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EL house provides a look back in history

East Longmeadow Historical Commission Chair Bruce Moore squats inside the once-walled-in cellar entrance of the false closet used in the Underground Railroad.
By Danielle Paine

Reminder Assistant Editor

EAST LONGMEADOW - If the walls of the town's oldest home could talk, they would not only tell a tale of 287 years on Chestnut Street, but of the underground railroad.

A sixth-grade African American History class of the Springfield Expeditionary Learning School journeyed to the Elijah Burt House last week, to see for themselves, one small part that Western Massachusetts played in getting slaves to freedom.

Two at a time, students took turns crouching inside a false closet of the house where it is believed slaves once hid as a known stop on the famed Underground Railroad. Planks were put up inside the space to provide a false floor. The exit from this passageway into the basement was bricked-up until recent years when the bricks were torn down during restoration work.

"The slaves had to cram into that small room and hope that no one would find them," said student Elizabeth Adona after getting a first-person perspective of hiding in the small, dark quarters. "You can see how they really had to rely on the owners of the house."

Bruce Moore, Chairman of the East Longmeadow Historical Commission, said that to his knowledge, the home is the only one in town with the Underground Railroad claim to fame.

"When they started doing the Underground Railroad, someone really went out of their way to brick-off the cellar and put in this false closet," Moore said. "They went through a lot of trouble to help them out, one or two at a time."

Today, the local gem is still a family home as well as a nationally registered historical site. George and Mary Loder, along with their daughters, Rachael, Sarah, and Hannah moved there from Ohio in June of 2006.

"Our first house was a 125-year-old home in Pennsylvania and we went through the restoration process there," Mary Loder said about the decsion to buy the Burt House. "So we figured if we were going to move to New England, we would look for something historical and typical New England."

Loder said that she and her family are having a lot of fun owning the house. Through research of their own, the Loder Family has learned about the home's many historical quirks.

She explained that the beehive ovens beside the living room fireplace were heated with a wood fire, then the women of the home would insert their forearms into the oven to gage the temperature. Each second that they could withstand the heat would tell them if the fire was hot enough to bake bread or pies.

They especially enjoy their very special closet, Loder said. Her own hometown of Oberlin Ohio also has a rich history of involvement in the Underground Railroad.

"There is a fine line you have to walk with being sensitive to the history of the house and making it livable," Loder said of some future restoration work they plan to do in the home. "We feel like the house, to some extent, belongs to the community."

For this reason, the Loder Family welcomes tours, such as last week's field trip, with open arms. Judging from their wide-eyed expressions and enthusiastic questions, the students appeared grateful.

"It's something that they don't realize happened in their own backyard," Teacher Marisa Vanasse said about the students experiencing the Underground Railroad closet first-hand. "This allows them to get a feel for what homes looked like, how it was constructed and to put things in perspective."