This is a periodic series on the history of Chagrin Falls.
Old Aunty arrived in Chagrin Falls sometime in the early 1850s. Her given name was Dorcus Ann Elizabeth Williams. She had been born into slavery in Virginia. Her owner had forced her into ‘marriage’ with another slave and so she ran. She made her way to Oberlin, Ohio where another runaway told her about Chagrin Falls, so she made her way here and took up residence in a shack on the corner of Main and Cottage streets. She later moved to a place on High Street near the mill pond and Whitesburg.
Prior to the Civil War, many prominent people of the village actively supported the abolitionist cause. The first mention of the abolitionist movement is in a letter from Lorenzo Dow (L.D.) Williams to his father in 1838. L.D. Williams opened one of the first schools for secondary students in Chagrin, which was located on the second floor of the home at 55 W. Washington St. In 1842, he was appointed the first director of the Asbury Seminary, the secondary school located where the Chagrin Falls Intermediate School is today.
“The Anti-Slavery Bugle” was a newspaper published from 1845-1861 in Salem, Ohio. The paper would list its subscribers by name and village of residence. The Historical Societies archivist, Laura Gorretta, has gone through the online issues of “The Anti-Slavery Bugle” and found the following names of Chagrin residents. W.W. Vincent, J.N. Bliss, Milton Bliss, Polly Saunderson, Dr. J.H. Vincent, Henry Church Sr., Adin Gaunt, William and Charles Waldron, John W. Williams are included in the list. There were several anti-slavery meetings held in Chagrin Falls prior to the Civil War. The first of which we have a record was in August of 1846. A two-day meeting was held in July of 1848. Another meeting was held in the Village of Chagrin Falls in 1854 featuring leading abolitionist Charles C. Burleigh.
There were others in the community that participated in the Underground Railroad. Dr. Justus Vincent who built the home just to the north of the entrance to Hamlet at Chagrin Falls, Issac Rarick who had a farm on Bell Street and Henry Church, whose home was on W. Orange Street about where the Winds of Change is located. Others who harbored fugitives in the village were Harvey W. Curtiss and John Williams. Before attending medical college, Mr. Curtiss organized meetings for the Western Abolition Society.
Both Jane and Austin Church wrote about, how during their childhood, fugitive slaves would frequently pass through their house. They would usually arrive at night, be sheltered during the day, then moved on the next evening. Austin Church mentions that he always knew when there was a fugitive in the house, because there was a little less food for breakfast. On one occasion, Henry Church learned that one of the fugitives he helped had belonged to Henry Clay of Kentucky. After a few weeks, Henry Church sent a letter to Mr. Clay telling him that his former slave was now safe in Canada. Mr. Church stated to Mr. Clay that he “forgot” to return him to Kentucky.
The issue of slavery divided the Methodist Church. Many congregants in Chagrin followed the beliefs of John Wesley that slavery was wrong and many of their pastors were active abolitionists. The Wesleyan Methodists broke off and started meeting separately from the main congregation using the Free Will Baptist Church which was located at the junction of Vincent and Bell streets.
The presence of so many prominent abolitionists in Chagrin may explain why Old Aunty became a fixture. She earned money washing clothes and doing chores for people around the village and had a vegetable garden where she grew what she needed. She loved to fish, spending many days down at the mill pond. At first, the children in the neighborhood were wary of her, but as they got to know her, it was a special treat to be asked to go fishing with her. They learned the best way to make sure you caught a fish was to spit on the bait and be perfectly quiet.
Old Aunty was known for her smile and easy laughter, but she could also show a quick temper. Both Henry Church and L. O. Harris had a special relationship with her. They would tease her to get her riled up and then she would give it back to them in kind with a sharp retort. She enjoyed these two men because they ‘fussed’ with her. Old Aunty would also frequent the dances at the Union House, which was located at the base of Grove Hill. She would always dress up special for the dances, usually wearing a silk head dress, sometimes adorned with feathers. The younger people delighted in her rendition of the southern hoedown.
Her exact age was unknown, but she seemed old when she got here. As she continued to age, the townspeople became concerned for her well-being. She resisted being cared for, but eventually arrangements were made for her to live in the home of Mrs. Lucy Goodwin. She died sometime in the early 1870s. She was thought to be around 80 years of age.
One interesting story about her was the time that she thought she needed a tooth pulled. She went to the dentist, Dr. Phelps. He examined her and could find nothing wrong, but she insisted. He complied and began pulling on the tooth, but it wouldn’t budge. He finally gave up. Her only comment was, “You sure gave that tooth a good twist.”
The Chagrin Falls Exponent from April 24, 1919 wrote about Old Aunty and asked its subscribers to recall any memories that they had of her. Over the next six weeks numerous letters were published from people all over the country. One writer recalled that on the day she died, the church bells were rung 100 times.
Mr. Bourisseau is the president of the Chagrin Falls Historical Society Board of Trustees.