Window to the Past

Published 9:38 am Monday, March 2, 2009

“He Hideth My Soul in the Cleft of the Rock” may have once serenaded the hills and valleys of Poke Patch as African American slaves hid from their masters and bounty hunters in a hollowed rock.

Located in Washington Township on the border of Lawrence and Gallia counties, this legendary, live-in sized stone named Window Rock House (because of a hand-carved window that overlooked the south side of Poke Patch) has been the proverbial X on the map that students of David Lucas’ folknography class have been in search of for over a year and a half.

And on Valentine’s Day, they got something better than a box of chocolates when they finally discovered the rock house that once lodged runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

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The students’ difficulty in finding this historical feature is precisely what lured slaves to the location years ago, said Joseph Bass who was one of the three students present to discover the rock. Bass and his peers were accompanied by Lucas and local resident David Jenkins.

But this was not the first time Jenkins had visited the site. As a child, he had played in the rock with no idea of the historical significance. Relatives of Jenkins submitted a photograph to Lucas’ class depicting three children peeking out the hand-carved window, which gave the class a visual perspective to aid in finding the rock.

And when they did, it was a quiet celebration.

“I felt elation,” said Lucas of their finding the Window Rock House. “It was very sobering, and we had a moment of quiet reflection. There was just a deep respect.”

The months of research, interviews and physical searching is what made the discovery day so special. And according to Student Coordinator Chris Hayes, the success was due solely to the endless hours of grunt work the students logged on this project, as well as purchasing their own supplies and vehicle gasoline to get the job done.

“The students conducted interviews with people who knew stories about the Window Rock House, and these gave a voice to our research,” Hayes said. “And when these stories connect, a picture emerges — another story buried underneath the puzzle pieces.”

Imitating an elderly man tapping his walking cane on the ground, Lucas said in a ragged voice, “yeah, the old-timers said (the slaves) lived in the rock.” Lucas also said many people in local nursing homes attested to the tales. And so the legend goes.

But African American slaves are not the only ones supposed to have occupied the rock house.

Dennis Lambert, one of the three folknography students who found the site, said Native Americans possibly once used the hollowed rock before it was ever discovered by the slaves. Because of its location, he said, it makes for an ideal place to rest while on the hill hunting.

But it doesn’t stop there. The Welsh are said to have pushed out the slaves and occupied the rock house post-Underground Railroad.

Other than the hand-carved window, which Lucas said was most likely made by slaves for ventilation and as a lookout point, there are not many signs of occupancy inside the rock. Because of the flaky limestone and brittle butterstone that make up the Window Rock House, erosion has quickly removed all traces of life. With the exception of a black smoke stain on the ceiling, Lambert said there are no markings or hieroglyphics that pre-date the 1990s.

“The reason that there is a Window Rock House,” Lucas said, “is the very reason there won’t be a Window Rock House.”

The acid in natural rain water breaks down the already-fragile stone. A large piece from the front of the rock can be found a ways down the hill from the rock house where it has broken off over the years and fallen. The still-standing wall around the hand-carved window shows age cracks that will eventually break free from the structure.

And this is why Lucas and his team know they need to work fast to put history in the books. For now, Lucas said, they are consulting archeologists and geologists for advice. They have also contacted the Wayne National Forest in inquiry of preservation, but the cost will be extensive. But that does not mean they oppose the process, he said.

Although Lucas said they are not sure what their next move will be, they are looking for the public’s response to help them decide.

“If you aren’t moved by looking at these pictures,” Lucas said of the enlarged photos the team presented at the press conference,” then maybe you should take my class. I’m absolutely ready to dance.”