Historic farm preps for events to mark John Brown’s birthday
LAKE PLACID — Abolitionist John Brown may have died on Dec. 2, 1859 — hanged for treason after raiding the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) — but since that day, he’s never been alone.
When Brown was buried on his farm in the town of North Elba six days later, the grave of this man — one of the most controversial figures in American history — instantly became a tourist attraction. It especially became popular to visit on Brown’s birthday, which was May 9, 1800.
This year is no different.
The John Brown Farm State Historic Site, located just outside the village of Lake Placid behind the Olympic ski jumps, will host two events in early May to celebrate Brown’s birthday. The first will be on his birthday, Monday, May 9, and the second will be on the following Saturday, May 14 — John Brown Day. Officials from John Brown Lives! — the historic site’s friends group — are organizing the activities.
Brown was brought up to believe that slavery was wrong, according to Brendan Mills, manager of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site.
“He worked most of his life on the Underground Railroad. He opposed slavery as much as he could. He did have farms to run, a family to raise,” he said.
Brown came to North Elba in 1849 to help out a colony of free Blacks, who owned land in a local settlement called Timbuctoo. His first farm was near today’s Craig Wood Golf Course off state Route 73. Brown left for Ohio for a while and then returned to the farm where the current historic site is located.
But he didn’t spend much time in the Adirondacks with his family. As soon as he arrived, Mills said, he traveled west to Kansas to be with his sons to fight pro-slavery groups.
“So what was going to be his retirement home, which is the historic house today, he’s only there for a few brief visits from 1855 to the raid on Harpers Ferry,” Mills said. “But he loved the farm, he loved the Adirondacks, and that’s why he asked to be brought back here after his execution, after the failed slave uprising at Harpers Ferry.”
John Brown Lives! officials will lay a wreath on Brown’s grave during a sunset ceremony on May 9, starting at 7 p.m. The event will include a dance performance by members of Emerge125, a New York City-based group that’s had a longtime seasonal residency at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. The event is free and open to the public.
Officials will also mark the 100th anniversary of what is being considered the first John Brown Day, when members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Philadelphia held their first pilgrimage to the grave.
The Lake Placid News covered the event on the front page of its May 12, 1922, issue.
“From Philadelphia came T. Spotuas Burwell, a doctor of medicine, and Dr. J. Max Barber, a dentist, as well as Rev. Z. A. Jones, financial secretary of the Barrett Collegiate and Industrial Institute of Pee Dee, N.C., three distinguished colored gentlemen,” the News reported.
Barber, a civil rights activist, wasn’t happy with how Brown was being portrayed in history, according to Martin Tyler, of Jay, vice president of the John Brown Lives! board.
“He felt that John Brown should have better recognition, especially among African Americans,” Tyler said. “And he suggested to one of his colleagues, Dr. Burwell, that they do a pilgrimage to the John Brown farm and put a wreath on his gravesite.”
Barber returned with more people on May 9 the following year, and by 1924, he had founded the John Brown Memorial Association to organize annual pilgrimages to North Elba to lay a wreath on John Brown’s grave. Pilgrimages continued until the mid-1980s, but John Brown Day was brought back in 1999 thanks to the efforts of Keene writer Russell Banks, author of the novel “Cloudsplitter.” Martha Swan founded the John Brown Lives! organization in 1999, and the group took over John Brown Day.
John Brown Day activities from 3 to 5 p.m. on May 14 will include a ceremony to honor three people with the 2022 Spirit of John Brown Freedom Award:
¯ Tiffany Rea-Fisher, the executive artistic director of Emerge125.
¯ Karen Davidson Seward, a local artist who created the Memorial Field for Black Lives
¯ Tom Morello, an artist and activist Established in 2016, the award honors people whose work “invokes the passion and conviction of the 19th-century abolitionist and celebrates leaders and innovators in civil and human rights whose courage, creativity, and commitment are models for others to follow.” It is given annually on John Brown Day.
“John Brown was not only anti-slavery, he was not only an abolitionist, but he was a true egalitarian,” said Swan, executive director of John Brown Lives! “So the spirit of John Brown, that commitment to justice, that commitment to equality and the egalitarian community is something that we really try to lift up with the Spirit of John Brown Freedom Award.”
John Brown Day events at the historic site are free and open to the public. They will be followed by a fundraising reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at Smoke Signals restaurant in Lake Placid. Tickets are $100 per person or $160 for two people. Registration is required by May 1 at https://forms.gle/bHMfJECDcgpVsYoSA.