PERU - When it comes to the Underground Railroad, the Stephen Keese Smith property on Union Road is well-known, particularly Keese Smith's barn.
"The barn is the most documented site in Clinton County," said Don Papson, president of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association (NCUGRHA). "There are a lot of oral histories about places where its believed slaves were hidden, but Stephen Keese Smith actually told his recollections and they were written down."
The barn, built in the early 1800s, contains a built-in room as part of the foundation system, said Papson. And, though Keese Smith - a known abolitionist in the 1800s and nephew of Samuel Keese, head of Underground Railroad in Peru - never actually said in his recollections he had people in that particular barn, the man was said to have had "large buildings in which he concealed people."
"We're combining his recollections and the fact there is a mysterious room that is built in to the barn," said Papson.
Papson said the barn, currently owned by Frank and Jackie Perusse, has been in dire need of repair for some time. The problem, said Papson, is the previous owners cut a structurally-critical beam to adjust the height of the barn's second floor.
"Right now, the problem is one of the walls is bowing out. If it isn't stabilized, then we could lose the whole barn," said Papson.
The main focus is to raise enough funding to stabilize the structure and eventually restore it to its original condition. The NCUGRHA and the Perusses have been working with an architectural engineer and a barn restoration expert to determine the cost of an overall restoration.
The initial stage of stabilizing the building could cost up to $5,000, Papson said, estimating the total project could be as much as $75,000.
"That's very high, but it just depends on how much work we do down the road," he said.
The cost to restore the barn could have been covered through a state grant at one point, explained Papson. However, the Perusses would have had to claim the grant as income, thereby changing their tax bracket status. Also, the grant would have made the Perusses responsible for the structure for several years with any future repairs needing to come from their own pockets.
"We found out very few of these restoration grants for barns were actually accepted by people when they found out what strings were attached," said Papson.
That's why the NCUGRHA is hosting a fundraiser next Friday, March 19, at the Peru Community Church on Elm Street. The event, said Papson, will focus on the role of women in the fight to abolish slavery. Catharine R. Keese, wife of Samuel Keese and aunt to Keese Smith, will be recognized. The Keese family matriarch served as president of the Female Anti-Slavery Society, said Papson.
The March 19 event, which will begin at 7 p.m., will feature a performance by Sounds of the Northway, featuring female artists Ann Ruzow Holland, Cathie Davenport and Jennifer Van Benschoten. During the evening, a presentation about the restoration project will be made, including photographs of the barn in its current state. Papson said he hopes people will be moved by the presentation and the NCUGRHA's efforts to save the structure.
"This is our history and if we don't save it, it's going to be gone," said Papson.
The cost of admission will be $10 for adults and $8 for children and senior citizens.
For more information, call 561-0277 or visit www.northcountryundergroundrailroad.com.