PERU - The North Country's connection to the Underground Railroad and a family credited for playing an important role in the abolitionist movement has been restored.
A new historical marker honoring the Keese Homestead on Harkness Road was unveiled in a ceremony Aug. 20. The original marker was lost a few years ago as the result of a motor vehicle accident.
Lita Paczak, a teacher with Seton Catholic Central School who has taken students on field trips to the site, was credited for being one of the driving forces behind helping the property's owners, Lincoln and Ann Sunderland, getting the marker replaced.
Though the original marker was paid for by the state, said Paczak, it was learned the cost of a replacement marker - which amounted to a little more than $1,000 - would be the burden of the property owner. Paczak reached out to Neal Burdick, a descendant of the Keese family, and the two worked together with the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association to host a fundraiser last November at Peru Community Church
"It just made sense," Paczak said of raising money to replace the marker.
The benefit raised more than $600 and, thanks to the added generosity of neighbor Jon Rulfs and Ann Keese Chien, another Keese family descendant, the remaining balance of the cost was covered.
The unveiling of the new historical marker was personally gratifying for Burdick, who is the great-great-grandson of Stephen Keese Smith, a leading citizen in the Quaker Union and first cousin, once removed of Peter Keese, who built the stone house that stands today at the Keese Homestead.
"There was a very important social movement that took place here," said Burdick. "Peter Keese was threatened for being an abolitionist because it was illegal to harbor runaway slaves. It's not something you did lightly or casually."
Though Peter Keese and Stephen Keese Smith have been credited for their efforts in the anti-slavery movement, the new historical marker at Peter Keese's homestead now contains one word the previous marker did not - abolitionist.
"The most important word on the sign, to me, is abolitionist," said Burdick. "That's really what tells the story about what happened here."
The evidence of Peter Keese's support of the abolition of slavery, said Papson, was in his signature on a petition for the formation of the Clinton County Anti-Slavery Society in 1837.
"We have good reason to say that he was an abolitionist," he said.
According to Papson, the Keese Homestead was one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad in New York State before fugitive slaves made their way to Canada. The slaves, explained Papson, would end up in New York City and then make their way to Albany, Troy, Glens Falls and then to Peru before heading to Champlain and crossing the border in Lacolle, Quebec.
The installation of the marker, said Papson, is "helping history to stay alive," and credited the ambition of people involved with making the marker's replacement a reality.
"This is the result of people in the community who felt a loss every time they drove by here and didn't see the sign coming together sharing their talents, their historical knowledge and their love for the Keese family," said Papson.
"The one defining feature I would say of the North Country," he added, "is that when there is a need, people come together and work together to make something happen."
State Assemblywoman Janet L. Duprey, R-Peru, credited the Sunderlands for their role in seeing the Keese Homestead remains a piece of history that will remain in the community for many years to come.
"The preservation they've done and what they've managed to maintain in this home over the years is absolutely nothing short of phenomenal," said Duprey. "And, how fortunate we are that they have agreed t
Did you know?
Though the Keese Homestead house today officially stands within the boundaries of the town of Ausable, it is often considered to be part of the town of Peru. Prior to Ausable's formation and the changing of boundary lines in 1839, the house stood in Peru, explained Peru's town historian, Ron Allen. In fact, the Keese Homestead was Peru's first settlement, established in 1789 by Keese family ancestor William Keese, who claimed the spot as payment for his surveying services following the American Revolution.
"It really doesn't matter," said Allen. "The histories of Peru, Keeseville and Ausable are so intertwined, the political boundaries don't make any difference. We share a lot of history."o share this with us today because of their generosity and their continuing support of the history of the North Country."