February 16, 2008


McGraw couple hope to unearth property connection to network


Photos by Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Mardis Kelsen and her husband John Schuhle sift through photos and documents about the history of their house at 30 South St. in McGraw.

Staff Reporter

McGRAW — Mardis Kelsen knows her house at 30 South St. never gave shelter fugitive slaves, but is convinced the property has connections to the Underground Railroad — specifically, a tunnel connecting to another tunnel of the Underground Railroad just beyond a basement wall.
Kelsen, a Cortland lawyer, said the Widger home nearby at 19 Academy St. had been a dormitory for the Central New York College, one of the first colleges to accept blacks as well as women. This dormitory had a tunnel running north-south, she said. White males were also accepted at the college, which opened in 1949. Because of a smallpox outbreak in the early 1850s, the college did not last long. A graveyard of students still exists on the hill between McGraw high school and elementary school.
Lamont Memorial Librarian Julie Widger said her husband, Albert, grew up at 19 W. Academy St., where there had been a tunnel to a creek along the street. She said both entrances had been closed off a long time ago, but she recalls she may have seen the tunnel before it was closed off. She said the home is now owned by her nephew Robert Freeman, who is mayor of McGraw.
She said the library has a book, “The McGraw Centennial” that includes some history of the local anti-slavery movement, including the history of the 19 W. Academy St. farmhouse.
John Schuhle, Kelsen’s husband, said it is commonly believed their tunnel connected to the dormitory tunnel. He said when the septic tank was dug up something was found on the property.
“Our son remembered coming here with his class,” Schuhle said. “I didn’t know anything at the time.”
Kelsen and Schuhle plan to excavate the site at some time to find out if there is a tunnel. Kelsen said the best approach might be to excavate an area where there is a depression in the ground, rather than from the basement wall. She said this spot always melts first in the spring. “That is the plan — to one day do that,” she said.
Already some tunnel work was unearthed in McGraw when the South Street bridge was replaced. Schuhle said the purpose of the tunnels was not known and it could have been used for steam pipes to a factory.
Kelsen said at one time there was a barn on the site where her house, originally owned by Albert P. McGraw and built in 1883, now stands. She said she learned a lot of the history by spending time with McGraw’s daughter, Agnes McGraw Brown, after moving to McGraw in 1961. Agnes married S. Keator Brown who was the Cortland County Clerk.
Kelsen said she was 13 when she moved to McGraw into the house across the street from the McGraw homestead. Her parents had both attained teaching jobs in the area. Kelsen recalled she was sitting in the car on the passenger side and when she saw the big Swiss chalet style house.
“I’m going to live there someday,” she recalls saying at the time.
That dream came true in 2000 when Kelsen and Schuhle bought the three-story house and started renovating it. Besides the McGraw family, the house had also been owned by Dr. Krauklis. She had bought the house in 1965.
The house was built by L.H. Hopkins, who built several other buildings in the county, including, Grace Episcopal Church on Court Street and the Baptist Church in Homer, which is now the Center for the Arts.
Schuhle said his father volunteered one day a week at the Cortland County Historical Society and one day Hopkins’ great-great grandchildren came in looking for information on Hopkins and the buildings he built in the area.
One of the first items on the list of renovations of the house was glazing windowpanes. Schuhle, who works for Michael May Construction, said there were 160 panes to do just on the first floor.
Kelsen said she does not have pictures of the interior of the house to use as a guide for restoration, but Robert McGraw, a grandson of Albert and Emeline Childs McGraw, did send her a booklet that included remembrances of the house from him and other grandchildren of the McGraws.
“Now we’re compiling what we have done to send back to the family,” Kelsen said.
They also have found all sorts of records in the house, including a calendar that listed income they received from a variety of enterprises.
“He kept records of everything,” said Kelsen. She said because he kept such meticulous records, she expects if there is a tunnel, records will be found inside it.
One forward-thinking enterprise the Albert McGraw family ran was bottling water from their 155.5-foot well. The company was called Tres Pur Water Company. Kelsen and Schuhle showed a piece of letterhead for the water that had what looked like notes on improvements and repairs that were made to the well.
“We still use that well,” Kelsen said.
Albert and his father, Perrin, also owned the A.P. McGraw Corset Co. They also had numerous other cottage businesses, such as cutting and selling ice, eggs and fruit from a small orchard.
Unusual for the time period, the house had indoor plumbing and bathrooms. One was under the stairway, now a closet, and one was upstairs. That one remains a bathroom.
The house has five bedrooms on the second floor and two separate rooms on the third floor, off an open attic space. These rooms would have been the sleeping quarters for servants.
The downstairs has a parlor, living room, library, kitchen, dining room, bathroom and storage room. Kelsen said the entire downstairs had been paneled. The second-floor bedroom had also been paneled. The signs of the glue are still evident on the yet to be renovated second-floor.
When asked when Kelsen and Schuhle hoped to finish the renovation project, he joked, “It won’t be more than 49 years.” He said they had hoped it would have been completed this year since it is the 125th anniversary of the house.
Kelsen said she hoped they would at least complete the downstairs renovations by the end of this year.
Underground Railroad or not, the house has already been in the public eye. A documentary film included the living room and its fireplace as a backdrop. The 2003 film was about the Jerry Rescue. Federal marshals arrested a slave who called himself Jerry in Syracuse under the Fugitive Slave Law. It happened Oct. 1, 1851, at the same time the anti-slavery Liberty Party was holding a convention.
A massive group of abolitionists rescued William “Jerry” Henry, who had been working as a barrel maker, from the marshals. The film was made for the Onondaga Historical Association Museum and Research Center.




Homer town, village to improve communications

2 members each of town and village boards will meet periodically to discuss issues

Staff Reporter

HOMER — The village and town are trying to open lines of communication, having named two people from each board to meet from time to time.
The new group expects to set a date for its first meeting within the next few weeks. Group members hope to meet every couple of months or so.
Brian White and Kevin Williams will represent the town and Michael Berry and Genevieve Suits will represent the village.
In recent months, a lack of communication between the two boards has come to light.
Brian White said one source of problems has been the town’s current Town Hall renovation project.
At one point the project required turning down the building’s furnace and using propane heaters instead.
Employees on the village side of the Town Hall were surprised to smell gas fumes, he said, and disappointed they had not been notified about the development.