Elizabeth and Helen Blake-McDowell

The war between the Confederacy (the pro-slavery South), and the Union (the anti-slavery North) would decide the structure of our national government, and whether a nation built on liberty and equal rights could remain the largest slaveholding country in the world.
Naturally, the Sectionalist time period challenged our national government to redefine its political, social and economic policies. These complicated times gave rise to the Underground Railroad, part of which went through Medina. The Underground Railroad possessed many dangers, not only for the slaves travelling on it, but for the stationmasters (the people running the safe houses), conductors (the people moving the slaves), and anyone in any way associated with it. Prison, whipping, or even hanging could be used as a punishment for whites caught aiding runaway slaves. And the punishments for Blacks were even worse.
U.S House member, Harrison Gray Blake, the owner of one of the designated safe houses in Medina’s Underground Railroad, and Elizabeth Bell had two children, Elizabeth and Helen Blake-McDowell, who grew up during the Civil War era. Harrison Gray Blake was a prominent man in Medina, and because of his strong leadership and compassionate nature he represented the citizens of Medina and even of Ohio. However, not all people of Ohio believed in abolition, meaning that Blake had to keep his activities in the Underground Railroad a secret, he was balancing two ways of life, a difficult task for anyone. Because of the travelers on the Underground Railroad, Elizabeth’s knowledge, their parent’s strong abolitionist views, and Blake’s need for secrecy the girls’ stayed home from school, though they had a strong and intelligent head of the house to guide them.
Having lived through the Sectionalist time period, each girl married a veteran, had kids, and found a way to settle down and lead a simple life in the tumultuous time of Reconstruction. Growing up in an Underground Railroad station must have helped the girls’ in later life. They would have grown up with a strong sense of equality, and an obligation to help people in need. They would have learned how to be resourceful and to trust their judgement and their sense of right and wrong. The hardships they experienced made them even more prepared for later life and taught them ageless values.

Images

Civil War News in Medina

Civil War News in Medina

This blurb from a book chronicling the Medina newspaper after the Civil War, showing how thick the tension between the North and the South were, or, at the very least, how critical they were of each other. Elizabeth once recalled a story of seeing a man in congress state his case as to why the South should succeed. After he was done, she hung around and found him looking mournful, like he was regretting that particular decision. Despite the major differences, the South and the North really were brothers, even if they didn't show it. Image courtesy of the Medina Library and the book "Medina After the Civil War." View File Details Page

Elizabeth's Journal

Elizabeth's Journal

From a young age, Elizabeth was into the anti-slavery movement. She kept a journal, which she used differently than diaries are now, filled with abolitionist poems. She was introduced to an anti-slavery viewpoint due to H.G. Blake being her father. He once showed her and her Helen the haunting sight of a man with bad wounds on his back hiding as a part of the Underground Railroad. He and another man he'd been escaping with made it to Canada, and actually wrote the Blake family that they'd successfully escaped. Thanks to the Medina Historical Society for this picture. View File Details Page

Elizabeth Blake-McDowell

Elizabeth Blake-McDowell

Born in 1842, Elizabeth Blake-McDowell was one of the six children that the Blake family had, and one of two to make it. She was the first one to question her father as to why the food in the house kept disappearing if there were only four people. Her father informed her that their house was a part of the Underground Railroad. This was just the start of Elizabeth's adventures. Elizabeth, or "Byo," as her family called her, went on to have plenty of interesting occurrences in her life. She and her mother met President Lincoln on his way to his inauguration speech, which, while limited to two waves and two smiles, was incredibly memorable. Elizabeth married Robert M. McDowell, a Civil War veteran, who took over as the president of the Phoenix Bank after H.G. Blake passed. In her later years, Elizabeth survived a nasty tumble on her makeshift elevator. Her elevator, consisting mostly of a chair and some ropes, was being pulled by her daughter, Bessie McDowell Hewes. Bessie accidentally dropped the rope, and the elevator came crashing down to the basement... with Elizabeth in it. The family rushed downstairs to find her sitting there. The first words out of her mouth were, "I've been waiting to come down to see the basement for a long time." All in all, Elizabeth was basically the matriarch of her family. She was a very moral, upstanding women, who was interesting to talk to but could punish unruly children with the best of them. Ted McDowell once related a story that a family member always used to complain of what a pain it was to take off all of his shoes and clothes before bed. Her response was to make him sleep with all of his clothes and shoes still on. He stopped complaining. Elizabeth passed on in 1932 at the age of 89. Image courtesy of the Gazette and the Medina County Historical Society. View File Details Page

Helen Blake-McDowell

Helen Blake-McDowell

Helen, Elizabeth's younger sister, was born on January 14, 1845. She shared a few of her childhood experiences with Elizabeth, like living in a house that was a part of the Underground Railroad. Helen married Okey H. McDowell. Both of the men the sisters married served in the Civil War, and yes, they were brothers. Helen's life after her childhood was a little more simple than Elizabeth. After marrying O.H. McDowell, she had two children: Helen and Harry. Sadly, Harry died when he was still very young, leaving Helen as an only child. Helen was described as a lovely woman who loved literature and discussing politics. She was also very religious, and was a frequent attendant of the Congregational Church. She outlived her husband, and died at the age of eighty on September 4, 1925. In her own unique way, Helen was a leader. But instead of leading a group, she led as the example of a traditional life in trying times. Image courtesy of the Medina Sentinel Special thanks to the Medina Library View File Details Page

Audio

Underground Railroad House

Medina High School teacher Kate Brown interviews Gwen Quesada about a house she used to live in that was possibly a part of the Underground Railroad. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Lisa Gemmer, Mackenzie Anne, “Elizabeth and Helen Blake-McDowell,” Discover Medina, accessed May 26, 2017, http://discovermedina.org/items/show/164.

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