VISITING UNCLE TOM (Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, Dresden)

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As I admired the old building, goose bumps prickled my arm. Meanwhile, Tessi wandered as far as her leash tolerated to explore aromas beyond human perception. I wondered if she could sense any essence of the indomitable spirit of those who once lived behind these historic walls. My thoughts swept away to the past in an attempt to comprehend a very different life than my own.

An Inspirational Soul

Josiah Henson, aka Uncle Tom, was an abolitionist and preacher, who had escaped slavery. He became a “conductor” and helped fugitives on the Underground Railroad. Just the term “Underground Railroad” conjures up aspects of a life I can’t imagine living—that of enslaved Africans journeying on secret routes and hiding in safe houses in the effort to reach a land where they could be free. In southern Ontario, Henson helped establish the Dawn Settlement, a community where former slaves could work together to realize a new existence for themselves. Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, the place we were visiting, sits on part of the settlement. Fame found him when Harriet Beecher Stowe used his biography as a basis for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Canine Specifics

When I had emailed the destination beforehand to ask about dog policies, Steven Cook, the Site Manager responded “Dogs are allowed on leash in the outer courtyard, just not in the main interpretive centre.”

Unsure of where that was exactly when I parked by the large, modern building—an adjoining fence blocks off the historic features—I leashed Tessi and tentatively headed us in. I obviously needed to go inside to pay admission. We met Steven, who in the ensuing chat, pointed out the section off limits to Tessi. The centre, which houses 19th century artifacts and books, sits off to the side behind closed doors.

…his rambunctious 2-year-old furry pal...

I delighted in learning that Steven brings his dog, Biscuit, to work with him. 20150616_110642Lucky girl. She was hanging out in the office since other visitors milled about—our tour happened to coincide with a school group. Steven would take us to meet his rambunctious 2-year-old furry pal after we finished our exploration of the site and the main area happened to be temporarily quiet. For now, as we walked outside, Steven filled me in on some background information of the site’s features. He confirmed Tessi was permitted to join me in the buildings.

After inviting us to watch a video presentation of Henson’s biography he’d be showing later, he left to tend to other visitors.

The pleasant early spring day inspired a relaxed visit, so we spent time perusing each offering: Harris House, the sawmill, Henson House and the pioneer church, with an added wander out to the Henson Family Cemetery. The features of the modest site were typical of pioneer villages I’ve visited; however, it carried the extra flavour of knowing the struggles and achievements of the former residents.


Three Things

I managed to time it to watch the video. We sat at the back away from the handful of people in attendance. Afterwards, Steven posed several questions, mostly to the kids, I think—they seemed more inclined to respond anyway—about what we had learned. The answer to a particular one about travelling on the Underground Railroad imprinted on my mind the reality of what these people endured.

Steven explained, “Henry Box Brown escaped from slavery in Virginia by mailing himself in a crate to Philadelphia. Besides lining the box with a soft fabric, he took water, biscuits and a small hand tool to drill air holes once his travel began.”

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© Cheryl Smyth, 2015


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