Brown House benefactors are honored

October 06, 2003|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but the former boarding house where he planned the Harpers Ferry, W.Va., raid is in good repair, thanks to the Kittochtinny Historical Society and the Boonsboro man who provided it with the money to purchase the property.

The society on Sunday honored Wilbur R. McElroy and family as benefactors of the John Brown House at a reception attended by about 80 people at King Street United Brethren Church. The society was able to purchase the house at 225 E. King St. last year with a $23,000 gift from McElroy, according to Kittochtinny President Paul Ambrose.

"John Brown was one of the persons who made the greatest impact on the history of the United States in the 19th century," McElroy said.


Brown, he said, viewed the demise of slavery "as a divine command and, in his own way, he took command."

"This is my home base, so to speak," said McElroy, whose ancestors include a grandfather and uncle who both served as Franklin County, Pa., sheriffs.

Raised in Fayetteville, Pa., and a 1932 graduate of Chambersburg High School, McElroy said he felt it was important to help preserve this piece of history.

"John Brown has always been sort of a folk hero to me," said McElroy, chairman of the board of Action Products Inc., which he started in 1970 and moved from New York to Hagerstown in 1978.

The company employs 160 people and its principal product is AKTON, a synthetic rubber-like material he invented that is used for pressure and shock reduction in products ranging from wheelchairs and operating tables to recoil pads for firearms.

Efforts to preserve the house date back more than 30 years, when it was owned by a local development authority, according to Ambrose. He credited Murray Kauffman of Chambersburg with lobbying state legislators to have the state buy the white, two-story clapboard house and the old Franklin County Jail, thus saving both from the wrecking ball.

Amid a row of old homes, the John Brown House is fairly nondescript, except for the historical marker outside. The local office of the American Heart Association is on the first floor, but the sparsely furnished upstairs looks much as it must have when owned by the widow Mary Ritner, whose father-in-law, Joseph Ritner, was governor of Pennsylvania from 1835 to 1839.

Under the pseudonym Issac Smith, Brown came to Chambersburg in June 1859, probably with three of his sons and other followers, according to the Rev. C. Bernard Ruffin III of Washington, D.C. He already was wanted for the murder of five pro-slavery partisans in Kansas three years earlier, said Ruffin, who also is an author and history teacher.

Bankrolled by the "Secret Six," a group of wealthy northern abolitionists, Brown moved weapons to a nearby warehouse and plotted the raid on the federal arsenal in what then was part of Virginia.

In August, Brown met with abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass in a quarry at the edge of town, Ruffin said. Douglass tried to persuade Brown to give up what he considered to be a suicide mission.

"Sometimes a man is worth more dead," Brown replied. The revolt Brown hoped to trigger with the Oct. 16 raid quickly was put down by federal troops, and he was hanged less than two months later.

Brown was a polarizing figure for a nation that was half slave and half free, "thought to be a saint or a devil," McElroy said.

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