Not just a big white house

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Kilgore house, on South Erie street in Mercer Pennsylvania, is an unassuming white clapboard house with deep roots in history. The house still stands; slightly time worn and still lived in, wide front porch framing the exterior. I was traveling from the south to visit my family and had planned my trip to pass through Mercer and find the house that belonged to my great-great-great-great grandfather. I pulled over to take a picture hoping that the current residents didn’t wonder about the silver car with Tennessee tags parked out front.

James Kilgore was a blacksmith in 1850. He and his wife, Elizabeth Young Stewart, were parents to 6 children. Their youngest Robert died at the age of 2. When their daughter Sidney died in 1857, they took in her daughter, Elizabeth (Lily). James was known for his involvement in the Underground Railroad that operated from 1810 to 1850. From stories told, a blind eye was turned to the operations of the Underground Railroad in Mercer, it was the best known little secret. Many of the residents were participating in freeing the slaves that traveled through the area during that time period.

James came from a family of 10 children and not all of his siblings shared his interest in the Underground Railroad. His brother Jesse owned slaves in 1815 and there are documents showing an altercation between one of his slaves and his brother William. James father died before James turned 10 in 1808. His mother, Jean Morrow Kilgore, would die two years later. In his father’s will it stipulates that he live with his sister Elenor and brother, Jesse, who was 21 at the time, until his sister Elenor turned 15. James was to be bound over as an apprentice for a trade when he turned 15. Did living with his brother who owned slaves influence his decision to join the Underground Railroad movement? Was the trade that he learned blacksmithing?

The stories the walls of that old house could tell. Secret knocks at midnight on the door to deliver slaves, hid in the basement, fed and rested for the trip further north. The death within a year of both a son, William and son-in-law, William Mckim, in the Civil War would shake the walls of the house. As time past, large family gatherings of children and grandchildren for Sunday dinners and holiday celebrations would collect filling the large white house and spilling out on to the front porch. Today the house is part of a Walking tour of Mercer’s Historic Underground Railroad and Abolitionist Era Sites.



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