September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
The early 1930s were not good to my grandmother. About all she had left were her memories of her childhood at the old home place. In Grandmother’s case the old home place was a farm outside of Glasgow, Kentucky. This was the center of her universe and now, in 1937, we were all going on vacation there for a visit.
People today accept a vacation as a God-given right, but in the Depression a vacation was a major event to be planned, discussed, and saved for. Those going were my grandmother, my mother, myself, and our boarder. Mother and Father had divorced, and the boarder had been with us for the past seven or eight years and was considered one of the family. He would do most of the driving and pay for the gasoline.
As I counted off the days, Grandma made the wait even longer by telling me that when we reached Glasgow I would see a big secret. I’d ask, “What secret?” but she would only say that I would have to wait.
I’d like to say that the trip down to Glasgow from Louisville was all fun and excitement, but that would be far from the truth. Less than twenty miles out of Louisville, the family found out that I had car sickness. By the time we reached Glasgow I was a hot, sick, and irritable little boy who was making life miserable for all around him.
Then the second blow fell: I saw the old home place. I had expected it to look like a Georgia plantation with high columns and wide verandahs. But the house was none of this. Its current owners had not been able to spare a lot of money for upkeep, and to a city boy used to urban newness, it seemed shabby and rundown.
But there was a cold pitcher of lemonade and an electric fan in the living room. Grandma asked if I would like to see the bedroom. I didn’t really want to see a bedroom, but I was pushed upstairs and into a chamber dominated by a large bed and little else. The headboard of the bed stood solid into the rear wall, and my grandmother told me I was to push against the top left of it. After one missed push, I made part of the headboard slide back into the wall.
The owner of the house came upstairs with a flashlight, and I looked into my first secret panel. I was told I could go in, but all I could see was cobwebs, and I decided I could see all I wanted from the bed. As I shone the light in, Grandma told me that this passage went around the chimney and was three feet wide by three and a half feet tall. The only way in or out was by way of the bed.
Grandma explained that after thinking hard on the subject, her granddaddy had decided that slavery was wrong. Being a man who acted on his beliefs, he had built this room and become part of the underground railroad, helping runaway slaves to freedom.
Then Grandma gave a warning. Although the Civil War (or rather the War Between the States) had been over for more than seventy years, feelings for the lost cause still ran high. If the purpose of the secret passage were known, we might no longer be socially accepted in Glasgow. I had to promise never to say a word about it.
That night and for a number of nights after, I dreamed of being Great-Great-Granddaddy’s helper taking those slaves toward freedom. Mother and Grandma promised that we could come back again to see more of the farm’s secrets; but it was not to be.
The 1930s kept us too poor for another vacation, and then came Pearl Harbor. The boarder was drafted and later came home to marry my mother. Grandma did not get back to Glasgow until the late 1940s. By then the owners had sold the property, and the house had been torn down for an industrial plant. Granddaddy’s secret passage was gone forever.
I never knew my grandmother’s granddaddy, or any of the blacks he helped to spirit North; but occasionally in dreams I still go back to Glasgow to help Great-Great-Granddaddy.