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black chalk looking sign on side of tan brick building for the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing Ohio

Touring the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing

Each month we'll explore one of Ohio’s under-the-radar museums. This month: The Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing.

Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing

Touring the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing

By Michael Pramik

Posted On: Jan 13, 2023

A village in eastern Ohio might seem like an unlikely place for a museum, but its secluded location in a way reflects the historically significant items contained within its walls.

exterior front street view of the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing Ohio

The Belmont County burg of Flushing is the site of the Underground Railroad Museum, which tells the story of Ohio's importance as a refuge for runaway slaves seeking freedom in the 19th century. It contains the personal collection of the late John S. Mattox, an insurance agent whose interest in abolition led to a mastery of the underground railroad, the history of the slave trade, and African art.

inside vault filled and decorated with historical artifacts inside former bank that is now The Underground Railroad Museum is in Flushing Ohio

The museum is in a former bank across from what used to be the Allstate insurance office where Mattox worked. Open during limited hours from February through October (and by appointment the other months), it houses much of Mattox's 8,000-piece collection and serves as a sober reminder of an important period of Ohio's history.

Curator Kristina Estle standing in front of vault filled and decorated with historical artifacts inside former bank that is now The Underground Railroad Museum is in Flushing Ohio
Curator Kristina Estle

"His passion and love for history were contagious," says museum curator Kristina Estle, who worked as an intern for Mattox while in college and has run the museum since his unexpected death of a stroke in 2019.

Photos of museum founder John Mattox, his wife, Rosalind, and their two children on display inside the underground railroad museum entrance room in flushing ohio
Photos of museum founder John Mattox, his wife, Rosalind, and their two children

Mattox was born in North Carolina and raised in New Jersey. He earned a degree from Hutson-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, then moved to New York to train racehorses. That's where he met his wife, Rosalind, and they later moved to her native town of Flushing. They had two children, John Mattox Jr. and Suzanne Evans, who now own the collection.

exhibit item display collection of historical artifacts and african art inside the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing Ohio

Mattox began purchasing African art and slave memorabilia, and eventually his collection grew. He often traveled around the state with several pieces, telling groups of people about the way slaves were treated, their daily rituals and the inner workings of the underground railroad in Ohio.

The couple established the Underground Railroad Museum in 1993 and later moved it to its current location.

collection of items on display inside the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing Ohio

Through a series of a dozen wall displays, the museum tells the tale of prominent people in Belmont County's history who were involved in the underground railroad, including William Bundy Jr., Eli Nichols, Thomas Pointer, Jacob Van Pelt, and Joel Wood. The museum's other displays include a map of escape routes throughout the state. Estle said there were 220 known sites in Ohio where enslaved peoples could seek refuge.

recreated display exhibit of a mock enslaved peoples quarters with table setting and tools inside the underground railroad museum in flushing ohio

Visitors can see many other interesting items in the museum, including:

  • A mock of enslaved peoples quarters, including a table setting and tools they might have used
  • A library related to slavery, the underground railroad, African art, and other topics
  • A timeline covering the history of slavery
  • Several types of restraints and other items owners used to control enslaved peoples
  • A vivid mural depicting the inside of a slave ship, painted by a local artist
  • A model farmhouse owned by Jacob Holloway, a Flushing resident who was a key participant in the local underground railroad
  • Intricately carved wooden masks and other objects from Africa

Belmont County played a vital role in the underground railroad, assisting many freedom seekers in their quest to move northward. Estle says nearby Wheeling, W. Va., was considered for some time to be the last stop for slavery. Enslaved peoples were bought and sold at the slave auction block, located in downtown Wheeling's Market Plaza. Many attempted to reach Canada through Ohio.

A mural on the side of the underground railroad museum building in flushing ohio
Mural on the side of the Underground Railroad Museum building

Estle said Belmont County has 200 miles of underground railroad trails and more than 25 known stations, houses, churches, barns, or schools where enslaved peoples would stay for a night or more before moving to the next safe spot.

Enslaved peoples made their way along the underground railroad with the help of "conductors," who were abolitionists interested in ending slavery. Many in Belmont County were Quakers. The first Quaker yearly meeting house built west of the Alleghenies is in Mount Pleasant, about 15 miles east of Flushing.

Estle grew up near Flushing but had never heard of Mattox's collection until a professor at Ohio University Eastern suggested she seek him out for information. She eventually became his intern then took over after his death. She has thoroughly researched Belmont County's role in the underground railroad and eagerly shares her knowledge with museum visitors.

She said Mattox made museum visitors feel at home.

black sign on side of tan brick building for the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing Ohio with sun flare in left corner

"Any visitor could walk into the museum unsure and leave feeling like they had a new best friend," she said. "I learned from him that you do not need a fancy, multimillion dollar institution. You just need to give people your undivided attention. It's all about the personalized experience."

For more historic attractions and Ohio museums, check out #OhioFindItHere at Ohio.org.

 

*Photos provided by Wendy Pramik 

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