After my mother died, I was going through some of her things. In a basket from Lillian Vernon, along with a few other odds and ends I found a tiny glass mug.
Inside was a small card, covered in my father's mother's careful script, explaining that the mug had been used by her grandfather, Benjamin Ramage, to measure cinnamon drops in his store. She explained that farmers sometimes brought wool to barter for the things he sold. Runaway slaves sometimes hid in the wagons full of wool.
Benjamin Ramage hid those slaves on his property until they could make their way further north. His daughter, Martha, my great-grandmother, brought them food and other necessities. No one was going to question a little girl.
I wish I had more than the bare bones of that story.
Some of the innumerable descendants of Benjamin Ramage have told me that he was a Methodist elder who loved jokes. If he heard a good one he laughed until he cried. I do the same thing. I knew I got it from my father. Now I know who he got it from.
I have pictures of Benjamin and Martha, not quite smiling. Nineteenth-century people always look very solemn in their photographs. They wanted to look dignified in those days, rather than cheerful. That and it was hard to hold a smile for the time it took for a camera back then to capture a likeness.
Benjamin and Martha were descended from one Guillaume Ramage, a Protestant who left France with his father and brothers in 1715. Like thousands of their fellow Huguenots, they crossed the English Channel seeking a place where they could pray as they liked.
A century later, a descendant left Ballykelly, Ireland, for the nation where "Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" -- even if you were one of those radical Methodists.
Considering that family history, it's no big surprise that during the slave era Benjamin Ramage was a friend to the persecuted. What is a surprise is that anyone would spend time in a wagon full of wool. I have friends who are hand spinners. Any of them will tell you that raw wool is a toxic substance.
Sheep spend most of their time outdoors, so raw wool is dirty. It can carry all kinds of bacilli, including anthrax. It smells. It's greasy. The lanolin in hand lotion comes from the fat on wool from sheep.
You would have to be pretty desperate to hide in a load of the stuff. If you were someone else's property, you might just be that desperate.
There are plenty of stories of men and women who took terrible risks to make their way to freedom. A man named Henry Brown shut himself into a box and had himself shipped to a Northern city. It took a couple of days. It was quite an ordeal. Afterward he used the name Henry Box Brown, in commemoration of his journey to freedom.
Nobody left a memoir of their ride in a wagon full of wool. I don't blame them. It isn't something I'd want to think about, either.
Benjamin Ramage lived to see the Civil War, and then the 13th amendment outlawing slavery. He died of a stroke in 1866, but thanks in part to his interest in the new petroleum industry, he left his large family well provided for.
His daughter, my great-grandmother, came to Pittsburgh to attend what was once called The Pennsylvania Female College. (When my mother went there it was called the Pennsylvania College for Women. When it was my and my sister's safety school, it was Chatham College. These days it's Chatham University.)
Martha's husband, a printer, was not a college graduate, but her two daughters and a son were. My grandmother was sent to Case Western in Ohio (quite probably to get her away from that Martin boy -- it didn't work).
My father's mother died before my parents met. I never knew her. Sometime before she died, though, she went through the collection of family memorabilia and left these small notes explaining what was whose, and what those ancestors like Benjamin Ramage did.
When she moved to an apartment after Dad died, Mom gave away a trunk full of old family clothing, but she kept the little glass mug for me to find one day.
A wonderful legacy. Who knew that such a small thing, once used to measure candy, could hold such a large piece of the past?
Jean Martin of Swissvale can be reached at email@example.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Storytelling" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein: 412-263-1255. First Published May 1, 2013 4:00 AM