Discover Starr Clark Tin Shop and the Underground Railroad in Mexico, NY
February 22, 2021
The people and places of New York State were vital to the success of the Underground Railroad. It was the last state for many runaways before they could be truly free in Canada. It took a network of abolitionists, both black and white, risking their own lives and freedom to save others. There are thousands of stories still to be told and remembered. A few famous names are known, but there are more to learn. One such story is that of Starr Clark Tin Shop in Mexico, New York. In this small town, the tinsmith lead the abolitionist fight.
A huge thank you goes out to Jim Hotchkiss, Mayor of Mexico, and Allie Proud, President of the Mexico Historical Society, for providing a private tour of the museum and sharing the history.
The History of Starr Clark Tin Shop
Originally built in 1827 as the town mercantile, the tin shop saw a lot of change in its history of nearly 200 years. When Starr Clark and his wife Harriet came to town, the shop was transformed into a tin shop, where Starr was able to create goods that the town needed. In addition, it served as the post office, where townsfolk could send and receive their mail.
Starr Clark worked in the tin shop from 1832 until 1867. After his death, the building saw new life as a tavern and a boarding house before its eventual restoration. Starr Clark Tin Shop was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 2002. In 2010, renovations began to restore the tin shop to its original grandeur.
The tin shop now stands as a museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad and its history in Mexico, New York. Visitors to the museum today can see the original wooden floors, plank walls, and ceiling beams. The artifacts that are on display have all been donated by the community. The second floor of the building showcases other history from the town, including a unique display honoring model Audrey Munson.
Starr Clark – A Station Master on the Underground Railroad
One of the facts that I found most interesting about Starr Clark is that he received the only newspaper in town. That’s right. The entire town received exactly one newspaper. And it came all the way from Albany to Starr Clark’s Tin Shop in Mexico. Add to that the fact that many people at the time were illiterate, it is no surprise that the tin shop became the place to hang out. After all, that’s where people could learn what else was going on in the world.
Starr Clark was proud to read the newspaper to the community members who gathered in his shop. And because of his dedication to the abolition of slavery, he took great care to read the latest anti-slavery news. In fact, the tin shop was also home to the anti-slavery meetings in town. Mayor Jim Hotchkiss is proud to share Clark’s story, saying “That was at his heart, abolition.”
“Starr Clark had but one fundamental article in his political faith, and that was … impartial justice to all men, without regard to condition or color.”
You might be thinking ‘Why Mexico?’ What makes this town an important place to have an Underground Railroad station? But it’s important to remember that the operations of the railroad were illegal, done at night, and mostly done on foot. That means there needed to be houses and safe places quite close together for the railroad to be effective.
While Reverend Loguen was overseeing the movement in Syracuse, one of the logical next stops was in Mexico, about 30 miles north of the city. Mexico was known to be one of the last stops that runaways would visit before making their way to Canada. Many went on to Oswego before boarding a boat to cross Lake Ontario, and some went further north the the Thousand Islands region. The network of abolitionists in Oswego County was strong, and documents show that there were several community members who opened their homes to freedom seekers.
One of the most well-documented stories from the Underground Railroad pertains to Starr Clark and one fugitive slave he helped, a man named George. Mayor Hotchkiss tells the story of how Clark saw George, standing in what is now the parking lot across from the museum. Starr Clark helped George, and documented his assistance in the newspaper Friend of Man.
Where Did the Runaways Hide?
It is unlikely that any of the fugitive slaves hid within the tin shop itself. Research done by the Mexico Historical Society reveal that the runaways stayed in the Clark house next door. The Clarks had a tank room on the second floor of their house. It was where they could collect rainwater for washing, cooking, and cleaning. The round tank took up a large portion of one of the upstairs rooms. It is in the corners of the room where the slaves are said to have hidden.
When restorations were being done on the tin shop, historians and archeologists were recruited to make sure things were done to preserve the building’s history. There are stories that say that a tunnel existed between the shop and the house. When the archeologist dug a trench around the perimeter of the building, he found pig bones and pipe fragments, but no evidence of a tunnel. With that being said, he didn’t find enough evidence to say that there wasn’t a tunnel either. Unfortunately this will remain a mystery.
Visiting Starr Clark Tin Shop & Museum
Since its renovations, the tin shop now serves as a reflection into the history of Mexico. During normal times, the museum showcases what a working tin shop was like in the 1800s, with many pieces on display. A local tinsmith has made new pieces to accompany the older ones that have been donated.
The museum offers free tours by appointment, which vary in length and detail depending on your interests. Regardless of the tour, visitors can view the collection of artifacts that have been collected over time.
Some of the most interesting pieces on display at the museum include:
A first edition of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”.
Manacles that were used on slaves during the 1800s.
A replica of the meat wagon that was used to hide William “Jerry” Henry and transport him from Syracuse to Mexico.
An historic map of the town of Mexico and another of Oswego County. The county map displays photos of places that were waystations on the Underground Railroad.
Photographed documents freeing slaves who were brought to New York by the owners and set free.
With the history of the tin shop and the number of people who came through its doors, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Starr Clark Tin Shop is haunted. If you believe in that sort of thing. But many people believe that it is, hearing unexplainable sounds and feeling cold chills. Because of the experiences that visitors have had, the building is part of the Haunted History Trail of New York State.
Underground Railroad Sites Near Starr Clark Tin Shop
Underground Railroad Mural
Across the street from the tin shop museum is the town courthouse. A large mural reflecting the history of Mexico, New York and its involvement in the Underground Railroad was painted on the brick exterior in the early 2000s. and spans almost the whole length of the parking lot.
Bristol Hill Church
Not far from the tin shop, you’ll find Bristol Hill Church in the town of Volney. The church is also know to have significant ties to the Underground Railroad. The history of Bristol Hill Church is unique for its time. When the congregation was established in 1812, it wasn’t segregated. Both black and white people from the community worshipped together. Together they built the church in 1831. And when those escaping slavery needed a safe shelter, the church was there for them.
One particular parishioner became famous for his actions. James Watkins Seward, a free black man from New York, traveled south on his fight for equality. He took up odd jobs throughout Ohio and Mississippi before landing a job on a steamboat. When he disembarked in Louisiana, he was captured and put on a chain gang. The authorities kept him in custody, asking him to provide documents to prove his freedom and pay a fine. The community at Bristol Hill Church, including Starr Clark, signed a petition and enlisted the help of NY Governor William Seward to help free him.
It truly took a village to help slaves get to freedom. So the Clarks were not alone in their fight against slavery. Many other members of the Mexico and greater Oswego community were also abolitionists. The most famous of whom were Asa & Caroline Wing. Then there is Orson & Amy James, who sheltered William “Jerry” Henry for one night before the Beebe family hid him on their farm for a couple weeks. James Jackson was another abolitionist in town who later became known for the Jackson Sanitorium and, surprisingly, the creation of granola.