North Star. And those trying to escape the slaveholding enclave of Virginia would see Montgomery County as the most direct route to Pennsylvania.

“That would have been the ‘promised land’ at the time,” Thorne said, until 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act required runaways to make it all the way to Canada to be declared free.

Escaped slaves who reached this Montgomery County community had reason to breathe a small sigh of relief, though. Walking through the woods in a Quaker community didn’t necessarily ensure safety, but it did mean that they were more likely to meet sympathizers and could blend in among a small population of formerly enslaved people who had been freed by the Quakers.

Thorne said many Quakers did not believe in breaking the law of the land, which still required them to report runaway slaves, but they would take passive actions to help fugitives.

If he were a Quaker, Thorne said, he might leave food out every Thursday. “I don’t know who takes it, so I’m not actively engaging in helping those people escape.”

A hollowed-out tree along the trail is an example of a place where a satchel of food could have been hidden for those in need. Next to the tree is a boundary stone of the Palmer property.

More to explore

Guided and self-guided hikes at Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park help visitors imagine how people fleeing slavery may have made their way toward freedom in the North.

Many visitors are drawn to Woodlawn Manor Park by either the trail or the historic home and then discover that the site has more to explore. With the addition of the new museum and manor tours in 2018, the park’s organizers hope more people will take in the whole experience.

“We are now seeing the property more as a park with several things to see and do,” said Jennifer Legates, facilities manager for the Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park and the Woodlawn Museum inside the barn.

Not to be missed is the so-called bank barn, sitting near the crest of a small hill and tucked into the slope to provide access at three different levels. After moving here from Pennsylvania in 1822, Palmer built the barn in 1832 as a way “to project that he was going to be successful as a farmer,” Thorne said.

The country physician spared no expense on the barn—built of stone and outfitted with lightning rods on the roof, because, as one of the founding directors of the Montgomery Mutual Fire Insurance Co., Palmer was all too familiar with the risk of losing the structure to fire.

But there is plenty of wood throughout the interior of the light-filled barn, and it, too, is a subject of marvel. “When I stand here by myself, I think, ‘How did these guys do this without power tools?’” Thorne said, pointing out one of the hand-hewn joints near the foundation.

Form and function

The stone-arch barn, built in 1832, serves as a museum about the property’s history.

The barn is as functional as it is beautiful, with each of its three levels serving a different purpose. Wagons would have wheeled up the sloped (now paved) path to the top floor of the barn, where workers could pitchfork hay into storage silos on the sides or into a tunnel leading down to the animal stables on the bottom floor.

After thrashing wheat on the top floor during the harvest, workers funneled the grain through metal holes to the middle level. There, laborers would catch it in sacks and pile the food behind tin-lined partitions for storage.

While still demonstrating their original function, each of the barn’s floors have become the backdrop for museum exhibits that tell the story of the landowners and the enslaved people who spent much of their time laboring within the barn’s walls.

A projector on the barn’s second floor plays short vignettes on whitewashed walls of conversations that might have taken place in this barn nearly two centuries ago. As visitors walk through the barn, they hear Quakers discussing whether or not their religion instructs them to free slaves. They also eavesdrop on slaves talking about the drudgery of their work — and considering an escape to freedom.

If You Go

Guided tours of the Woodlawn Manor Trail are available on Saturdays and the first Sunday of every month from April through mid-November. Upcoming events include Women’s History Month Walking Tour March 30 and History Hour on April 24. For more information, visit https://www.montgomeryparks.org/parks-and-trails/woodlawn-manor-cultural-park. For information about the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, visit nps.gov/subjects/ugrr.


Whitney Pipkin writes about food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. She is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

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