Hot on the trail of history
Question: How do you get kids interested in history?
Answer: You turn them into detectives.
At least that's what Vince Shivers, a local historian, and Penny Wells, a teacher at Volney Rogers Junior High School, did.
Jasamine Driskell, Taylor Daugherty, Rabab Al-sharif, Danielle Rudloff and Kiara Stubbs might have spent the whole summer hanging out with their pals. Instead, they searched through old deeds, yellowing documents, maps, obituaries, and even love letters, sometimes with Shivers' 12-year-old daughter Lea, in an effort to solve a Mahoning Valley mystery: Was the house on McCollum Drive once an Underground Railroad stop?
Rumors say it is. It's in the right place -- along the historic slave escape route -- and it seems to be the right age, but how do you prove it?
The project started with Benjamin McGee, former Youngstown superintendent of schools, who contacted Shivers almost two years ago. "He wanted to develop hands-on learning," Wells said. "The idea was to get a teacher and a Youngstown historian working together."
It wasn't until June that planning developed enough to get students involved. Ultimately, the venture will provide a service to the community by investigating its history and to the students who will receive a half credit and some training in historical research.
Though the current volunteers are Volney, Chaney High School and Ursuline High School students, the project is open to others.
Much of the hunting took place in the Mahoning County Courthouse, where the investigators looked at old deeds and tried to make connections between a known abolitionist, Joshua Kyle, and the McCollum House. Other research was done in the cramped quarters of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society library behind the Arms Museum on Wick Avenue, where the students encountered an old love letter.
The clues really started piling up, though, when they went to the Homes Cemetery, nearby their subject home. They discovered it was once called the Kyle Cemetery. They also discovered Joshua Kyle had built the house they were investigating. Some names on tombstones led to other detective work.
"What's interesting is how all the names in the cemetery connect," Jasamine said.
"It gets more exciting the more we find out," Rabab added.
Fueling their interest was a chance encounter Wells had with a parishioner in her church. "He said he had been a meter reader and that there is an underground passage leading from the house," she said.
This brought them to the door of the Rev. Philip and Dr. Sylvia Imler, who've owned the historic stone house for almost a dozen years. With the assistance of the Imlers and their son Jonathan, an architecture major at Ohio State University, the detectives saw the enormous original fireplace in a beautifully decorated room.
More importantly, they went into the cellar and saw a stone wall that had a place where bricks sealed a hole. Could it have been the entrance to a tunnel?
Maybe. But, these detectives are skeptical. Said Shivers, "As remote as this house is, it's questionable it would even need a tunnel." Still ...
The group started out hoping they might verify the home as an Underground Railroad stop, but have already discovered "it is the oldest home in Youngstown still standing on its original spot," Danielle said. This should be enough to get it named to the National Register of Historic Places.
"It could still go either way," Shivers said referring to whether they'll affirm the house was really an Underground Railroad stop. Shivers knows these mysteries can take years to solve, but he's optimistic. "I think they're on a hot trail. Now, they're [researching] people in contact with abolitionists."
The students originally came on board because they are fans of Wells, but a funny thing has happened along the way. They've become fans of history.
"Youngstown doesn't appreciate its history," Taylor said. "It's so sad; we could have found out so much more if so many things hadn't been torn down."
She added, "I've never been that interested in history." But this, she said, is "cool."