FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — Looking straight east out the front door of the Friends Church tucked along U.S. Route 1A, New Brunswick, Canada, can be seen about two miles away.
That was the goal of an unknown number of escaped and former slaves who are believed to have found their way to Aroostook County more than 150 years ago via the Underground Railroad, a clandestine route to freedom leading from the slave states in the south, north to New England.
Anecdotal and architectural history, combined with some oral history, all point toward the old church being one of the final stops and hiding places along that route.
“Around the turn of the [19th] century, the United States was starting to be characterized as being free in the north with slavery in the south,” said John Zaborney, a professor of history at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. “In those early decades of the 1800s, a fair number of slaves escaped from the south, and because the north was free, they would run there.”
Over the years, these escaped slaves made homes and raised families in those free states, Zaborney said, until the “fugitive slave law” was enacted as a piece of compromise legislation in 1850.
Under the act, slave owners could pursue runaway slaves to the north, capture them and bring them back south, regardless of when they had escaped.
“This meant that runaways who had been living in the north for years were no longer safe,” Zaborney said. “And that meant they had to go to Canada to remain free. It was no longer any good just to be in the north.”
There were no maps or published documentation of any kind marking the underground route north, leaving the escaped slaves no choice but to rely on verbal instructions and the assistance of perfect strangers, both risky propositions.
“There would have been certain sites that were safe for people to be hidden on their way north,” he said, adding it makes sense to believe the Friends Church was, in fact, one of those locations.
Local historian Art Mraz has no problem believing the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad and, along with his late wife Ruth, has chronicled the history of the building that was initially constructed by Quakers settling in central Aroostook around 1859.
The church was renovated in 1906 with additions and repairs that included installation of a large stained-glass window commissioned from a Boston artist.
In 1972, according to Mraz, the church was turned over to Presbyterian Rev. Charles Stanton, who was looking to start a congregation.
“I remember him going around on his bicycle trying to recruit people into his church,” Mraz said.
Stanton retired in 1992 and in 1995 the church was given to the Frontier Heritage Society in Fort Fairfield. The society immediately began efforts to renovate the structure, which was in dire need of repairs due to a leaking roof and damages caused by feral cats and wildlife that had taken up residence inside.
“During the renovations [Ruth and I] stopped by to visit, and the carpenter [Kirby Doughty] was grinning ear to ear and shouting, ‘I found it, I found it,’” Mraz said. “He told us he had found the hiding place.”
In ripping up the old carpets covering the raised platform in the front of the church, Mraz said, Doughty had discovered boards from the old 1906 packing crate used to ship the stained-glass window had been used to cover over what appeared to be an old trap door leading to what could be a place for escaped slaves to hide.
Quakers, Zaborney pointed out, were well-known abolitionists who aided slaves on their flight north, so it is possible Doughty uncovered evidence of exactly that.
Stories surrounding the church and a similar site in Brewer need to be kept alive, according to historian Richard Campbell of Old Town, who said there are historical links between Brewer and the Underground Railroad.
Brewer’s Chamberlain Freedom Park is on the site of the former Holyoke House, a brick house once occupied by wealthy abolitionist John Holyoke, where a “slave-style shirt” was found tucked in the eaves of the attic in 1995 and a stone-lined shaft was discovered the following year when the Department of Transportation tore down the house to improve the four-way intersection at State and North Main streets, according to Campbell.
“The Brewer site was probably one of the central sites in Maine,” Campbell said. “From there escaped slaves would go toward areas like Calais to the east or Aroostook County to the north.”
Campbell said there are skeptics who discount Maine’s connection to the Underground Railroad, but said there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support its presence in the state.
Mraz points to the presence of a David Hooper who moved to Fort Fairfield in the early 1900s and found his way to the farmhouse of Cora Haines Houghton, the granddaughter of the area’s first Quaker settlers.
“He told people he came [to Fort Fairfield] because he had a soft spot for the Haines family because they had helped ‘my people’ during the Civil War,” Mraz said. “My wife remembered Mr. Hooper being here.”
Jim Everett, president of the local historical society, grew up in Fort Fairfield and wants to keep those memories alive.
“Being born and brought up here, I know it is part of our heritage to help other people,” he said. “Being free is a fabulous thing and it makes sense the people here would do what they could so other people could be free.”
Everett is heading up a project to repair the building’s foundation and reinstall the stained-glass window to its original location.
Gazing out the church’s front door toward neighboring Canada, both men say they can imagine what it must have felt like decades ago for those waiting to walk the final two miles to freedom.
“They would have had to go through those woods at night,” Everett said. “It would have been a long walk.”
But they would not have gone alone, Mraz added.
“They would have followed the game trails,” he said. “And they would have had the people living here escorting them the whole way.”