Joel Grover was born in 1825 in New York, and came to Kansas Territory in September 1854 in the 2nd party of emigrants from the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Soon after his arrival in Kansas he claimed a 160-acre homestead, which he named Prairie Home, located about three miles southwest of Lawrence in Wakarusa Township, Douglas County, Kansas Territory.
“[In July 1855] I broke 25 acres of prairie sod, plowed deep, sowed to wheat in September and raised 35 bushels to the acre. It was the best crop I ever raised in Kansas.” — Joel Grover, in Kansas Farmer, August 1, 1868, Topeka, KS.
Joel joined the Free State militia and commanded men in several engagements against proslavery militias.
In 1855, Emily Jane Hunt, daughter of George W. Hunt, an anti-slavery pioneer, arrived in Kansas Territory. She had been born in 1839 in Massachusetts, and had come to Kansas Territory in the company of Charles and Sara Robinson. Emily became active in the Free State cause, and made cartridges for the defense of Lawrence in 1856.
Through their Free State activities, Joel and Emily met, and on October 13, 1857, they married. They took up residence on Joe’s claim southwest of Lawrence. Both Joel and Emily were staunch abolitionists, and they went to work in the Underground Railroad network that formed in the territory, using their farm as a station.
According to his diary, on January 20, 1858, Joel began construction of a barn on his and Emily’s property down the hill from their farmhouse when he “went to the timber, drew out timber for the barn.” With help from neighbors and friends, Joel Grover spent the next ten months building a two-story stone barn.
“I have been at work this past week for Mr. Grover, one of my neighbors carrying the hod. He is building a large stone barn (not very large either, 30 x 40 feet). I began to work for him Wed morning and that was the hardest day of work I had done for more than a year. . .” — Edward Fitch, letter to his parents, April 19, 1858.
On October 23, Joel was able to finish laying out the interior of the ground floor in time for winter.
THE FREEDOM SEEKERS, JOHN BROWN, AND THEIR JOURNEY
On December 19, 1858, Jim Daniels, who was selling brooms in southeast Kansas Territory, sought the aid of abolitionist George Gill to free his family from slavery in Vernon County Missouri. Gill alerted the noted abolitionist John Brown, and the next night, Brown and his men entered Vernon and Bates counties, Missouri, and helped liberate the four members of the Daniels Family and seven other enslaved people from three farms including one owned by David Cruse.
“…Capt. Brown wanted to know if we wanted to be free and said he’d take us where we would be free.” — Jane (Barton) Harper, one of the freedom seekers, in an interview by Wilbur H. Siebert at Windsor, Canada, 1895.
“I was born in Kentucky four miles from Lexington. [My] first master was Jacob Kiser. I came with one of his sons out to Missouri. . .He sold me to traders in St. Louis by the name of Powell and Lynch. They sold me up to Independence, Missouri to a man by the name of Carpenter. . .I was there three or four years, and we fell out and got to fighting and I was the best man, I was sassy. I’d just tell ‘em what I thought. . .Carpenter sold me to a man [named] Arnett at Fort Scott. . .I conquered them all there, and he took me on a horse about 10 miles and sold me to a man by the name of David Cruse. I was with Cruse for four years. . .” — Jane (Barton) Harper, in an interview by Wilbur H. Siebert at Windsor, Canada, 1895.
The group fled into Kansas Territory and then carefully traveled north, moving mainly at night to avoid being spotted by slave catchers who were know to be looking for them. One freedom seeker drove a wagon, and the group stopped at safe houses along the way.
“It was a very cold night, but to our contrabands the conditions produced a genial warmth not indorsed by the thermometer. One of the women pitied ‘poor marsa! He’s in a bad fix; hogs not killed, corn not shucked, and n***ers all gone.’ One, who was driving the oxen, inquired the distance to Canada. He was told that it was only about fifteen hundred miles. ‘Oh, by golly, we ‘uns never get dar before spring!’ he exclaimed as he brought the whip down on the oxen, shouting ‘Git up dar, buck; bung along!’ [Jim] Daniels himself was very thoughtful, realizing to the fullest extent the dangers of the situation. The others seemed to have implicit confidence in their protectors.” — George B. Gill, in Richard J. Hinton, John Brown and His Men.
It is reported that John Brown cooked for his men, and intended to do so for them and the freedom seekers on the trip. Jane Barton, who was 35 years old, indicated that she was a cook and would do the cooking. John Brown insisted that he would cook. Jane insisted that she would cook. Jane did all the cooking on the trip.
“It was mighty slow traveling. . .we’d ride all night and then maybe, we’d have to stay several days in one house to keep from getting caught. . .” — Samuel Harper, one of the freedom seekers, in an interview by William H. Siebert at Windsor, Canada, 1895.
In early January, near Garnett, Kansas Territory (K.T.), Narcissa Daniels, Jim’s wife gave birth to a free-born son, who the parents named John Brown Daniels. Brown insisted that the group not move to the next station until Narcissa regained her strength, because “I would no more endanger a poor negro woman than a Princess of the Realm.”
After the freedom seekers left the Garnett area, they sheltered in the home of John Brown’s half-sister and brother-in-law, Florella and Samuel Adair, near Osawatomie, K.T., and the home of Native American abolitionist, John “Tauy” Jones, near Ottawa, K.T.
Brown intended for the group to travel to Lawrence and take shelter with the Grovers, so he and several of his men made a trial run to Lawrence, and on January 14, 1859, spent time with the Grovers to make plans for the arrival of the now twelve freedom seekers.
“I am now three miles from Lawrence with Old Brown as they call him. We are looking out a railroad route establishing depots & finding watering places. Our road is a long one, terminating in Canada. . .” — From a letter by abolitionist, Jeremiah Anderson to his brother, John Anderson, while visiting the Grover farm with John Brown.
“January 14, 1859, 3 o’clock PM”. . . “Joel has gone to town, [his] wife down stairs cooking and Old Captain John Brown is sitting near me reading the Lawrence Republican. . .There is a young man with him [Jeremiah Anderson]. Both are armed to the ‘teeth.’ ” — Samuel P. Reed, a hired hand staying with the Grovers, in a letter to his sister.
Brown and his men returned to the group and eventually lead them to the homestead of Amasa Soule at Coal Creek, K.T. (now Vinland), known to be a strong abolitionist settlement.
“My brother Silas and Brown were close friends. Silas was out on many a foray with him. I recall well when Brown came to our cabin one night with thirteen [sic] slaves, men, women and children. He had run them away from Missouri. Brown left them with us. Father would always take in all the Negroes he could. Silas took the whole thirteen [sic] from our home eight miles to Mr. Grover’s stone barn…” — Annie (Soule) Prentiss, in Richard B. Sheridan, Freedom’s Crucible.
The group arrived at the Grover farm sometime around the third week of January 1859, and the freedom seekers took shelter in the newly completed stone barn. Independent accounts by Samuel P. Reed, George B. Gill, Dr. John Doy, and Annie Soule Prentiss all confirm the group’s stay at the Grover Barn and John Brown’s involvement. This rich documentation gives the barn its national significance in Underground Railroad history.
“The colored folks cooked food, a supply of provisions, mostly obtained through the generosity of the Grovers and Abbotts.” — George B. Gill at Grover’s barn in late January 1859, in Richard J. Hinton, John Brown and His Men.
During their stay at the Grover farm, John Brown went into Lawrence, sold the oxen, and bought horses and provisions for the next leg of the trip.
Accounts differ on how long the group stayed in the Grover Barn, but according to Samuel Reed, an eyewitness who recorded his information as it happened, they left the Grover farm on January 24, 1859.
On the evening of their departure, John Brown met with abolitionist Dr. John Doy, who was leaving on his own Underground Railroad journey to Holton, K.T., with thirteen freedom seekers. Doy wanted his and Brown’s parties to join and move north together, but Brown refused. Doy’s party struck out on it’s own and was captured by slave catchers north of Lawrence.
After leaving Lawrence, the freedom seekers, led by John Brown, traveled to Topeka, K.T., then to Holton. North of the town, the group encountered more than forty proslavery men dug in on the far side of a creek whose intent was to capture the freedom seekers and return them to slavery. Brown announced “The Lord has marked out a path for me and I intend to follow it. We are ready to move,” and began advancing on the creek. John Brown and his men neared the creek, and without anyone firing a shot, the proslavery men suddenly all broke into a wild panic, abandoning their positions along the creek and charging towards their horses that in turn were spooked by the charging men. The men desperately mounted the frightened horses and used their spurs to encourage their mounts to get them as far away from John Brown as they could. The incident has been called “The Battle of the Spurs,” as those were the only weapons used that day.
The party of freedom seekers crossed the creek and proceeded into Nebraska Territory, which ended John Brown’s last visit to Kansas. The journey was not over though, and the group stayed a night at an Otoe Indian settlement near Nebraska City before crossing the Missouri River into Iowa on February 4, 1859. While in Iowa, Jane Barton married fellow freedom seeker, Sam Harper, who was 18 at the time.
They continued east across Iowa in February and March, stopping at a number of stations, including Tabor, Grinnell, and Springdale, where they spent about two weeks. At nearby West Liberty, the group was provided with boxcars to ride to Chicago, where Detective Allen Pinkerton arranged for the freedom seekers to ride on to Detroit. On March 12, 1859, John Brown watched as the twelve freedom seekers crossed the Detroit River to freedom in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
AFTER THE JOURNEY
After seeing the twelve freedom seekers cross the Detroit River to freedom in Canada, John Brown began work on a plan that would recreate the successful rescue but on a national scale. Six months later this would culminate with his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October of that same year.
Not long before that, Brown had observed, “No the war is not over. It is a treacherous lull before the storm. We are on the eve of one of the greatest wars in history, and I fear slavery will triumph, and there will be an end of all aspirations for human freedom. . .” — John Brown in an interview with William A. Phillips, 1859.
Most of the freedom seekers, including Jane and Samuel Harper, settled in Windsor. Although they were safe, the freedom seekers were not forgotten by their former enslavers, witnessed by Samuel Harper, who “said his ‘Boss’ came after him to Windsor, and wanted him to go back, promising to treat him better than ever before. Harper was indignant, and replied: ‘I thought you was a smarter man than that, but I find you’re a fool, come all this way to ask me to go back to slavery.’ ” — Samuel Harper in an interview by William H. Siebert at Windsor, Canada, 1895.
There is an account of two other freedom seekers having stayed in the barn at some time, and there were likely others whose identities went unrecorded and are lost to history.
Grover continued to farm, planting Hungarian grass, corn, wheat, buckwheat, Irish and sweet potatoes, melons, pumpkins, beets, and onions and raising pigs and chickens. The farm eventually included 100 apple trees. Following the practice of natives, Grover set his frozen prairie on fire in late winter to rejuvenate pastureland for horses, cows, and oxen. Upon the death of an infant son in 1860, a fenced burial ground was created on a half-acre knoll surrounded by walnut and evergreen trees, where Joel and Emily were later to be buried.
AFTER JOEL AND EMILY GROVER
Joel and Emily Grover reared a family of eight children. Grover also held county and state offices. When Joel Grover died in 1879, the family retained ownership of the land and kept the farm in operation for more than 70 years. Following Emily’s death in 1921, two Grover sons farmed the land until they died in 1953. Over the next decade, the property was owned by the Edgar and Dorothy Salsbury family. Bernard “Poco” Frazier, a sculptor, purchased the Grover barn in 1963, using it as his studio. The area that encompassed the original farm was subdivided into residential lots in 1967 and a large portion of the 80-acre property was donated to the City of Lawrence, who dedicated it as Holcom Park in 1976, the same year that Frazier died.
Due to efforts led by Mayor Barkley Clark, in 1980 the City of Lawrence acquired Lot 20 in the Springwood Heights subdivision, which included the barn. Significant alterations were made as the structure was repurposed for use as Fire Station #4 that opened in 1983. An earlier addition to the east was removed and a new addition was constructed to the south of the building. The large barn door opening on the north was enclosed with a large window. As the city’s westward growth required a larger facility, the City of Lawrence ceased using the building as a fire station in 2006. The city then used the building for police equipment and vehicular storage.
In 2017, a citizens group called the Guardians of Grover Barn was organized and began to work with the City to preserve the barn and promote its history.
Though modified over time, the stone walls and wooden beams of the original territorial period structure remain. Today, the barn stands as a nationally significant legacy of the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad network in Kansas and offers an opportunity to experience a place where John Brown and freedom seekers risked their lives in pursuit of freedom.
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Last update: July 27, 2022