Underground Railroad Museum of Burlington County to expand

Louise Calloway stops by a house that will be the new home of the exhibit at Smithville. Calloway, 84, volunteers there four days a week. "The goal is to have all kinds of people enjoying the park," she said.
Louise Calloway stops by a house that will be the new home of the exhibit at Smithville. Calloway, 84, volunteers there four days a week. "The goal is to have all kinds of people enjoying the park," she said. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: March 10, 2014

EASTAMPTON Hezekiah B. Smith lived life on his own terms.

For 22 years, he ruled a small industrial village employing hundreds of people in a complex that produced woodworking machinery.

His 19th-century world - Smithville - had workers' housing, a bandstand, opera house, and a menagerie next to the great entrepreneur's magnificent mansion and manicured gardens.

The world of "H.B.," as Smith was often known, today is the gem of the Burlington County Parks System and helps tell the story of the county.

But the history of African Americans didn't have a significant presence there until last summer, when the Underground Railroad Museum of Burlington County opened an exhibit at the site's welcome center.

That exhibit will be expanded to fill two refurbished and connected workers' houses within about a year, said county officials. They met Friday with an architect and a member of the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office to discuss the Eastampton project.

"We have so much to offer people," said Louise Calloway, the museum founder, who volunteers at the site Thursday through Sunday. "American history is the history of all cultures.

"Everybody should be included," said Calloway, 84, of Willingboro. "The goal is to have all kinds of people enjoying the park."

Calloway operated the Underground Railroad Education Center in Burlington City for seven years before it was forced to close in 2012, when she could no longer afford the rent.

She moved her collection of paintings, statuary, books, and documents into her Willingboro home and garage, and wondered whether she would ever be able to reestablish her museum - until last year, when she received an offer of county help.

Then-Freeholder Director Joe Donnelly vowed to find a new home for the collection, saying that the story it tells is "a significant piece of Burlington County - and quite frankly, national history that needs to be safeguarded for future generations to explore and learn."

Though having little connection to the African American community in the 19th century, Smithville appeared to be a natural fit because of its emphasis on the county's overall history.

Many former slaves passed through New Jersey, where they found temporary shelter on their northward trek to freedom. Some settled in places such as Timbuctoo in nearby Westampton.

"The Underground Railroad Museum has become a fantastic addition to the Smithville Park program, particularly as they have collaborated on many African American History Month events," said Freeholder Director Leah Arter.

"We were thrilled to be able to find a permanent home for this important historical group and look forward to their continued success at Smithville for years to come," Arter said.

The museum has helped organize a poetry reading, art exhibit, and jazz-centered musical program, said Calloway, who hopes to see more events in the future.

It is expected to move to the workers' houses, 10 and 11 Park Ave., by next year, said John Smith, superintendent of the Burlington County Division of Parks, which has offices in two other workers' houses.

The twin house where the museum will be located is set to undergo changes to accommodate the collection. Walls will be knocked down to open up space.

The project is "in the early stages of design and should receive a construction bid by August," Smith said.

"We have a mission in the parks system - to teach," he said. "Everybody who enters the parks should learn more about the history of the county and other things, whether it's about trails or butterflies."

The Underground Railroad Museum "offers another opportunity to teach," Smith said. "This is a story that can be told at Smithville."

Two other workers' houses - the twin at 8 and 9 Park - are furnished with period or reproduction furniture and exhibit art, quilts, hooked rugs, dolls, and duck decoys.

The Underground Railroad Museum will offer visitors still more while giving the county "a great opportunity to highlight local heroes," said Paul. W. Schopp, a professional historian. "There are great stories waiting to be told about the county's role in the Underground Railroad . . . stories about suffering, victory and overcoming."

In 1860, the men of Timbuctoo, a village of freed blacks and runaways, drove off slave-hunters at what became known as the Battle of Pine Swamp. That confrontation partly inspired them to take up arms as Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Other museums can give a national perspective, Schopp said. The Underground Railroad Museum "can be more county-centric," he said. "It's another attraction at Smithville, like an amusement park with many attractions."

The museum will encourage "conversations and the exchange of ideas," said Calloway. "We'll learn how attitudes are formed toward one another and about the great contributions our ancestors have made."


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