VISITING LAKE PLACID: Celebrating sacrifice

John Brown Farm to celebrate Juneteenth on Saturday

Abolitionist John Brown settled in the town of North Elba prior to the Civil War to help teach Black residents about farming and raising animals. He is depicted here by a statue at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid. (News photo — Delainey Muscato)

LAKE PLACID — After completing one book report about John Brown for extra credit, Brendan Mills was enamored with the abolitionist’s dedication to freeing slaves. Years later, Mills has turned that love into a career. Mills came to the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in 2001 as the new site manager. He has kept that position since then and helped educate visitors about Brown and his mission to end slavery in the United States.

Mills shared his excitement for the upcoming Juneteenth celebration the farm will host on Saturday, June 22 to celebrate the courage and sacrifice of many abolitionists.

Brown, born in Connecticut in 1800, struggled throughout his life to support his family. He tried his hand at many things, such as a wool merchant, postmaster, farmer and surveyor. Most of these ventures failed as he moved through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York.

Within his travels, Brown discovered a Black community in North Elba located on land donated by antislavery philanthropist Gerrit Smith. With his surveying experience, Brown helped assess the land. While working, he fell in love not only with the geographical area but also with the idea that was present there, Mills said.

He loved the idea of an independent Black community and decided he would settle here to help mentor the people in farming and raising animals.

A dramatic reading of John Brown’s last speech before his execution will be held at his gravesite at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid during the Juneteenth celebration starting at noon Saturday, June 22. (News photo — Delainey Muscato)

In 1855, Brown and five of his sons traveled to Kansas to help antislavery forces there fighting for control. This conflict became known as Bleeding Kansas. Afterward, Brown settled in the area and soon became the leader of the antislavery troops there. In May 1856, Brown led a nighttime raid on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek. This was a brutal battle, now known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, in which five men living in the settlement were dragged from their homes and hacked to death.

After creating a fearful image for himself for the deaths at Pottawatomie, Brown gained financial support from several prominent abolitionists in Boston. Some supported him in his last and most famous undertaking.

In the summer of 1859, Brown set up a headquarters in a Maryland farmhouse across the Potomac River from a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). He and his armed battalion of 16 white and five Black abolitionists quickly took the armory and many leading men in the area hostage. Brown had hoped the escaped slaves would join his effort. However, they did not rise up as he had wished. Brown and his small groups of soldiers were able to hold out against local militia through the next day and night.

“He stayed in town for too long,” Mills said.

The U.S. Army, led by Robert E. Lee, broke into the armory and overtook Brown and his men, forcing Brown to surrender. Two of Brown’s sons were among the 10 soldiers killed. Wounded and grieving, Brown was tried for murder, slave insurrection and treason against the state. He was found guilty of all counts and was hanged days later.

A replica of the Brown family home at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid gives visitors an idea of life on the farm. (News photo — Delainey Muscato)

Before his execution, Mills said Brown sent a letter to his wife Mary, instructing her to bury him in North Elba, where he settled for the last years of his life. Brown thought his gravestone may provide a curiosity to future generations. Within six days of his execution, his body was brought back to North Elba and buried. His bones still lie at the farm today. Brown was so against slavery, Mills said, that he refused to even be buried in a casket from a slave state.

Brown’s funeral took place in the front room of the house, Mills said. A replica of the house Brown lived in with his family shows how the family lived. The setup inside the house does not show how busy the family would have been, Mills said. People would have been coming and going all the time, taking a break from their chores with a snack in the kitchen before heading back out to finish their work.

“They had male help for the farm, they had food on the table and not a lot of cash in their pockets,” Mills said of how the family lived.

Despite not having a lot of funds, Brown made it his mission to abolish slavery in the South and, until his death, never stopped working to accomplish that goal.

Mills noted how many Confederate leaders have ships, army posts or weapons systems named after them while there is nothing like that named after John Brown.

“Those Confederate leaders were the ones that rebelled against the United States to keep slavery. Brown was the one who rebelled against the United States to end slavery,” said Mills.

While a lot of Brown’s story details dark elements, like death, hanging and slavery, Mills said he is hopeful that their Juneteenth celebration can create a sunny outlook on what Brown did. While slavery still existed for 16 months after Brown’s execution, his actions hastened the Civil War and the eventual end of slavery.

Juneteenth celebration

On June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas to announce the executive order that enslaved people were free. Texas was the last state to receive this news, marking the official end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth National Independence Day is now celebrated ion June 19 every year as a national holiday in the United States to commemorate the end of slavery.

To celebrate Juneteenth, a bus tour of the Underground Railroad will begin at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at 1131 Mace Chasm Road, Ausable Chasm at 9 a.m. Saturday. The bus is set to arrive at the John Brown Farm around noon.

The farm will be hosting activities for children, an awards ceremony, a healing circle and a dramatic reading of John Brown’s last speech held at his gravesite. Papa Duke’s BBQ will be catering at the farm from 1 to 3 p.m. for $8 per person.

Amy Godine, author and historian, will be giving a talk about the debate surrounding Underground Railroad activity in this area. A Plattsburgh Gospel Choir directed by Dexter Criss will perform. An actor portraying Gerrit Smith will be present as well.

Mills said he wants the Juneteenth celebration to be a day to celebrate and appreciate the abolitionists like John Brown’s sacrifice and hard work paying off.

Admission to John Brown Farm is free, and all are welcome.

For further information, contact the park office at 518-527-0191 or email brendan.mills@parks.ny.gov.

Starting at $1.44/week.

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