Leaders of the efforts to alter the development plans of The Villages At Whitemarsh have stated that slaves fleeing bondage hid in cornfields at the Corson family property at Butler and Germantown Pikes. The family living at the property today has indicated that cornfields were not likely at the property in the 1800’s and that the Corson family would have protected the African-Americans seeking freedom by inviting the fugitive slaves to stay within their buildings.
The above photo shows the cornfields at the Corson family property at Butler and Germantown Pikes in the Village of Plymouth Meeting as seen in 1982. This is the view from the main window in Abolition Hall looking towards a house owned by another family on Butler Pike.
While no one can be 100% certain, all available evidence indicates that there were no cornfields at the Corson family property during the time of the Underground Railroad.
Cornfields did exist at the Corson family property in the early 1980’s through 2015.
The photograph above shows corn growing on this property in 1982. The corn had been planted and was harvested at this Whitemarsh Township site by Maple Acres Farm, located nearby on Narcissa Road in Plymouth Township. The view of the cornfields is from the main window within Abolition Hall.
Two of the leaders of the efforts to alter the development plans for The Villages At Whitemarsh that is slated to be located on this property, Ms. Sydelle Zove, Convener of the Friends of Abolition Hall, and Dr. David Contosta, have since clarified their quotes about cornfields at the Corson family property.
Ms. Zove was quoted in a news article dated May 29, 2018, in The Philadelphia Tribune: “And our concern is twofold. This is an historic site. It’s not just the buildings that are historic – the eight acres of fields where those houses are going to be built hid fugitives who were escaping the abomination of slavery. The slaves would flee either in tunnels or into fields where corn was growing quite high and they would hide.”
This quote from The Philadelphia Tribune is not quite correct, according to Ms. Zove. “I had indicated that slaves may have hidden in cornfields based on the oral traditions as explained to me by a local historian,” explained Ms. Zove. “There is no actual documentation regarding cornfields at the property until the early 1980’s. I did not reference tunnels as places that slaves hid.”
Two quotes attributed to Dr. Contosta in a news article dated April 15, 2018, in The Times Herald were similar. An indirect quote in the news article: “Slaves, according to Contosta, also hid in Corson’s cornfields.” A direct quote from Dr. Contosta in the same news article: “The fields that Hovenden [Mr. Thomas Hovenden, noted artist] planted and that were there when people came to speak at [Abolition Hall], the fields that were there when slaves were hidden in the cornfields.”
When asked for documentation, Dr. Contosta stated that “There is an oral tradition that slaves were hidden in the corn fields, but there is no documented evidence of this.”
Actual news articles at the time spoke of farm animals at the Corson family property, not cornfields.
A news article dated August 1, 1886, in The Times of Philadelphia spoke of the “cows and horses” at the Corson family property. This information was included in a news article detailing Mr. Hovenden and his work as an artist.
Photographs at the time also show cows and horses as well as mules and turkeys at the Corson family property.
These animals would have needed pastureland.
One reason that it is extremely unlikely that “corn was growing quite high” in these fields is that both cows and horses would have gravitated to eating from those cornfields.
The land that was pastureland later became grass fields. Aerial photographs from the United States Department of Agriculture from 1942, 1957, and 1971, show that the landscape at the Corson family property had not materially changed through the years. Each of the photos show three sections of open space – pastureland – between tree lines.
“As far as we are aware, the land bordering Abolition Hall was used as pastureland for horses and cows throughout the 1800’s”, stated Mr. Roy Wilson, husband of one of the direct descendants of the Maulsby and Corson families. He and his wife, Ann, have maintained Abolition Hall, Hovenden House, and Maulsby Barn since 1981, and have lived there since 1983.
“The Maulsby and Corson families had cows, horses, and mules used for carriages and farm wagons,” explained Mr. Wilson. “The pastureland adjacent to Abolition Hall was used for grazing.”
“Recent claims that escaping slaves hid in cornfields next to Abolition Hall are not only false, but are an insult to the memory of the abolitionist Corson and Maulsby families,” Mr. Wilson continued. “These persons escaping bondage were not left hiding in fields here – they were protected in the houses and barns of the family, where they could rely on their white and black conductors to move them northward from station to station. Often they ate meals at the same table as the families that protected them. Certainly anyone escaping capture would not have been outside on the property anywhere. Slavecatchers were known to roam the area, and the Fugitive Slave Laws made it possible to capture runaway slaves even on private property. Both the escaping slaves and their protectors were taking a risk. The slaves risked a return to enslavement, and the conductors risked financial peril and possible imprisonment themselves.”
“Likewise, any claims of an ‘oral tradition’ that slaves hid in cornfields here are also untrue, as are claims of an ‘oral tradition’ that underground tunnels ran from buildings on Germantown Pike into Abolition Hall,” stated Mr. Wilson. “These tunnel claims, repeated in editorials, news reports, and on Wikipedia, are totally false.”
“It is certainly possible that because local residents remember corn growing here for more than 30 years, that they may have assumed that cornfields were always here,” explained Mr. Wilson. “Actually, corn was first planted here in the early 1980’s, when the family made arrangements with Maple Acres Farm to farm the approximately 8 acres of land. Although the income was only nominal, we were primarily looking to avoid the yearly cost of mowing the grass fields that had taken the place of the pastureland. This farming activity ended in 2015.”
K. Hovnanian Pennsylvania Acquisitions, LLC has filed a conditional use application with Whitemarsh Township to develop The Villages At Whitemarsh on the Corson family property as well as on an adjacent parcel of land on Butler Pike in the Village of Plymouth Meeting.
“The Friends of Abolition Hall is pressing for a better plan for a homestead that was a busy stop on the Underground Railroad, and later, the home/studio to artists Thomas Hovenden, Helen Corson Hovenden, and Martha Maulsby Hovenden,” explained Ms. Zove. “We are not opposed to development, nor have we targeted the sellers. The heirs have a right to sell, and K. Hovnanian has a right to pursue approval for development, however the developer’s rights must be balanced with those of the citizens of Whitemarsh Township. The Code [of Whitemarsh Township] offers protections that we believe are not being enforced.”
“It deserves a better plan than the one currently under review by Whitemarsh Township,” Ms. Zove continued. “That is what we are fighting for – a better plan, one that includes a modest welcome park that preserves land to the north of the historic structures, and makes it publicly accessible. We have other concerns, but this is paramount.”
The top photograph is courtesy of Mr. Roy Wilson, 1982.
The second and third photographs are courtesy of the Nancy I. Corson Foundation, dates uncertain.
The fourth photograph is courtesy of the Nancy I. Corson Foundation, date is likely between 1890 and 1901.
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© 2018 Richard McDonough