By Sharon Lakey, Director of the Danville Historical Society
Mary Prior was in the Diamond Hill Store, and a man walked in with a tee-shirt proclaiming he was a member of the Thaddeus Stevens Society. Mary, who had been tracking down what she called the “Thaddeus Stevens Trail” for the Danville Historical Society, introduced herself. They had a nice conversation about Danville being his birthplace.
She had already driven a reporter from Burlington’s Seven Days and Howard Coffin around the area, showing them where she thought his birthplace might be. Later, she directed an auto tour with several members of the Society to points of interest in Danville and Peacham to share what she had uncovered. So it was of interest to us last June when Ross Hetrick (the man wearing the tee-shirt) called and introduced himself as the President of the Thaddeus Stevens Society. He wanted to drive to Danville from his home in Pennsylvania with intentions of putting together a video of Thaddeus’s birthplace. With Mary’s preparation, we felt ready for the event. One fine morning we met at the Historical House, ready to follow the footsteps of our most illustrious native son.
Our first stop was on Penny Lane in Danville Center where Thaddeus was born to Joshua and Sally Morrill Stevens. The roads have changed since the family resided there in the late 1700’s, so it is difficult to place the exact place of his birth. But it was known to area residents that the Steven’s place was somewhere near their road. Betty Carr Calkins, who grew up on the road as we know it, remembers her family speaking of the “Stevens” place.
Mary had asked Penny Lane resident and avid horsewoman for help in locating a cellar hole in the approximate area. With consent of the landowners where the house suspected to be, Ann Halstead has been searching the area for several years. She has come upon only one promising cellar hole. Knowing we were coming, Ann flagged the route to the old cellar hole; it was quite a hike in, and it was June—black flies. But when we finally stood in the area, noting the rock wall and large trees, erratic stone foundation and old apple trees, we thought it was possible. We’ll have to do more deed investigation and hopefully a search for artifacts to date the cellar hole.
After the hike, we travelled to Greenbank’s Hollow where Sally took her children after Joshua abandoned the family. She went to stay for awhile with her brother, E.R. Morrill. His home is just another cellar hole now, but it is noted on the Greenbank’s Hollow map. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at the old mill site by the water before we hustling to Peacham to make our appointment with Lorna Quimby, curator of the Peacham Historical Society.
Lorna was a wealth of information about Thaddeus, who was schooled at the Caledonia County Grammar School, the only free public education available in the area at that time. She was determined that her children would be educated. (At a later date, Lorna would share information from school records showing that Thaddeus had at one time been censured for his behavior in school. Ah, Thaddeus, always a free thinker, but an apologetic one, too.)
Lorna then took us to the house where the family lived while Thaddeus was in school. It is a small cape on the East Peacham road that is some distance and downhill from the village. It is believed that the family was allowed to live there as Sally kept house for the owners. For a young man with a disability, the daily walk to school would have been an endeavor, taking much physical endurance.
The original site of the school is at the Peacham cemetery, which is noted on a monument there, but we took the time to see the grave of his mother. Sally’s body lies in a peaceful fenced plot in which flowers are planted at all four corners. Lorna explained, “Thaddeus left money for cemetery upkeep, but made the stipulation that it could be used only if there were flowers planted on his mother’s grave every spring.” Needless to say, that task is always done. “He knew what he was doing,” said Lorna.
On the way back to Danville, we drove the Thaddeus Stevens road and took a moment to enjoy the view from the house that Thaddeus bought for his mother and brother. It is on a hill that looks over the beautiful hills of Peacham. It was a farm with big barn. Lorna had explained at the cemetery that Thaddeus always felt guilty about his mother’s death. He had purchased cows for her, and one winter morning, Sally fell while caring for them and had died shortly after.
It was late afternoon when we arrived back in Danville. We were tired, but it had been a good time tracking our native son. Later, Ross sent us the link to his video, which you can access via our website as well as a photo album of some of the places we stopped on our trail. Our website address is danvillevthistorical.org. Ross will be the main speaker at the unveiling of the Thaddeus Stevens portrait on October 30. He is an energetic proponent for Thaddeus. We hope you will join us!
For a photo album of the tour, click here.
For a video created by Ross Hetrick of the tour, click here.