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Museum showcases 160 years of local history

Deborah Wolfe, the curator of the Ramsdell House museum in Ceredo, West Virginia, looks at a newly discovered letter written to Almeda Ramsdell by one of her children. The letter was found in a box in the attic. (The Ironton Tribune | Taylor Burnette)

By Taylor Burnette

The Ironton Tribune

Ceredo home dates back to town’s abolitionist beginnings

CEREDO, W.Va. — Another chapter was added to the incredibly vast history of the Ramsdell House, when curator Deborah Wolfe began her work 16 months ago.

Her husband drove by the historic two-story brick house on his way to work, and his curiosity about the structure eventually led to Wolfe’s involvement with the project.

“I was just hired to come in and do what I could do with a limited budget as far as cleaning up the house and stuff,” Wolfe said. “But as I started working on the house, we started finding original documents from the Civil War and relics that have been hidden in this house for 160 years. It turned into this very live archaeological site, basically, and we’re still finding things every day.”

Deborah Wolfe looks at a handwritten play titled “My Brother’s Keeper,” found in the historic Ramsdell House. (The Ironton Tribune | Taylor Burnette)

The history of the Ramsdell House began when it was unintentionally built atop an Adena Native American burial mound in 1858, as part of the new abolitionist town of Ceredo. The city’s founder, Eli Thayer, recruited around 500 people to head from New England to settle a new town with those sharing their beliefs. After stopping on the river and seeing a fertile plantation worked by enslaved people, Thayer decided that was the place.

The Ramsdell family arrived not long after the city was founded, then claimed their plot of land at what is now 1108 B St. Zophar, and Almeda Ramsdell brought their two children, with another on the way, and their shoe business, then began building their house. The house stands currently as the oldest house in Ceredo, many of the others having been damaged in the flood of 1937.

Zophar’s journals record accounts of his work in not only the shoe business, but as a quartermaster during the Civil War and later, a postmaster. He also served as a legislative representative in the West Virginia senate from 1868 to 1869.

Although Almeda also kept a journal, Wolfe said she rarely, if ever, wrote about herself. She said she suspects Almeda was often busy with her family, community and household.

Wolfe found many of the records Zophar kept in places around the house. She and her interns discovered a treasure trove of letters, books, publications, shoe repair items, clothing belonging to the family and more in the house’s attic.

“When I first came in, I’d be in here 14 hours a day, scrubbing, drywalling, patching and all that kind of stuff,” Wolfe said. “I would reward myself at the end of every day by taking a laundry basket up in the attic and just bring down a load of stuff.”

The items displayed in the museum survived two attic fires, and decades of moisture, mice and mold. They paint a picture of the life of abolitionists before, during and after the Civil War.

One of the largest sources of information on the items in the house and Zophar Ramsdell is his detailed journals, which are currently being studied by Isabella Carpintero, an intern at the Ramsdell House and a senior studying public history at Morehead State University.

Many entries detail accounts from Zophar’s work during the Civil War, while others just detail the day’s weather. The museum has journal entries from Zophar up until the day before he died.

“His 1864 journal is pretty hilarious, because, by then, they’re wanting the war to be over,” Carpintero said. “He says ‘godforsaken country’ quite often, and he talks about how, one day, he and the other officers just watched a donkey’s tail swat the flies away. I was like, ‘Okay, so that’s really what happened at camps in the Civil War.’ It makes it seem more human and more realistic, in my opinion. But what really got me was how much detail he puts into it, and the way he talked, because nobody talks like they did back then.”

Carpintero discovered one of the museum’s most significant Civil War finds one day while cataloging books. She flipped through a book to examine it for mold damage, and the name Gallipolis stood out to her, as there is a unique wooden board, believed to be part of a Civil War shipment crate that references Gallipolis in its stenciling, that had previously been discovered.

As she was flipping back through to find the page, she came across a folded piece of paper stuck into the book. She pulled it out and opened it, finding a letter that was written by the then Lt. William McKinley, who later became the 25th president of the United States, to Zophar Ramsdell.

“Honestly, I didn’t breathe for a good couple of seconds,” Carpintero said.

For Carpintero, it stands as a symbol that history is still out there, waiting to be rediscovered.

“History is still relevant and we’re still finding things,” Carpintero said. “We don’t know everything that’s out there in the world. … Someone might say that it’s just a letter, and yeah, he’s written thousands of letters. But for our one museum, it’s significant because it shows that these higher ups can communicate with people who we think are just ordinary people.”

The Ramsdell House was in the middle of the Civil War. Wolfe said she has found evidence of the house serving as a field hospital for both sides. There was a Confederate camp not far from where Austin’s Homemade Ice Cream is today, and Camp Pierpont, a Union camp, was located where Ceredo City Hall currently stands.

Additionally, Civil War memorabilia belonging to Zophar was found in various states throughout the house. His saddle pad, which marked his rank as an officer in the Union Army, was found by Wolfe in a trash bag in the attic. Many of his papers from the Civil War are displayed around the home, a monument to the conflict the town of Ceredo experienced with both sides in their backyard.

Some of the writings found in the house tell the stories of the items found in the home. One of these items is a rope bed, a bed with a mattress held up by rope. Writings found in the house said there was a spy, “Jim,” who frequently infiltrated the nearby Confederate encampment, something he could easily get away with in plain clothes. He would then report back to the town and tell the people remaining there when the confederates had planned raids.

A rope bed, original to the house, believed to be the place where spy “Jim” hid from Confederate soldiers. (The Ironton Tribune | Taylor Burnette)

On one occasion, it was said that Jim ran into the house and yelled “They’re after me!” while running up the stairs. The women and children in the home at the time pretended to cook dinner, and Zophar was away working as a quartermaster at the time.

After the Confederate soldiers left, Jim came down the stairs, nearly out of breath. He had crawled under the bed, held onto the ropes, and pulled himself up to hide just above the bedding hanging off the sides, effectively hiding him from the view of someone looking under, the writing said.

The hiding of a spy was likely not the only hiding that took place in the house. Wolfe said there is evidence in the home suggesting that it served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. This is supported not only by evidence found in the home, but the oral histories passed down to the descendants of the enslaved people who are said to have passed through the home.

Wolfe said that although there is little documentation, many fixtures of the house and the local history supports the theory. A notable example of this is ‘the lantern window’, which was likely used as the only form of communication between another Underground Railroad stop on the other side of the Ohio River to help escort enslaved people over to Lawrence County and onto their next location.

For some, Wolfe said, their final location may have been in Lawrence County, Ohio and for others, this may have been Canada.

Evidence suggests that the Ramsdell family treated the fugitives from slavery that passed through their home with great dignity. Wolfe said she found educational books in the home that suggest that the Ramsdells helped prepare these individuals for life as free people.

In the front room of the house is a trapdoor that historically would have been hidden under a rug. The trapdoor was likely used to hide enslaved people when slave hunters checked houses. Wolfe added a handle for conservation purposes.

The crawl space underneath the living room led from the front of the house to the basement crawl space that would have opened up towards the river.

Wolfe calls it “the doorway to freedom,” as it was likely the last door previously enslaved people exited before they entered a free life. Despite this, fugitives from slavery faced a number of dangers along the way, and even in their lives after escaping from their enslavers. Some did not survive their trek across the Ohio river because of slave patrols and slave hunters.

Although there is very little physical documentation of the Ramsdells’ involvement in the Underground Railroad, this is because the nature of the Underground Railroad was to not have a paper trail, Wolfe said.

“The thing about the Underground Railroad is, if you left a paper trail, it wouldn’t work,” Wolfe said.

Lawrence County historian Chris Saunders, who gave a presentation about the Underground Railroad at the Ramsdell House, said that oral histories played a major role in the Underground Railroad. A lack of writing meant that a paper trail couldn’t be traced back to anybody.

“Oral history would have been extremely significant, because everything that people were doing at that point in time was illegal,” Saunders said.

Saunders also said that Lawrence County, which was at one time uniquely situated between two Confederate states, was very active in the Underground Railroad. Like Ceredo, there were many abolitionists, both in governmental positions and around the area.

The history of the Ramsdell House does not only include the history of the Civil War, but many other aspects of life before, during, and after that era.

Many other types of events, like church gatherings, also took place in the house, Wolfe said. This is supported by the nearly 120 hymn books that she uncovered in the attic. Many of the books have a name etched in gold lettering on them, likely from each family funding a book when the church was unable to afford them.

The house features an array of shoe forms and tools from Ramsdell’s shoe business, with Wolfe selling some of the thousands of wooden shoe pins found in boxes in the attic as souvenirs to help fund the museum.

Additionally, there is an array of mailboxes in the home, since Zophar worked as a postmaster.

Also, in the house is a Christmas tree displaying examples of quilting patterns used by enslaved people to communicate about escaping from their enslavers. It was illegal at the time for enslaved people to write, and the paper trail that would’ve been created could have been dangerous as well. The quilting was done as an example by volunteers at the Ramsdell House in the 1980s.

The Ramsdell family, along with Civil War soldiers from both sides and people trying to escape from their enslavement, are believed to be buried on the property. A monument to the Ramsdell’s now stands at the front of the house, and was unveiled on the day of the museum’s opening in September 2019.

Over the years, the house has been frequented by ghost hunters, although Wolfe said she has never felt anything but kind, positive presences in the home.

Today, Wolfe said, the history of the house stands as a beacon of regional history, a treasure standing on B Street in Ceredo. It has survived fires, floods, wars, and 160 years of history.

“I feel like this house honestly has been watched over and preserved for 160 years so that its story can continue to be told, and that more so today than ever have we needed it,” Wolfe said. “It’s shocking that the folks who sacrificed so much to come and settle this little town with two primary purposes, to bring about a peaceful end to slavery and to perpetuate freedom and dignity for all peoples that 160 years later we’re still fighting that same battle that they fought back then.”

With love, passion, and grit, Wolfe and her interns brought back to life the relics of the Ramsdell House. Although having only a very small budget to work with, Wolfe said they will continue to keep the museum free to the public.

“As much as the Ramsdell House needs money to fix things, it’s everybody’s history,” Wolfe said. “We don’t feel right charging admission to get in. It’s not just Ceredo, it’s really part of our national heritage.”

The museum, located at 1108 B Street in Ceredo, is currently open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and is available for small group tours upon request. For more information, visit, https://ceredowv.gov/around-town/ramsdell-house/ or call 304-908-9696.