Genevieve Eicher explains a quilting code that was used to pass information on to runaway slaves. The wavy lines represent Lake Erie while the two chimneys are Sandusky and Toledo.
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NAPOLEON, Ohio - When Genevieve Eicher was a little girl, her foster mother would tell her stories, parables about Good Samaritans helping desperate people in trouble.
They weren't fairy tales.
Alice Tubbs Motter was telling her daughter stories from her own past, when as a girl her parents told her the stories about how they helped escaped slaves reach freedom in the north or in Canada. They were part of the Underground Railroad, a secret network that would help slaves hide and give them the food, clothes, and courage they needed to be free.
Mrs. Eicher is 80 now. She has notebooks filled with typewritten accounts she started collecting when she was 13 years old, stories her mother and other descendants of the Underground Railroad network would tell her.
"They didn't want me to tell these stories while they were alive. I think they still thought they could get in trouble, lose their land," Mrs. Eicher said. "My mother said there would be a time when I would have a need for these stories. And that time has come."
It was a federal crime to harbor escaped slaves, and people who did could be arrested and lose their land.
Mrs. Eicher, who is the northwest Ohio coordinator for the Ohio Underground Railroad Association, said she hopes to write a book from the tales she keeps in binders. If she does not finish that book, she wants her children to take on the task.
Henry County, where Mrs. Eicher lives, has at least 43 sites that were linked to the Underground Railroad.
They are churches, homes, and barns where slaves were welcomed and housed before being sent on their way to what they hoped would be a better life. Mrs. Eicher talks about these sites to historical societies and school groups.
"I do it because I like it," said the retired teacher. "I guess it's a story to tell."
The stories are not the only thing she uses to explain what life was like in the 1800s. Mrs. Eicher has her grandmother's quilt. In each block is stitched a sample pattern that was used to make warning quilts to alert slaves to information or danger.
Red patterns meant it was not safe to approach the area. Squiggly patterns indicated water in the swamp land. Arrows pointed to freedom trails through Toledo or Sandusky.
Every conversation is carefully documented in typewritten pages. In 1937, when she was 13, Mrs. Eicher asked her mother who was involved in the Underground Railroad.
"The most unexpected persons. They were good church members, honest citizens, often important in the community," her mother replied.
Mrs. Eicher said she has an advantage by hearing the stories directly from the descendants of people who helped in the Underground Railroad, friends and family of her foster parents. That was possible because Mrs. Eicher's parents adopted her when they were in their 50s, meaning they were born in the 1800s.
Beverly Gray, vice president of the Ohio Underground Railroad Association, said she is grateful for the accounts.
"She was a real find," she said.
Mrs. Eicher's grandson helps her with the Underground Railroad research, according to her daughter Lee Ann Eicher. She remembers hearing all the stories from her mother and grandmother as a child. "When we went places, we got a history lesson," she said. "We grew up understanding that everyone had human rights. I know who's buried where and which part of a building was a station. It's my wonderful heritage."
Mrs. Eicher said helpers on the Underground Railroad in northwest Ohio were not in grave danger because the mood was largely anti-slavery and people were willing to look the other way. Still, many were afraid to let their stories get out until they died.
"Some ran their stations for 30 years; others were only around for a year or two. There are very few structures standing. We want to tell their stories so nobody forgets," she said.