Underground Railroad B&Bs Offer A Cozy Look At Raw History (PHOTOS)
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The book case in the plush room upstairs still opens into a secret passage, but the spot where slaves fled through a trap door is now occupied by a jacuzzi.
"Sometimes you feel like you're just the steward of this place," says Vince Toreno, the proprietor of Ashley Manor, a restive Cape Cod bed and breakfast. "They say, 'If walls could talk,' like it's no big deal, but what would these walls say?"
They might bring up their heroism: A little over 150 years ago this home --a hundred years old even then -- hid slaves as the made their way from the Plantation south toward Canada and freedom. Even as the Civil War loomed and abolitionist fervor spread through New England and much of the northern midwest, Fugitive Slave Laws were being reinforced rather than torn down and the Underground Railroad was the only ride north. Ashley Manor is one of a group of B&Bs spread across the country that was, in a former life, a part of that network.
"Our visitors love to check out the secret passage when they check in and hear about the history," says Toreno.
Pattye Benson, who runs the Great Valley House near Valley Forge in Pennsylvania also has historically-inclined clientele. Re-enactors stay in her B&B and the parents of home-schooled children come to her home to show their children a Revolutionary War era home and the secret passage that runs from the house to a room built into a hill in the back yard.
"Sometimes they arrive with trailers containing their canons," says Benson. "We're getting used to that."
Farther north, the history is less of a draw and more of a surprise.
In the mid 1800s, George Clinton Munro was one of the most important men in Michigan -- the Grand High Priest at the Masonic Temple, a Union General, the father of 14 -- and a prominent abolitionist. Local historians believe that roughly 400 slaves passed through his home on their way to the Detroit River and Canada beyond. Today, tourists pass through and Mike Venturini tells them about the secret sitting a few feet above their heads or below their feet.
A spacious secret room was built into the Munro House when it was given a Greek Revival addition in 1840. The space is big enough that it could fit 20 people uncomfortable and is sandwiched between the first and second floors.
"There is always a lot of interest in the secret room, especially among parents with kids," says Mike Venturini. "When our African-American guest find out, they are generally excited. It is a way of touching history."
Venturini's story is not too different than many of his clients. He didn't set out to become a history buff. He didn't intend to be the guardian of the Underground Railroad. He just came to a place, confronted a piece of American history and found himself seized by the shocking immediacy of the past.
"I'd never even owned an old house before moving here," says Venturini. "Now my perspective has changed and because of that I want to help change other people's perspectives, to talk to the guest about history and have them appreciate it."
Interested in staying in an Underground Railroad B&B? BedandBreakfast.com has a listing of many of these homes.