During the 1850s, while the good people of the village slept, others were stirring along the old plank road -- an occasional run-away slave being passed from station to station along this route of the Underground Railroad.
More tangible evidence of the Underground Railroad's existence in this area is seven miles north of Camden. In the basement of a farmhouse once owned by the prominent Elihu Gifford Family , there is the 8-by-8-foot hole in which Elihu Gifford and his wife, Diana, are said to have helped blacks hide. Both Mr. and Mrs. Gifford had grown up in Peterboro. They bought land on Florence Hill from Gerrit Smith in 1820 and in 1835 they moved out to the main road.
In time, it was whispered that sometimes they entertained guests: fugitive slaves being spirited along the way to Canada and freedom. A chamber about 8 feet square had been hollowed out under the cellar door to use as a hiding place in emergencies. Entrance was gained by a short ladder through a hole in the floor. Nobody knows how many fugitives they befriended over the years since the facts were cloaked in secrecy at first and embellished by folklore later.
In later years, “Aunt Gene,” a granddaughter of Elihu II born in 1854, would speak of the secrecy whenever there were any people in the cellar. She does remember how a little boy fell ill and was left behind as his parents resumed their flight towards freedom. He became a favorite with the family but later died of a childhood disease.
The Gifford Family went to a lot of trouble to build such an elaborate hiding hole. Years later an older resident would point out the Gifford house as a station on the Underground Railroad. In this vicinity there were also stations in the villages of Mexico and Taberg and Lee. The original house burned and was rebuilt in 1938. Elilhu devised a stratagem for helping the slaves on their journey. A trip to the grist mill in Williamstown ( being farther up the valley towards Canada ) would become necessary. The grain would be arranged on the wagon in such a way that a false bottom provided concealment for desperate freedom-seekers.
Fugitives were usually relayed to Canastota, forwarded on the canal to Oswego, where passage across the lake was arranged for them on merchant schooners. When the presence of marshals and bounty hunters made this route too risky, slower overland routes were used. One alternative route was to go north to the St. Lawrence River and cross the border into Canada.