History of the Underground Railroad in Granville, Ohio

The village of Granville, in Licking County, is rich in lore when it comes to the abolitionist movement.

Laurie Allen
Granville's Old Academy Building was the site of early meetings of abolitionists.

If roads could talk, Granville’s would have much to say about one of the most contentious times in the nation’s history. The 217-year-old Licking County village, known for its New England charm, rolling hills and peaceful environs, was a place of hidden refuge for those escaping slavery. It also was the site of a riot that erupted over the issue of abolition in 1836.

Traces of the antislavery movement remain, from a home used for student housing on Denison University’s campus to a popular coffee shop south of town. Local landmark destinations such as the Granville and Buxton inns, and Timbuk Farms sit along historic paths to freedom. A building a block away from the city’s business center was the site of abolitionist meetings and a reported trial of a person who was fleeing slavery.

Most students, residents and visitors aren’t aware of what transpired nearly 200 years ago on the streets they frequent today, says Theresa Overholser, archivist for the Granville Historical Society. “Granville is by and large a bedroom community,” she says. “Most people don’t stop to learn the history.”

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Fortunately, the community’s history has been documented through the years. “Slavery flourished within a hundred miles of Granville; it was as close as the Ohio River,” wrote the late William Utter in his book, Granville: The Story of an Ohio Village. A local historian and professor of history at Denison, Utter also served as village mayor for a time.

The Granville Inn is on the former site of the former Granville Girls Academy.

Granville’s history as it relates to the antislavery movement is tethered to its original founders, men and women who left New England in search of conditions more conducive to farming. While not fertile ground for agriculture, Massachusetts in particular was the wellspring of some of the country’s earliest antislavery sentiment, says Mitchell Snay, professor emeritus at Denison and author of Freedom: The Antislavery Movement in Granville.

A movement that began in Boston found its way to Ohio via a Cincinnati seminary. Antislavery agents later found their way to Granville, Snay says. Within the community they found receptive ears, and abolitionist meetings began to spring up in and around the village.

Local historians today struggle with a lack of written documentation to substantiate the lore that surrounds several village homes where hiding places have been discussed. Yet, there is clear evidence that abolitionists were busy in and around Granville during the mid-1800s.

The Great Riot

The abolitionists met with resistance and sometimes violence when they gathered, as was the case on April 28, 1836, the day of “The Great Riot,” as Utter called it in his book.

On that day, members of the Ohio Antislavery Association and some other abolitionists convened inside a barn that was behind a house that now sits at the rear entrance of Denison University. The home of Ashley and Lucy Bancroft is now used as a student residence; the barn is long gone.

The Bancroft House still stands at the rear entrance to Denison University.

Students from what was then called Granville College (now Denison) attended the convention, as did 19 female delegates and another 30 to 40 students from the Granville Female Academy, whose teachers adjourned classes for the day so the young ladies could attend, according to Utter.

By all accounts, the convention in the barn went off without incident, but problems started afterward when the men escorted the female students back to their dormitories. With men flanking the women on either side, the group proceeded back into town where they encountered “an excited mass of men, many of whom were drunk, and all of whom were noisy,” Utter wrote.

As often happened during conventions, anti-abolitionists had sent word throughout nearby towns to disrupt the meetings, and an unspecified number had gathered to block the way of the marchers. The mob closed in on the walking abolitionists, and when a man pushed a young woman and her escort into a muddy ditch near East Broadway and Main Street, a free-for-all ensued, the book recounts. A witness to the events later wrote: “Pandemonium was on the streets of that village yesterday.”

Shops along Broadway in Granville

While noting that eyewitness accounts are “notoriously untrustworthy,” Utter said that when the recollections are checked against one other, a fairly accurate picture can be drawn. “Eggs were thrown by the hundreds, and not all were fresh,” Utter reported. Some stories of the event tell of slugfests, stone-throwing, and horses having their manes and tail hair cut off. One young woman fainted with fright, according to at least one witness.

It’s unclear exactly how long the melee lasted, but no shots were fired, and no one was critically injured. The students of the female academy made it back to their residences unharmed, and after a violent late-afternoon thunderstorm, the excitement had passed. Toward evening, the Granville band came out to play a concert at the center of town, Utter writes.

Though brief, the incident had lasting impact. Granville abolitionists gained strength and were no longer hindered when they asked to use public buildings for meetings in the years following, Utter reported.

The Underground Railroad

Granville’s place in the antislavery movement extended well beyond the riot. Village roads carried men, women and children seeking freedom from slavery, and at least a few homes served as rest stations for weary travelers. “There were ingenious places of concealment in the village and its environs and some of these can be authenticated,” Utter wrote.

However, historians have faced almost insurmountable difficulties in confirming local lore about specific stops on the routes. “With threats of imprisonment and hefty fines, few were foolish enough to commit incriminating evidence to paper,” wrote Utter.

While a lack of written records hampers historians, stories told by descendants sometimes are enough to piece together at least a partial picture of Granville’s role as an important post on the Underground Railroad. Several sites and structures remain today, among them:

A lamp on the exterior of the Bancroft House

The Bancroft House, 555 N. Pearl St. 

The home of Ashley and Lucy Bancroft was built with local stone and stands today on the eastern entrance of the Denison campus. Ashley Bancroft, whose barn was used for abolitionist assemblies, was known to have transported freedom seekers through town in his hay wagon.

The Old Academy Building, 105 W. Elm St. 

The Old Academy Building was the original home of the Granville Female Academy before it moved to the site of the current Granville Inn. Some renowned abolition meetings and the trial of a man named John, who was fleeing from slavery, were held at this location. (John was freed and his leg irons were removed, according to Utter’s reports.)

The building where the River Road Coffee House is established, is thought to have been a stopping point along the Underground Railroad.

River Road Coffeehouse, 935 River Rd. 

Just south of town, the coffee shop occupies a building that was a station on the Underground Railroad. It was moved around the corner from its original site but otherwise looks about the same, Overholser says.

Ohio Route 661 

The destination for many central Ohioans who shop for trees during the holidays, the Timbuk Farms property is located near this main route, which was used by those escaping slavery as they traveled north by horse, by foot or hidden in a wagon. Those who made it their jobs to catch people fleeing from slavery kept a close eye on the road, but underground traffic continued, thanks in part to an extended family of Welsh carpenters and a Black couple who lived in the area, according to the book Freedom: The Antislavery Movement in Granville.

Tannery Hill, 635 Newark-Granville Road 

The small red house on this site was once occupied by the family of Edwin Cooley Wright, whose son testified that “on one occasion, no less than 13 refugees found sanctuary in his father’s home,” according to Utter’s book.

Bryn Du Mansion and Polo Fields, 537 Jones Road 

Much of this land was formerly the farmstead of Joseph Linnell, reputed to be the most active Underground Railroad agent in the area.

Ty Mawr, 239 N. Pearl St. 

The Samuel Langdon House, also known as Ty Mawr, which means “big house” in Welsh, was built in 1834 and still stands as a private residence at this site. Langdon was an ardent abolitionist, although little was documented about the home’s use along the Underground Railroad.

Jennifer Valenzuela is general manager of the Buxton Inn.

The Buxton Inn, 313 E. Broadway 

Built in 1812, the Buxton operated as an inn and tavern during the time of the riot and antislavery activities in Granville, but Overholser says there are no historical documents that support that it was a station on the Underground Railroad.

Buxton Inn General Manager Jennifer Valenzuela says “it makes sense” that the inn would have been a sanctuary for those people who were fleeing slavery, noting a hidden door, the cat sign that marks the inn (most enslaved individuals were not taught to read) and a town named Buxton in Canada, a destination for those who were seeking freedom.

“I call it my vortex of faith,” says Valenzuela.

Whether the details can be verified or not, Valenzuela says she understands why Granville, anchored by churches and schools at its inception, would be a safe place for people seeking to escape bondage.

“I think there was a devoutness in the people,” she says. “They knew about the atrocities … and they knew how make it right.”

This story is from the March 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.