John W. Garfield and the Underground Railroad


Garfield house & compound historic (2)

John W. Garfield, Sr. (in wagon) at 332 Goodman’s Hill Road, Sudbury, MA (late 1800’s)


In 1889, the town of Sudbury, Massachusetts celebrated its Quarter Millennial. It was a festive affair featuring a parade of marching bands and decorated carriages, followed by speeches and evening fireworks.  Just about everyone in town was there, including my great, great grandfather, John W. Garfield, Sr. and his son, John Jr.  At one point during the festivities, John Jr. and Jonas Hunt, the Sudbury Town Clerk and Chairman of the event, engaged in a conversation about a wagon.

Across the road from the cemetery entrance stood the home of Israel How Brown, an important stop on the Underground Railroad that smuggled fugitive slaves to Canada. Hunt remembered wheelwright John Garfield  showing him Brown’s hay wagon with a secret compartment built into the bed.”  (Excerpt from Sudbury: 100 Years in the Life of a Town, by Curtis Garfield)

Why would my great grandfather have a  conversation  about a wagon – one that would have been used decades ago during the Underground Railroad to hide and carry fugitive slaves to the next stop on their journey to freedom?   Was there some connection between the  wagon spoken of on that  day and my great grandfather or perhaps my great, great grandfather? Perhaps it was part of a display. Perhaps John Jr. was showing it off because of some special connection he had to it.

What I discovered during my research on Sudbury and the Underground Railroad was that my great, great grandfather (John W. Garfield Sr.) had actually built the wagon that was the topic of discussion on that celebratory day in 1889.

The Underground Railroad was neither a railroad nor underground, but an informal, secret network of safe houses used in the United States for black slaves to escape to freedom,  most often to Canada. Between 1810-1860, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 slaves escaped via the network.  Sudbury had 4 safe houses, one of which was the home of Israel How Brown  at 71 Concord Road.  Today  the Israel How Brown House is Stop #14 on the Sudbury Historical Societies Historic House Tour.

From Boston as a centre various underground routes radiated through the surrounding region. One of these passed through Natick, Sudbury, and Fitchburg. From Natick these fugitives were conveyed to the home of Israel How Brown near the cemetery at Sudbury. Mr. Brown was a man of long experience in underground methods and had a market wagon with high sides and a false bottom, beneath which he stored his passengers on a bed of straw. He filled the space above with his produce and was ready for the long drive to Fitchburg by 3:00 in the morning. Once he was detained by officers of the law, but they were not shrewd enough to make him unload and therefore made no discoveries. Altogether Mr. Brown transported more than 100 slaves. (Natick Herald, March 1930; Letter from Percival W. Jones of Sudbury, July 27, 1935)

In the book, History of Sudbury, Massachusetts 1638-1889 by Alfred Sereno Hudson, there are several references to John Garfield including one about his wagon and the Underground Railroad.

“History of Sudbury, 1800-1850

The following are names of families who settled in the present territory of Sudbury between about the years 1800-1850.


A near ancestor of the Garfield families in Sudbury was Enoch. He was born in New Hampshire and his wife was from Lincoln. His sons, Francis and John were born in Lincoln, and went to Sudbury from Concord, the former in 1860 and the later in 1854. Francis married Sarah, daughter of Thomas B. Battles and had 4 children, Emma F, Thomas F, Henry C and William E.

John had been twice married, his first wife was Louisa Rice of Marlboro, married in 1853, and his second wife was Harriett M. Flagg of Lincoln, married in 1858.  He had two children, Mary L and John W. Francis is a farmer and John is in the grocery store business (Garfield General Store), and both reside in Sudbury Centre.”

 And another excerpt reads:

He had John Garfield build him the special wagon with the fake bottom to transport escaped slaves headed to Canada to the next station along the way …”

false bottom wagon Jamestown

False Bottom Wagon at Jamestown

Later, I discovered a letter written in 1935 by the grandson of Israel How Brown to Professor Wilbur Siebert of Ohio State University. There was no explanation as to why the letter was written – what its purpose was – but it reveals  the strong emotions of a young white boy who one day learns about a long-held family secret.

“Dear Sir:

“… I am the grandson of Israel How Brown former owner of the so-called Underground station (in Sudbury, Massachusetts)

…“He (Israel How Brown) had a market wagon with the high side fitted with a false bottom laying the Negroes on straw covering with the false bottom and loaded potatoes or other stuff on top to conceal them. More than 100 men it is said were moved (by Brown) in this manner. The most famous of these men was Frederick Douglass, the great Negro orator who came back for a visit when I was a little boy about 5 or 6 years old. He was the first black man I ever had seen. I asked my grandfather who it was and he said it was his brother. You may imagine the impression it gave me to think my grandfather having a black man for a brother – one from which I have never recovered. I lived at that time in the next house to my grandfather now halfway between. There have been six generations of the Browns living on some part of this farm and family still living here.  Please excuse my mistakes and writing. I am not very well and my hand does not go well.”

Yours Sincerely,

Percival William Jones

Frederick Douglass, a slave who escaped from Maryland to freedom in Massachusetts, is considered the most influential African American of the 19th century. The national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts, he strongly believed in equality for all – whites, blacks, females, native Americans and Chinese immigrants. Many consider Frederick Douglass to be the father of the Civil Rights Movement. He became a famous orator and wrote several books and later was the first black man nominated for Vice President. Douglass and his wife participated in the Underground Railroad, providing lodging and food in their home in New Bedford to more than 400 escaped slaves. Based on the grandson’s letter, it is likely that Douglass worked with Israel How Brown of Sudbury in helping fugitives escape to freedom. Perhaps he also knew my great, great grandfather.

According to an article dated February 2005 in the Greensboro, North Carolina Community News, there are only two false bottom wagons in existence today, one of which is on display at Jamestown Settlement in Virginia.  The other is said to be in Ohio. I wonder what happened to the wagon that my great, great grandfather, John W. Garfield, built – the one which helped hundreds of slaves who passed through Sudbury, Massachusetts find their way to freedom.

The Garfield House, 332 Goodman’s Hill Road, Sudbury, Massachusetts 1867-present


Marion Garfield Paton - Goodman Hill Rd. Sudbury, MA (2)

Marion Garfield Paton - Sudbury Place of Birth (Reverse Side)

My mother’s handwritten note on back of postcard showing her place of birth at 332 Goodman’s Hill Road

This postcard, depicting my mother’s childhood home, was most likely made sometime between 1915-1930. Three distinctive characteristics help determine its age – the divided back, the white border, and the real photo. In 1907, the United States Post Office issued Order #539 allowing postcards to have a separate space on the back  for both correspondence and the address. It became known as the “divided back period.” The white border on the front is indicative of the period between 1915 and 1930  known as the “white border period.” To save money on printing costs, manufacturers would leave a white border around the image. Throughout the “divided back” and “white border” period something called the “real photo” postcard became hugely popular. “Real Photo” postcards were first produced using the Kodak “postcard camera.” The camera used post card size film. Developed photos were then mounted on postcard backs.

Why a postcard with the image of my mother’s house was produced, I don’t know. Perhaps a local event like a parade or other celebration was the reason. Considering the popularity of  postcards during this period it could be that my grandparents, Sherrold and Jessie Garfield, had a photo postcard made for personal reasons. I found the postcard while going through my mother’s things after she had passed in 2009. By then the postcard was nearly 100 years old. The “Garfield House” as it is known today, has undergone many renovations throughout its long history. An excerpt from one of the house and barn tours of historic homes in Sudbury reads as follows:

 “The original owner of this home, John W. Garfield, Sr.  [my great, great grandfather] ran the general store in the center of town with his son-in-law, William Parmenter in the late 1800’s.  Their store stood on the site of the current Veterans Park for many years, and the second floor served as a schoolhouse.  For a short time, the schoolmaster was James A. Garfield, a distant cousin to John, who later became President of the United States.  The store was sold in the 1920’s to Henry Ford, who moved the building to his property in Marlborough; it still stands today, as the Wayside Country Store on the Boston Post Road, not far from the Wayside Inn.”- Quote from Farm & Barn Tour, Sudbury Historical Society – 2005

Garfield General Store downtown Sudbury

Garfield General Store – left with horse and sleigh in front – downtown Sudbury, MA

 Sherrold Garfield sold the house in the early 1950’s. My mother, Marion Garfield Paton and her family would be the last generation of Garfields to live there. During the last few years several of the new owners have contacted me to share their special memories of living in this historic and charming farmhouse.

01-24 Bessie, Bill, Marion Garfield

My mom (Marion Garfield Paton) in middle surrounded by Bess and Bill Garfield was the last generation of Garfields to live at 332 Goodman’s Hill Road, Sudbury, MA – circa 1925

“Thank you so much for these pictures! The one of our house with the “little house” in the front took my breath away. I’ve suspected that there was once a small house in front of ours, here first, and that it may be the one across the street, based on maps and old images I’ve seen. Proof! The photo itself is just amazing, with the horses and buggy, the ladies in their long dresses, the baby trees. Wish I still had that barn too. The photo shows a one-story room with a chimney on the right side of the big house. I wonder if that was the kitchen? Long gone and replaced by a two story addition, the chimney is also gone. Would love to know when all that happened.” – Leah Carey, former owner of the Garfield House – 2015

Garfield house & compound historic (2)

The Garfield Compound at 332 Goodman’s Hill Road – mid-1800’s

In this photo, my mother’s childhood home sits behind the little house that was moved across the street.  The barn and several other out buildings were also removed leaving just my mother’s birth home on the property.

Thank you so much for sharing these photos… It is so fun to live in a house that has so much history! How incredible that your parents were married here! It really is a special house. I truly love everything about it. I would love to hear more history that you have on the house and your family. It’s known as the Garfield House.”– Cindy Geis, current owner of the Garfield House – 2019

Most recently, I received an email from someone who had rented the house decades ago. He shared some of his special memories:

“I lived at this house in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I loved living there. The half attic had some things that I assume were from the store [Garfield General Store] – ice cream maker and wooden barrels – never used.”

“The half attic was above the utility/laundry room behind the kitchen wall where the oven is. The barrels looked almost new, wooden with metal straps. The ice cream maker parts also looked unused, 1 tin container that would have gone into a bucket of ice, one metal crank with a wood handle and two metal tops for the tin containers. The tops were cast iron with a gear on each one that matched the gear on the crank handle. The tops had embossed patent numbers on them, one had the patent date of 1891, the other 1889.” – Dave Maroni, former renter of 332 Goodman’s Hill Road – November 2019

The “store” that Dave refers to is the Garfield General Store. The ice cream equipment would have been in that attic for almost 100 years by the time Dave discovered it.

Wayside Country Store - old (3)

The Wayside Country Store circa 1930  after Ford moved it to Marlborough as part of his plan to build an historic village around the Wayside Inn.

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Wayside Country Store, formerly the Garfield General Store as it looks today, Marlborough, MA

I contacted Cindy to see if she knew anything about a “half attic.” She didn’t, but immediately went on a search throughout the house to see if there might be a hidden space, that she had no knowledge of, where historic treasures might still be stored.  She did not find the half attic.

“I’m sure the things that were in the half attic have long gone as that’s where Bill Roys added a bedroom in probably ’82-83.”– Dave Maroni

I have not given up on finding those long lost treasures once stored away in the “half attic” at 332 Goodman’s Hill Road. I hope the person who found them knew of their significance and donated them to the Sudbury Historical Society or the Wayside Inn. Perhaps they ended up in an antique shop or  tossed away. But who knows maybe they are among the many treasures still housed at the Wayside Country Store.

Wayside Country Store with Ice Cream Stand

Wayside Country Store – Ice Cream stand was later converted into a candy store

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Historic Treasures stored at the Wayside Inn – 2016

01-27 Garfield's home 2016 - 332 Goodmans Hill Road, Sudbury MA

“Garfield House” as it looks today





In Search of John W. Garfield, Jr.


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Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Sleepy Hollow in Concord, Massachusetts is considered one the most beautiful cemeteries in the United States. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was buried here, some 27 years after its completion, was instrumental in ensuring its beauty.  A member of the Concord Cemetery Committee he collaborated with landscape architects Cleveland and Copeland throughout the project until the Dedication in 1855.  A public garden for decades before becoming a cemetery, the goal was to retain the natural beauty of the landscape by incorporating headstones among winding paths, existing trees and wild plants. It was important to Emerson and the architects that the space benefit the living as well as honor those who had passed on. It succeeds in doing both.

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Winding paths cut through the park-like setting

Author’s Ridge, as it is aptly named, is a section of Sleepy Hollow. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott are all buried here. Thousands of visitors come here each year, many leaving behind various writing instruments, some gently pushed into the soil in a symbolic gesture to connect spiritually – hoping perhaps to find inspiration. Others leave feathers, stones or pine cones, even library cards and handwritten notes.

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Leaving a pencil at the grave of Henry David Thoreau

Normally I wouldn’t choose to spend a family vacation day hanging out in a cemetery. But I’d been hearing a lot about this place from other family members and I was on a mission. In our attempts to find our great grandfather’s burial place our family has made some interesting discoveries. “And don’t forget about Concord,” Aunt Bess often repeated when we would speak of family history.  At the time, her comment didn’t mean much to me. I only knew of my Garfield relatives being buried in Sudbury where most of them had lived. I filed away her advice and forgot about it.  It wasn’t until years later, while I was writing a book about my parents, that I became interested in our family history. A lot of what has been uncovered since is thanks to my niece, Kelly, who has become our family’s ancestry sleuth.

I recently learned that some of my relatives are buried among the literary giants at Sleepy Hollow, just a short walk from the famous Author’s Ridge. Sleepy Hollow is a huge place. Encompassing some 119 acres, it is easy to get lost here. Trip Advisor (which rates Sleepy Hollow at a 4.7) advises getting a map before visiting. If you do get lost, no worries, it is as described – a beautiful park. And there are many other graves here to provide hours of interest.  Among those buried here: the first woman to be issued a driver’s license; the composer of the Christmas song “The Little Drummer Boy”; the first manufacturer of pencils in the United States; the inventor of the Concord grape; Dr. Seuss; and famed sculptor Daniel Chester French, responsible for the first Minute Man Statue in Concord and the monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.

As one might expect in a town like Concord there are many soldiers buried here. And then there are just ordinary folk like members of my family – the Garfield’s. John W. Garfield, Sr.; his two wives; and a daughter who died at age 5 years and 11 months; Enoch and Frank R. Garfield and each of their 2 wives – they are all buried  here. Many other Garfield headstones dot the knoll.

Noticeably absent from our family plot is John W. Garfield Jr., my great grandfather. Why is he not buried here with the rest of the family members; or his wife, Martha Ella Sanford, mother of my Grampy Garfield, grandmother to my mom, Marion Garfield Paton, and her two siblings, Bess and Bill Garfield.   Was he for some reason ostracized from the rest of the family? He would die fairly young, at age 55. John’s wife was just 42 when he passed.  According to the town records, Martha  would remain in Sudbury for the next 15-20 years. Then we discovered her again having moved to Wakefield.

She is in the Sudbury directory in 1920, 1926, and 1930. After that, it is unclear to me where she went. I found one possible lead with a widowed Martha Garfield living in Wakefield, MA as a “servant” in 1935/40. The birth year for this Martha was right, but I hadn’t found any definitive clues to confirm it was really her or not. Until JUST NOW when I was able to dig a little more into the man for whom Martha was a “servant”- someone named Albert Cummings. He was also widowed and upon further searching I came to realize that they actually got married and she is buried with him up in Wakefield. She outlived the new guy by several (9) years as well and died at the ripe old age of 88 in 1961.” Kelly Paton Fitzgerald

According to Kelly, when you enter John W. Garfield in “Find a Grave” only John Sr. comes up as being buried at Sleepy Hollow. But just a few weeks ago Kelly uncovered  a copy of John Jr.’s death certificate which clearly states that he is buried in Concord –  exactly where that might be  remains a mystery, but there is no physical indication that he is here among those in the Garfield plot at Sleepy Hollow.

The mystery hunt for John Jr. continues!” Kelly



Gravesite of John W. Garfield Sr. and his two wives. There is no indication that John buried here

01-19 The Garfields John W. Garfield

John W. Garfield Jr. my grandfather, Sherrold, in the center, Martha Ella Sanford Garfield on right holding Sherrold’s brother, Babe