Thursday, September 28, 2023

Rokeby Museum, a Vermont stop on the Underground Railroad


In the hills lining the shore of Lake Champlain, is a museum dedicated to a history not usually connected with Vermont. The Rokeby Museum presents a look into life on a farm during the 19th and 20th centuries. However its focus is on the role that the farm and its owners played in the Underground Railroad.

Rokeby Farm was cleared in 1780’s and the farm was purchased in 1793 by Thomas Rowland Robinson, a Quaker from Newport, Rhode Island. The farm consisted of 90 acres. Its main house was built in 1814, and the outbuildings were constructed at various times over its history. The Robinson family originally made its money raising Marino Sheep for their wool. This was lucrative at the time, because Spain had an embargo on the sale of Marino sheep, whose wool was highly desired. Prices for the wool remained high until the King of Spain was forced to begin selling sheep on the international market. This caused the price to drop greatly. The Robinson family then switched to dairy farming. 

Main House
Out House

By the 1830’s Rokeby Farm was being run by Rowland Thomas Robinson. In addition to farming, Rowland Thomas Robinson was a radical abolitionist. He was involved in the political abolition movement, and Rokeby Farm became a stop on the Underground Railroad. We have a lot of evidence about its role, because the farm remained in the family until it became a museum, so there is a trove of papers and letters from that period, that were kept. Over the years, many escaped enslaved people came to Rokeby. Because the farm is so far north, they were relatively safe, and they could live openly, working on the farm before they moved on. Some left quickly, but others stayed for months or years. 

Room for escape enslaved people

Two descendants of Thomas Rowland Robinson went on to have some personal fame. Rowland T. Robinson (1833-1900) was a farmer, and became a writer toward the end of his life. His work was published in several magazines, and his novels were published late in his life, and posthumously. Rachel Robinson Elmer (1878-1919) moved to New York City, where she studied art. She is best known for creating a series of post-cards that highlighted important sights in New York City.

When you visit, budget in time for the museum’s excellent visitor’s center. It has a permanent exhibit on the Underground Railroad. The exhibit follows the escape of two enslaved men from Maryland to Vermont. 

It also houses a room for temporary exhibits. On my visit, the show was “Lift Every Voice,” a show of hooked rugs that reproduce scenes from Elizabeth Catlett’s “The Black Woman.” This is a series of linocut prints that commemorate the historical oppression, resistance, and survival of African American women in the United States.

I am the Black Woman by Bernita Watford Raleigh the fields by Gwen Hess

I Have Given the World My Songs by Liz Mariners

In Sojourner Truth I fought for the rights of women as well as Blacks by Laura Ponkos 

In Harriet Tubman I led hundreds to freedom by Mary Austin

My role has been important in the struggle to organize the unorganized by Lauren Salisbury

My right is a future of equality with other Americans by Lisa Meecham

After visiting Rokeby, I headed into the nearby town of Vergennes for lunch. I went to the 3 Squares Cafe, and had a wonderful sandwich and salad. After that I took a walk around the town, looking at some of the interesting buildings there.

The Rokeby Museum is a gem of a historical museum, and it is well worth a stop if you are in the area.   

1 comment:

  1. I love museums that literally take me into the world at another time and place. And this is sure it, especially since so many haters are insisting on denying the past. I love that it has an eclectic collection of textiles as well. There's nothing like touching the skin of the past. Thank you for bringing this to me to experience from the comfort of my home.