December 10, 2001
The small group of black men waded through the drain for miles. It was pitch dark.
It was 1859 and they were trying to elude the bounty hunters and dogs they were sure were close behind.
They were tired and cold and hungry by the time they reached the old farmhouse on Pontiac Trail near Maple Road. A lantern lit on a post outside designated it as a safe house for slaves escaping from southern plantations. It was on the path of freedom to Port Huron or Detroit, and then Canada.
This is the story imprinted clearly in the mind of Gerry Graham, now 83, of Walled Lake. It is based on facts she learned on a 1926 visit to a barn that once had been used on the Underground Railroad. Her story documents what a group of historians in the area have known all along -- that the Foster Farmhouse they have fought to save since 1996 was indeed a part of the chain of homes, cabins and barns that provided refuge to escaped slaves on their way to freedom.
Until Graham, no one previously interviewed actually knew how the barn was used as a depot for the Underground Railroad.
The Foster Farmhouse, built in 1833 by Freeborn Henry and Amanda Bassett Banks and once slated for demolition, was saved when the developer agreed not to demolish it and the city decided to have it moved into Riley Park in downtown Walled Lake in 1997. Now it will be used as the office for the city's Main Street Project and may be turned into a museum. The Downtown Development Authority and the Friends of the Foster Farmhouse are in the process of having architectural drawings done for its restoration.
Graham was interviewed recently by Ruth Tuttle and Robbie Falkenberg, members of the Friends of the Foster Farmhouse, to document the home's designation as a stop on the Underground Railroad. They recorded it on tape and transcribed it as evidence of the house's historical importance.
Their interview revealed how Graham lived with her grandparents Erastus Carey and Ola Edwina Hodge Carey on their farm on Pontiac Trail near the Foster Farmhouse from the time she was 4 years old until she grew up. Graham's grandmother was a practical nurse, so her grandfather often took care of her while her grandmother was working.
"And that is how I happened to be shown the place that they kept the slaves for safe haven," Graham told the women, explaining she was 8 years old at the time of the visit.
"My grandmother told me about how they had helped these slaves make their way here to get across the river to Canada to escape.
"She told me that the Bradley farm had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Boy, I went crazy. I immediately had to see." Her grandfather and the then-Foster Farmhouse owner Morton Bradley were good friends.
"So we went down there and Mr. Bradley showed me where they (slaves) crossed on the Greenaway drain. He showed me how they used to come down the drain to throw their scent off so the dogs couldn't follow.
"They would go across the creek there and go up to the back door of the Bradley house. The slaves or whoever was conducting them would go up there and ring the bell (on the back of the house). So, then the people inside would escort them in and let them go out through the fruit cellar and they would take them out through this grain barn.
"Well, my grandfather and Mr. Bradley were kind enough to move these bales of hay. They were huge and really heavy and they moved them to show me this trap door in the floor ... They lifted up the trap door and Mr. Bradley took a lantern and showed me down inside.
"The room was probably about 8 feet deep and lined with straw and there was even some dishes down there where they had given the slaves that were going to hide there, food in dishes, that were still down there.
"He explained to me that the reason that they had ... straw down in there, was to make a soft bed. Well that was because they might have to stay there a day or two, or even longer, if there was a hunt on for them.
"They said the slaves would have to stay there until there was transportation arranged for them to go to Detroit or some other safe place," Graham remembered.
"So that's the story of it and I never forgot it," said Graham, who grew up to raise six children. Her grandfather sold the farm years ago but kept the house where she grew up. Her mother left it to Graham, now a widow. She lives again in the house her grandfather built.
In an interview with the Oakland Press, Graham said her grandmother often talked about the Civil War and slavery and "forbade me to cast any aspersions on the black race."
In the last couple of years, the house has come to be called "The Historic Banks-Dolbeer-Bradley-Foster Farmhouse" after all its resident owners, the last of whom was Ruth Foster, Bradley's daughter.
There are no records to say who the conductors were who guided escaped slaves through Walled Lake. James Clapp of Pontiac wrote in a letter to what was then known as The Pontiac Press in 1954 that he recalled his late wife talking about how the Banks children told of "hearing rapping on the door of their home ... " Their parents would let one or more runaway slaves in and the mother would prepare a meal for them while the father was hitching up the team.
"He would be gone the rest of the night, returning early the next morning. No questions were asked but they knew the Underground Railroad had carried more passengers to some Detroit depot with Canada as the next stop," Clapp said.
After 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act took effect, it became more dangerous to help slaves make their way north. But the Bankses continued.
Even after John and Martha Dolbeer bought the house in 1874 -- after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation -- the farmhouse was still a stopping place for freed slaves coming north.
Graham remembers her visit to the "depot" as clear as though it were today.
"I always remembered it and every time I ever went down the road and saw the water running down through there, I thought about those people coming down there, having to come down there, get in the water and go up there in the pitch black and get help."