Without realizing it, Delaware County residents driving to school, the store or work often pass sites that bore witness to a historic struggle for freedom.

Officials with the Delaware County Historical Society hope to change that by continuing to illuminate the county's role in the Underground Railroad.

The society earlier this year debuted a self-guided tour of the houses in the county that served as stops on the secretive network of paths and safehouses used by runaway slaves and their allies in the run-up to the Civil War. The society Feb. 7 hosted a program on the existing houses in the county that once shielded fugitive slaves seeking their freedom.

Brent Carson, president emeritus of the society, said the clandestine nature of the Underground Railroad led to a lack of period records about the network. He said post-Civil War narratives from former slaves and early historical accounts can offer names of people or places that can tie a property to the network.

Carson said family folklore often serves as the starting point for the society's efforts to verify whether a structure once shielded runaway slaves.

"Some family would tell us (a house) was a spot on the Underground Railroad," he said. "Oftentimes they don't give us much proof, so (it's) hard to verify."

Even with the challenges in researching the network, the society has identified 11 stops on its self-guided tour, which includes the group's own piece of history. Carson said beyond lore, a lone map identifies the Meeker Homestead, which serves as the society's headquarters, as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The former owners of Garth's Auctions in 2010 donated the house, an 1840s stone-end bank barn and 6 acres northeast of Stratford Road's intersection with U.S. Route 23 in Delaware to the society.

Donna Meyer, the society's executive director, said while no hidden passages have been discovered inside the house, its basement and attic easily could have served as hiding places. The society keeps an onion on display at the bottom of the attic stairs as an example of an item used by fugitive slaves to hide their scent from bloodhounds.

DRIVING TOUR

Take a drive and check out some of the locations in Delaware County that were part of the Underground Railroad

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Other Underground Railroad stops off major routes in the county include the Bartholomew house northwest of Jewett Road's intersection with state Route 315 in Liberty Township; and the House of the Seven Oaks southwest of U.S. Route 36's intersection with Wade Street in Delaware.

Both houses at one time featured secret passages used to hide runaway slaves, according to the society's research.

The tour also features several stops on Africa Road, which runs through several communities in southern Delaware County. According to an Ohio Historical Marker near Alum Creek Reservoir, proponents of slavery mockingly referred to a settlement near the border of Orange and Genoa townships as "Africa" due to the strong abolitionist bent of many inhabitants.

Karen Hildebrand, chairwoman of the society's curriculum committee, said the tour builds on a multisession educational program the society has offered in the past to area schools. She said while the effort initially was meant for youngsters, it also has attracted other groups.

"Although we designed it for schools, we've had so much interest that we've actually done (the program) for quite a few adult groups," she said.

While the political and social conditions that led to the creation of the Underground Railroad may have been complicated, Hildebrand said she thinks the topic still resonates with today's audiences for a simple reason.

"It was people helping people," she said.

tgallick@thisweeknews.com

@twgallick