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Neilburg artifacts return to underground railroad station

It seems odd that items once belonging to a Massachusetts surgeon and vet would be found in Neilburg, but they landed in the hands of a resident who understood their value.

NEILBURG — There comes a time in many people’s lives when they are left with the job of clearing out a relative’s home. “What to do with all of these things?” becomes the question.

If you’ve grown up knowing the person whose house you’re clearing, you likely know the stories that go with many items. Knowing those stories leaves you with the responsibility of finding the proper homes for cherished heirlooms.

Bob Walde of Neilburg was blessed with such a task. Maybe more than once.

Being a history buff, Walde was aware of the history of many family artifacts. When he watched a documentary about the Underground Railroad (UGRR) he recognized a name. He quickly realized there was a home for many of his family artifacts. He found their website and reached out, saying he had some items that once belonged to Dr. Isaac Fiske.

It seems odd that items once belonging to a homoeopathic surgeon and veterinarian who lived in Fall River, Massachusetts, would be found in Neilburg, yet there they were. Thankfully, they landed in good hands with Walde.

During the time the Fiske family lived in Fall River, the Fiske House at 263 - Pine St. (formerly 49 - Pine St.) was known to be a station of the UGRR.

A Quaker, Fiske was opposed to slavery and he lived his beliefs. He hosted abolitionist meetings in his home and formerly enslaved people as they sought their way to freedom in the northeastern United States or Canada. One of those people was believed to be the famous Henry “Box” Brown.

Massachusetts had been free of slavery since 1783, yet there were still those who included enslaved people in their inventories for 23 years after that.

Even though slavery was no longer allowed, a law had been passed to allow enslaved people to be returned to their owners. This meant people were hunting for freedom seekers which made harbouring them a dangerous business.

The UGRR is an important part of American history as slavery was one of the issues that led to the American Civil War that lasted from 1861 to 1865.

Because of the dangers involved in helping enslaved people, UGRR stations were not usually well known. In the case of Dr. Fiske’s house, there is proof that it was one such station. Proof was provided by newspaper articles about abolitionist meetings held at the Fiske House. Further proof was provided by a letter written in 1927 by Anna Fisk Harding, Dr. Fiske’s daughter.

That letter describes events that happened during her childhood in Fall River. She includes memories of her parent hosting abolitionists like C.C. Burleigh, Lewis Ford and William Lloyd Garrison, early suffragist, Lucy Stone Blackwell and freedom seeker, Henry “Box” Brown.

Dr. Fiske had died before his daughter, Anna, married Harry Harding and moved to Nova Scotia, taking her mother with her. Many items belonging to Dr. Fiske went with them as well.

After much success as a lawyer in Truro, Harding decided to give away most of his holdings and move west to Stettler, Alta., along with his wife, children and mother-in-law. He felt he might be able to do some good there. Among the items that came with them were many items that had belonged to Dr. Fiske.

It was during this time that Anna Fiske Harding wrote a letter to her children and grandchildren to let them know about her early life. 

Henry Harding, Harry and Anna’s son, served in the Boer War (1899-1902). After being shell-shocked, he returned to Canada and decided to live with his cousin, Max Campbell in Neilburg. He brought his share of his grandfather’s estate with him and much of it stayed in Campbell’s house.

Max Campbell was Bob Walde’s grandfather and that’s how Walde ended up with many of these valued artifacts. After checking with many family members, he found they agreed that having these artifacts in a museum dedicated to Dr. Fiske and the Underground Railroad would be the best place for them. The restored Fiske House in Fall River seemed to be the best location to preserve these historically significant items.

The moment he reached out to the Preservation Society of Fall River (PSFR) the volunteer board members became excited about being offered the valued heirlooms that had come into Walde’s possession. The more Walde told them about it, the more excited they became. The only difficulty was how to return these items to their original home.

As a small organization with a volunteer board, PSFR does not have a lot of money at its disposal. They have benefitted from the Fiske House having been recognized as an Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site by the American National Park Service. It is one of six UGRR Stations known to exist in Fall River and will be developed into the only museum dedicated to the UGRR in the region open to the general public.

They also have been given some grants from the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act to preserve the property. Still, there was no money to safely ship irreplaceable items that Walde was willing to donate to them.

Walde was prepared to ship these items to Fall River, but the board agreed that they were too precious to risk shipping. As an organization with little funding, there wasn’t much hope of retrieving these items.

Then, Alex Silva, one of their volunteer board members, stepped up.

On Aug. 31,  after flying to Montana, he drove to Neilburg. That evening and the next day, Silva and Walde carefully packed the priceless articles once used by Dr. Fiske. Then Silva set off on the 36-hour drive back to Fall River.

Among the items packed carefully in his rented car were two medical scales; a mortar and pestle; daguerreotypes (glass photos); books, many of which had Dr. Fiske’s name stamped or written in them; a portrait that is believed to be a likeness of Anna Robinson Fiske’s father; and various other items.

These items will find a permanent home in the Fiske House in Fall River. The PSFR now owns the Fiske House and has begun the restoration process. They bought the property in 2018 so they could keep the property from degrading further and one day open a museum.

They hope to restore the property to its former appearance while accommodating the seven apartments it holds. The first project was to add appropriate heating and air conditioning in the building so there would be better energy efficiency and there would be no air conditioners hanging out of the windows.

Next, the front portico was restored and all the front windows were replaced along with historical working shutters. Then the roof was redone to look as much as possible like the original roof, or at least how it might have looked originally.

They are doing all of this respecting the historical character of the home. The basement has been reserved for the museum and now the museum has several items that were in the home when Dr. Fiske and his family lived there and were active in promoting abolition and hiding freedom seekers.

With people like Bob Walde, Alex Silva and board members and volunteers of various historical societies, museums and others, items that tell us about history will continue to be found and placed where they should be.

So, if you have the opportunity to clear out a relative’s home, be aware of the items in that home and what they might mean. You may find gems that are priceless in telling our history.

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