TABOR, Iowa – When Reverend John Todd started building his home in Tabor 169 years ago he was on a mission. That mission was to work to abolish slavery while spreading the word of God on the frontier that was southwest Iowa in the 1850s. Todd and the other founders of Tabor, all graduates of Oberlin College in Ohio, believed slavery was evil and were willing to make sacrifices to fight it. Within a few short years Tabor became known as a safe haven for runaway slaves, for John Brown and his militia between skirmishes in Bleeding Kansas, and for Free State settlers headed for the Kansas Territory.
Now the modest house is a symbol of the Underground Railroad, one of only four structures remaining in Iowa where escaping slaves could find help on their journey north to freedom. The Tabor Historical Society’s Archivist, Harry Wilkins, talks us through some of the key points and players in those years leading up the the Civil War and how Tabor and that small group of Oberlin College abolitionists risked their own freedom to help others.
“The important thing about Oberlin is it was one of the first colleges or universities in the United States that accepted women and people of color,” says Wilkins. Todd – along with the George Belcher Gaston and Samuel H. Adams – moved to Iowa and built homes with whatever was available to them. In the case of the Todd House, that was a foundation of mud brick framed with oak because there were no pine trees — and trees with the bark still on them used as floor joists.
Those bark-covered supports provided cover for weapons abolitionist John Brown stored in Tabor before his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown also brought wounded men to Tabor where they rested and trained in the town square, now a park across the street from Todd house.
Wilkins points out the runaways seldom stayed in Tabor for long, often just a matter hours before being helped on to the next safe place. This was because bounty hunters were often close behind and those bounty hunters had the law, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, on their side. Those in Tabor helping the runaways were in fact breaking the law and building a legacy residents are still proud of today.
Tabor College opened in 1866 and for 61 years accepted students, women and people of color in the fashion of Oberlin College from around the world. Oberlin is still going strong with an enrollment of just under 3,000 students and a new cause: climate change.
The Todd House is open for tours, by appointment, through the Tabor Historical Society.