WRITER | MIKAYLA BALK
PHOTO | SCHOOLCRAFT HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Hidden gems of history are scattered throughout the small towns of Michigan. Nestled in Schoolcraft is the Dr. Nathan Thomas House, a vitally important part of the Underground Railroad. On the National Register of Historic Places since 1982, the home is now a museum to educate people about abolitionists and the Thomas family’s contributions to that effort.
The Thomas House was a station along a route known as the Quaker Line, which ran north from the Ohio River through Indiana and southwest Michigan to Detroit and, finally, Canada, where slavery had been made illegal. Just across the Canadian border, former slaves founded a settlement where they could make a life for themselves. Between 1840 and 1860, over 1,000 fugitives are thought to have passed through the Thomas house.
Dr. Nathan Thomas was a practicing physician and vocal abolitionist in a Quaker community known for its activism against slavery, so it is no surprise that he was asked to help with the Underground Railroad. Though his house was quite full with four children of his own, those in need were always welcomed. It can be presumed that his medical expertise was a great help to those he sheltered, as any number of injuries and illnesses were sustained walking on foot the many miles north. His wife, Pamela Brown Thomas, made sure the visitors were warm and fed, cooking homemade meals and arranging a place to sleep.
In this area, the typical means for transporting fugitives was by wagon, where they were hidden in straw. The wagons were brought north to the Thomas residence from Cass County by fellow Quaker Zachariah Shugart and sent on to Erastus Hussey in Battle Creek. There were many subtle signals to indicate that the Thomas house was safe for a delivery. While Pamela Thomas’s memoirs reveal no specific method, the current keepers of the property always keep a candle in the window as an homage to the abolitionists and escaped slaves.
Built in 1835, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the house was recognized as a historical site. Nancy Rafferty tells how she was biking past the house one day with friends when it occurred to them they should make it a historical landmark. They met in the basement of a bank, made some calls, and formed the Schoolcraft Historical Society. Money was raised through donations from community businesses and organizations, and the project was on its way.
Once purchased, the house underwent renovations for preservation and upkeep. The walls, flooring, and shingles had to be redone, and a wing that had been removed was restored. The two-story home has seven rooms, including the doctor’s office, though it is no longer in its original location. Dr. Thomas himself moved it several blocks in the late 1860s in order to build a new home on the site. The society has managed to acquire several original possessions, including Dr. Thomas’ books and medical records, and the rooms are arranged as they are thought to have looked in the 1840s. The attic crawlspace, still present, was used to hide in the event that slave patrols raided the place. There was never an issue, however; the family was never caught harboring fugitives.
The Thomas family’s contributions were of long standing and undoubtedly led to generations of Black Americans’ health and success. A young man once returned to share his thanks and tell how he had discovered that several fellow soldiers in his troop had also passed through the house. Thomas family descendants have not forgotten their ties to the Underground Railroad. In her old age, Nathan and Pamela’s great-granddaughter came to see the renovated house and was very moved.
Schoolcraft residents are proud to have an emblem of slavery resistance in their town. The local school has an annual third grade trip to the museum, where children learn about the history of the residence and combined efforts of those involved to free slaves.
Tours are open to the public by appointment. Contact the Schoolcraft Historical Society to make a reservation. Tickets are just $4 for adults and $2 for students.
A trip to the house is well worth the effort. The immersive experience provides a unique education you can’t get elsewhere.
Nathan Thomas House
613 E Cass Street, Schoolcraft MI 49087