RIPLEY, Ohio – If you traveled down Front Street along the Ohio River in Ripley 30 years ago, you might have seen a dilapidated two-story house with broken windows and crumbling brickwork.
But a small group of local residents saw much more than a deteriorating shack that should be placed on the chopping block. Instead, they saw an important piece of American history that needed to be saved. Because this building was John P. Parker’s house. Parker, once a slave, bought his freedom and became an inventor, industrialist and abolitionist who helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Not only was he one of the few blacks to patent an invention before 1900 (which included the John P. Parker harrow and tobacco press), but he was one of the main conductors of the Underground Railroad, helping the slaves to cross Ohio from Kentucky. while living on Front Street in Ripley.
A group of interested citizens of Ripley began meeting in the 1960s in hopes of having a tribute to John P. Parker. In 1996, the John P. Parker Historical Society, Inc. was formed, purchasing John P. Parker’s former home in its deteriorated condition in hopes that the building could be restored.
Among the driving forces as a volunteer board member was the late Mirian Zachman of Ripley. Carol Stivers, current president of the John P. Parker Historical Society, also played a huge role in the quest to restore Parker House and preserve an important part of Ripley’s history, as did resident Betty Campbell. of Ripley and local historian.
But not everyone interested in restoring the Parker House was from Ripley. Charles Nuckolls of Cincinnati read an article written by an Ohio Historical Society intern on Ripley’s history of the Underground Railroad, which sparked his interest in the life of John P. Parker and his home in Ripley . It was March 29, 1993 when Nuckolls visited Ripley to see the Parker House.
“I didn’t think he could be saved,” Nuckolls said, recalling his visit to John P. Parker’s former home.
It was in the 1990s when Nuckolls met the local group interested in saving the Parker House outside the Union Township Public Library in Ripley. After meeting the dedicated band members and hearing about their plans, Nuckolls said, “I’m here for the long haul.”
Nuckolls has joined the Board of Trustees and nearly three decades after his first visit to the Parker House at Ripley, he continues his efforts as a volunteer to help preserve and promote this part of Ripley’s history.
“Thirty years later and I’m still with her,” Nuckolls said.
After the formation of the John P. Parker Historical Society, Inc. in 1996 and the purchase of the Parker House, much work came for the volunteer group in the years that followed.
“Our organization spent the next six years researching, restoring, rehabilitating and conducting archaeological digs to uncover as much history as possible in order to preserve John P. Parker’s legacy,” Stivers said.
“We wouldn’t be responsible stewards of our landmark if we didn’t preserve it,” Nuckolls said.
The organization has even conducted research on the John. P. Parker’s family tree, and although it wasn’t easy, the group was able to track down the only living descendant of John Parker that they could find. Their search for a living member of John P. Parker’s family led them to Dianne Tweedle, a real estate agent in Chicago. Tweedle said John P. Parker was her grandfather’s grandfather, but she didn’t know until the John P. Parker Society found her.
Tweedle said Nuckolls located her, but she had no idea she was a descendant of John. P. Parker.
“He found out and told me, and for a while I didn’t believe it,” Tweedle said.
After listening to Nuckolls, Tweedle was able to fill in the empty pieces of the puzzle from his family’s past.
“My family was very secretive about the slave story. My family didn’t want us to know,” Tweedle said.
Tweedle said her family spoke of the success and achievements in raising past generations, and that occasionally when she immersed herself in conversations as a young girl, Tweedle could recall her grand- father and other family members spoke of John Parker as an educated and successful inventor. , but nothing about him being a slave who bought his freedom and lived a successful life as a freeman in the small town of Ripley.
“I remember being told little things about John Parker,” said Tweedle, who is now 83. “These are stories that were casually dropped, that John Parker had six kids who went to college. I was told that.”
Tweedle had a good relationship with her grandfather, who she thought must have been a lot like Parker.
“My grandfather, I think, looked a lot like John Parker. He was pushy and dominating, and he didn’t give in to anyone,” she said.
The John P. Parker Historical Society arranged a visit for Tweedle to Ripley to see the house the group intended to restore in the 1990s, bringing to light some of his family’s history that seemed to have been hidden for so many years.
“They sent for me, they paid for my flight to Cincinnati, and I left,” Tweedle said.
It was an emotional visit to Ripley, to say the least.
“I was so happy I wanted to scream. I thought, ‘I can’t believe they’ve been doing this for years, caring for John Parker’s memory,’ Tweedle said. when reminiscing about his first visit to the Parker House in Ripley, “They are strangers to me, and they are wonderful people who have done wonderful things. I feel I owe them. They have been incredibly dedicated. I am overwhelmed by what they have done for my family.
Tweedle visited Ripley twice and also visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
“I was practically an old lady when I found out my grandfather’s grandfather was a slave who had bought his freedom,” she said.
“John Parker brought the whole family out of slavery, and I think he died happy,” she said. “He was inventing and helping slaves escape across the Ohio River. I stayed on the banks of this river for a very long time, thinking about what my family had done.
“It was quite an experience.”
The John P. Parker Society Inc. received a lot of support to help restore the Parker House, which is now a museum.
Current members of John Parker’s Board of Directors are Druann Kendrick, Michael Mussinan, Charles Nuckolls, Roberta Platt, Danny Price, Susan Redman-Rengstorf., Wanda Taylor-Smith, Carol Stivers and Peggy Mills Warner.
One thing is certain, the Parker House has come a long way from that dilapidated old building it was 30 years ago.
“At first we had limited displays, but every year since then we have added and improved our displays. We now have very nice showcases for visitors. Each year we have sponsored a free summer history camp for students in grades 3-5. In 2007 there was an opera written and produced in Cincinnati called ‘Rise to Freedom’ about the life of John Parker,” Stivers said. “After the Independent Warehouse fire (near Front Street in Ripley), we purchased that land next door and in 2012 we dedicated Parker Memorial Park, which features stations that tell of the life and times of John Parker.This year alone, we dedicated the Phoenix Foundry Display Center, a area that houses some of the iron wares made by Parker in his foundry.
“We typically welcome several thousand visitors from across the United States and several other countries to our site each year. However, the pandemic has reduced that number of visitors in 2020 and 2021. Parker House has a wonderful docent that tells visitors about the life and times of John P. Parker,” Stivers said.
The museum is open from May to October on Fridays, Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. All other times are by appointment.
The John P. Parker Historical Society is now a member of the National Park Service Network to Freedom Program, and Parker House has been a National Historic Landmark since 1967.
The John P. Parker Historical Society hopes that in the near future it will be approved as a unit of the National Park Service.
“The reason we would like to become a unit of the National Park Service is to give John P. Parker the recognition he deserves. By becoming a unit of the National Park Service, we could ensure that John Parker’s legacy and home would be promoted and protected for generations to come,” Stivers said.
“It can be done in a number of ways,” Stivers said of his endorsement as a National Park Service unit. “We can have a bill introduced by our US representatives in the House of Representatives for a National Park Service resource study. If passed, this bill is then sent to the Senate. after being returned to committee, it returns to the House of Representatives to be put to a vote again. It’s a long process. We worked on this route. However, the quickest way is to have the President of the United States use his presidential powers to declare the John P. Parker House a national monument. Getting the president to do that also takes a lot of effort. The Parker organization is currently working both ways to become a unit of the National Park Service. We urge all interested individuals and organizations to contribute to this process by writing letters of support for Parker House to become a unit of the National Park Service to the President of the United States or members of Congress.
For Nuckolls, the decades of volunteer work to help save the Parker home and keep the memory of John P. Parker alive was worth it.
“It was an enjoyable adventure,” he said.