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Historic Underground Railroad sign removed for safekeeping in Kingsbury

Historic Underground Railroad sign removed for safekeeping in Kingsbury

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KINGSBURY — A historic sign that pointed to a way station on the Underground Railroad has been taken down for safekeeping.

The guideboard, depicting a caricature of a rotund Black man in a tuxedo and top hat, sat at the corner of Vaughn’s Corners and Bentley roads in Kingsbury, indicating it was “4 1/2 miles to Fort Ann.”

The sign was taken down more than a week ago in consultation with the town historian and the landowner, who bought the property in 2019.

“All it would take was one act of vandalism and poof, it’s all gone,” said Kingsbury Historian John Mead.

The sign typically receives a couple of visitors in the summer, Mead said. There has been an unexplained increase in visits, prompting the landowner to worry about the safety of the guideboard, especially in light of the current racial unrest in the country, he said.

Jeff Donnelly, brother of the landowner, said a male visitor was recently scraping the sign with a stick.

“I was worried about the thing being defaced with everything that’s going on in public today,” said Donnelly, who contacted the town supervisor and historian with his concerns about the welfare of the sign.

The town historian consulted NorthStar Historical Project, an organization that promotes the history of the Underground Railroad in Washington County.

NorthStar President Debi Craig said she supported the idea of taking the sign down in light of the current racial climate.

“I didn’t think it would be a bad idea right now because we don’t want it to get defaced,” Craig said. “Because somebody could easily break the sign. It’s on plywood.”

The sign is the third that has stood at the corner. The original — which was just a black hand pointing — was painted by Collins Doubleday, whose family lived in the adjacent house at least as early as 1853, according to the book, “The Underground Railroad Conductor,” by Tom Calarco.

The current sign was erected in the 1960s, replacing a sign from the 1930s.

The hand is believed to have pointed the way to the Goodman Farm on Goodman Road in West Fort Ann, Mead said.

The Goodman Farm, owned by abolitionists, was a known way station on the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses in the United States used by enslaved African Americans to escape into free states and Canada.

“The sad thing is, there should be no reason for it to come down, because it was there for a good reason,” Craig said. “But right now, who knows? If somebody doesn’t know the story of the sign, they could deface it, and that would be terrible.”

The sign will probably be replaced with a plastic replica, said Mead, and a historical marker will be added next to the new sign explaining the history.

The future of the real sign will depend on who owns it, which is still a subject of debate. Most of those interviewed believe the sign belongs to Donnelly’s brother, John Donnelly, because it sits on his private property.

“It’s our understanding that the owner of the property would be the owner of the sign,” Kingsbury Supervisor Dana Hogan said in an email. “We don’t have any clear records that I’m aware of that the town ever installed or has maintained the sign in recent history. That being said, we certainly recognize the historical significance of the sign and hope the new owner maintains and preserves it. It’s my further understanding that is their intent.”

Mead said he hopes to persuade Donnelly to put the sign in a museum. He said the sign could also be displayed at the Town Hall. The sign is an important piece of Kingsbury history, he said.

“Many people were abolitionists in this whole county,” Mead said. “All they had to do was get up to good old Whitehall … and from there, they can catch a canal boat or something up north to Canada.”

Now, the sign is in “safe storage,” Mead said, “and we’re going to just keep it at that until we can decide what to do.”

Donnelly confirmed the sign is being kept safe on the property on county Route 36.

Craig said she hopes the sign will be placed in a museum.

“I really think it’s important that that history be preserved, especially since it’s not negative history,” she said. “I don’t see any reason anyone should be offended by it, really, if they really think about the purpose of the sign.”

Gretta Hochsprung writes hometown news and covers Washington County. You can reach her at ghochsprung@poststar.com or 518-742-3206. Follow her on Twitter @GrettaHoch or at her blog on www.poststar.com.

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