THIS STORY IS FROM THE WHEELING INTELLIGENCER 17 MARCH 2003
by Lori A. Smithberger, Staff Writer
AN INTERVIEW OF JOHN MATTOX WHO OPERATES THE UNDERGROUND MUSEUM
The "monkey wrench" turns the "wagon wheel" toward Canada on the "bear paw" trail to the "crossroads." Once at the "crossroads" they dug a "log cabin" on the ground. "Shoofly" told them to dress up, put on cotton and satin "bow ties." Go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange "double wedding rings." "Flying geese" stay on the "drunkards path" and follow the "stars."
While for many this nearly 200 year old saying may seem just a jumble of words or perhaps an odd manner in discussing quilting patterns, the history behind these words is rich a story filled with bravery, danger and unity. According to John Mattox, curator of the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, (Ohio) who spoke to members of the Retired School Employees Association last week, while the story is not known at all, it pertains to us all as it pieces of the history we all share.
"Through sharing this story and relating this heritage, this is how we will learn what we have in common," said Mattox, who added the goal of his presentation is not to just retell history, but to form bonds and exchange experiences. "I like to share stories and narratives that have been passed down as if I were sitting in someone's home with them. It should be an exchange."
During his presentation, Mattox, a retired insurance agent who has been researching and collecting information and artifacts connected to the Underground Railroad and local history for more than 20 years, explained in order for salves to escape in the early 1800's, they relies on the help of the Underground Railroad, a network of established locations and individuals dedicated to the freeing of slaves. Since this network was highly secreted to further ensure slaves' safe arrival at freedom, those involved relied heavily on the use of coded language or methods of communication that involved no verbal language at all, with many of these coded communications taking their components from European traditions that are still practiced today.
Historically much of this was completed using quilts, which would serve as signs pointing the direction slaves were to go or explaining what was to come next.
Mattox said each pattern on the quilt, many of which are still commonly used quilting patterns, contained a coded message known only to the salves and those assisting in their escape.
"Everything meant something." Said Mattox, adding the distance between square knots on quilts was often an indicator of the distance between plantations.
A saying containing the codes reportedly was developed for each region of the Underground Railroad, but the most commonly known is that once used in the South Carolina and Virginia region.
This saying contains the names of the various quilt blocks in the order the slaves were to for them. The monkey wrench pattern told slaves the time to leave was near and to get prepared. The wagon wheel meant that it was time to begin, since many made their escape in false bottoms of wagons. The bear paw was a sign to follow the bear trail, and the crossroads meant the slaves had reached the half way point in their journey. The log cabin pattern symbolized communicating with other slaves, and the shoofly square, when it appeared, warned slaves to scatter and regroup at a safer location. Bow tie squares reminded slaves they were now in the north and it was time to shed their slave clothing and find less conspicuous attire, and the double wedding ring formed a chain symbolizing the chains of slavery being left behind. Flying geese meant head north, and the drunkard's path advised against traveling in a straight line. The star square was recognized as the direction of freedom, because it meant to follow the North Star.
As Mattox held up sample quilt squares, numerous audience members acknowledged they had either used most of these patterns or owned quilts with the patterns, which Mattox said demonstrated the many ties between black and white cultures.
"These are not African designs, these are European patterns that the slaves stole to communicate," said Mattox, who explained slaves also incorporated their master's religious language and practices into their coded language.
"We will praise God together on our knees." Mattox said, meant it was time to congregate. "We will break bread together on our knees," might indicate the number of slaves or "products" that would be leaving on the next wagon.
In addition to the secret language of the Underground Railroad, Mattox also highlighted the role Upper Ohio Valley Communities played in freeing the slaves. Mattox discussed the founding fathers of St. Clairsville and that one, Benjamin Lundy, whose home can still be seen on Main Street, was the founder of the first anti-slavery society in the United States. He said in less than a year of its inception more than 400 area religious and community leaders had joined the abolitionist movement.
Several locations in the area were also discussed, including various homes in Martins Ferry and Wellsburg that are known stops on the Underground Railroad; the Ohio River, which was known by slaves as the River Jordan, because freedom awaited on the other side; the Cockayne House in Glen Dale, another stop on the "railroad"; and the corner of the 10th and Marker Streets, where Mattox said there were scales and an auction block for selling slaves like merchandise. He said there are over 700 stops of the Underground Railroad still present in Ohio alone.
"This is a heritage we shares," said Mattox, who then pointed out the skin ton variations among all ethnicities.
Mattox who in addition to operating the museum conducts step-on travel tours, as well as speaks to numerous organizations through the Tri-State area, said he hopes to preserve and support area culture and community by contributing to a better quality of life in the present. He said the Underground Railroad Museum has provided him and area residents with a tool that enablers the exchange of ideas and experiences that can both "enlighten and inform" and encouraged anyone interested in learning more to visit the museum.
Opened in 1993, the Underground Railroad Museum features an extensive collection of publications, books, memorabilia and other articles and portrays what is know about the "railroad" in the area. In addition the museum offers Traveling Trunk school presentation and a number of tours highlighting the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley.