Peek Into the Past of two Columbus Abolitionists at the Kelton House
The Columbus landmark offers visible and hidden lessons in history.
More than 150 years ago, Sophia Stone Kelton and Fernando Cortez Kelton left the city and moved to the country for a quieter, safer place to rear their children.
That country home is now squarely in the city at 586 E. Town St. It is known as the Kelton House Museum and Garden and offers visitors a glimpse of family life during the Victorian era. Built in 1852, the home incorporates elements of the Greek Revival and Italianate styles of architecture. Less apparent, however, is its secret past as a stop along the Underground Railroad. That intimate history has now been substantiated and recorded by descendants of those who were involved.
As local lore has it, the Keltons decided to move outside of the city hub, which surrounded the state capitol building and was quite unsanitary, after their son died of typhoid in 1848. They found a more bucolic scene on East Town Street, where little else existed at the time.
The historic residence was home to three generations of Keltons and a few others. In 1975, Fernando and Sophia’s granddaughter, Grace, died and willed the property to the Columbus Foundation with the stipulation that it be preserved and used for educational purposes. The Junior League of Columbus began renovating and restoring the house a year later as a league service program, which continues today. The Kelton House hosts tours, educational and other events, including wedding receptions.
Nearly 90 percent of the artifacts displayed in the home belonged to the Kelton family, unusual for house museums, which more often display items “of the period,” says Kathe Daniel, a house manager.
Executive director Sarah Richardt says the home’s purpose today is “to reflect the culture and the times of the people who lived there. … It’s a living, breathing house.” The oldest family piece in the house is a grandfather clock, built in 1790 and transported across the country before there were roads. Somehow, it survived intact.
The formal front parlor, which was used solely to receive visitors, faces Town Street and still has its original ornate ceiling medallions, moldings and trim. A conversation area, small by today’s standards, contains velvet sofas next to one of the home’s 14 fireplaces. Plant stands are situated at tall windows, which are adorned with lace panels and luxurious draperies. The room’s ceiling soars to nearly 13 feet. The minimalist look, this is not. Like the rest of the house, it is wallpapered, carpeted and furnished in highly patterned fabrics and materials.
The front parlor now is the setting for indoor weddings, but its most historic nuptials were more than a century ago. A young woman named Martha Hartway, who came to Columbus in 1864 to escape the tyranny of slavery, married Thomas Lawrence, who worked for the Kelton family. He arrived in the city in 1873.
Sophia Kelton had spotted Martha outside a window and brought her into the home to live as a family member, Richardt says.
The rear parlor was used as a family room and is where Sophia brought in a pool table to keep her sons out of Downtown’s billiard halls. Her presence in the room is felt in a delicate vignette containing needlework, glasses and a sewing kit. In the center of the room is a marble-topped table surrounded by four chairs that was used for playing games.
Opposite the front parlor is a morning parlor, so named because of the way the room receives the day’s early light. It was Sophia’s favorite, and is now the museum gift shop.
Upstairs, a bedroom believed to have been used by the couple’s daughters contains toys of the era. Richardt says the doll playset and other child-size items illustrate the utilitarian side of family life in the mid 19th century, during a time when young girls were taught the fine arts of mothering and housekeeping with the toys that were purchased for them.
“They were not just playing with toys, they were learning to be mothers,” she explains. “Lace curtains were not just pretty, they kept bugs and dust out during the summer.” The bed is covered in an original velvet and satin crazy quilt, which like others of the era, displayed the lady of the home’s fine fabrics and stitchery skills.
Fernando and Sophia’s bedroom is a step back in time, filled with the trunks they used for travel, Fernando’s letters to Sophia when he was away, and a dresser on which castor oil and other odd-sounding potions sit. The bed where the husband and wife each died remains standing.
The second floor also bears imprints of the last generation to live there. A scene at the landing’s Town Street window displays a screen made of wallpaper panels Grace used in decorating the White House Diplomatic Reception Room for Jacqueline Kennedy. An interior designer, Grace has been credited with professionalizing the industry and was 81 at the time she worked for Kennedy.
In another upstairs room, tiny indentations made by Grace’s stiletto heels pit the pine floor. “She was a character,” Richardt says. “She drove a red Cadillac convertible up and down Town Street and threw lively parties.”
The former carriage house at the property’s rear overlooks the gardens and is the main space for wedding receptions and other events, all of which have been scaled back due to COVID-19. Large, arched windows in the building were former carriage openings.
The Kelton House is open to the public, but in response to the current pandemic, the museum capacity is about half what it was and other accommodations have been made. Tours flow one-way through the home. Teas and lectures have been curtailed for the time being.
Richardt, who took her position just a year ago, plans to delve deeper into history and family trees, particularly those of Martha and Thomas, who married there. She wants to add more labels to include additional details for visitors.
Homes of the time customarily had ballrooms on their third floors, but not the Kelton House.
“They were the original packrats, and thank God they were,” says Richardt. “There is so much documentation … we have so many stories, and storytelling is such an important part of museums.”
The Kelton House’s Underground Railroad History
With all its stately elegance and ornamental panache, the Kelton House stands as a monument to unwavering courage during a bleak and treacherous time in this country’s history.
Fernando and Sophia Kelton, both abolitionists hailing from New England, built their family home in Columbus two years after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled people in free states to capture those who were fleeing slavery. The Keltons’ East Town Street home became a “safe house,” one of several in Ohio along the Underground Railroad, which was used by formerly enslaved people who went north, fleeing slave states.
Few, if any, written records exist for most homes along the Underground Railroad, making it difficult to recount a thoroughly accurate history. In the case of the Kelton House, however, enduring family connections helped fit pieces together, says Mary Oellermann, education coordinator at the house.
When third-generation descendants of Fernando and Sophia gathered for the funeral of Grace Kelton (who lived in the home until her death in 1975), they shared stories with the descendants of Martha Hartway and Thomas Lawrence.
A century earlier, Hartway and Lawrence were married in the home’s front parlor. Hartway had lived with the Keltons as a family member from the time she was about 10, when Sophia spotted her hiding in bushes outside the home. It is believed she and her sister, Pearl, were running from a Virginia plantation because their mother feared for their safety. Lawrence, a free Black man, worked for the Keltons in various capacities, most notably as a carpenter. (Martha’s sister, Pearl, who was older and stronger, is thought to have kept fleeing north.)
Martha and Thomas had a son, Arthur Kelton Lawrence, who became one of the first Black physicians in Columbus. When Arthur’s son James married, his wife Ruth made it a point to connect with Grace Kelton and revive the families’ shared history.
“We had two different families telling the exact same story. That’s how we have some sense of [history] and why we were designated an official stop on the Underground Railroad,” Oellermann says.
Because it was built at a time when harboring those who were escaping slavery, “you couldn’t exactly tell your architect to build you a secret room,” she says. The Keltons may have hidden freedom seekers in the root cellar, attic or barns on the property. A cistern beneath what now is the Kelton House garden is another possibility.
Oellermann has led thousands of schoolchildren through the Kelton House and Museum Underground Railroad Learning Station, which contains a replica of a cellar space where those escaping slavery might have stayed. She has asked children to imagine what it would feel like to ride for hundreds of miles hidden in a wooden-wheeled wagon, unable to see the road ahead. “Would you be willing to get in that wagon?” she asks.
With a number of wagons on the roads in and around Columbus at the time, Fernando Kelton’s dry goods and pharmaceuticals business had the ability to move both merchandise—and people—without attracting unwanted attention.
“I liken it to UPS,” Oellermann says. Kelton also was a prominent and formidable figure, which probably worked to his advantage. “He was an extremely important person in Columbus,” she adds. “You would have to have a really good reason to go after him.”
The Kelton family and others like them put themselves, their livelihoods and their families in jeopardy every time they tried to ensure safe passage for those fleeing slavery along a route that went north, all the way into Canada in some cases.
“You could go to jail, your kids would go to orphanages, people lost businesses, they lost their houses and everything in them,” Oellermann says. The URR operators had to ask themselves, “Are you willing to risk everything you have for someone you don’t even know?” she says. “Most of us like to think we’d say ‘yes.’ We know what the Keltons answered. ... I think that’s remarkable.”