Costs Threaten Upkeep Of John Brown's Burial Site

Shutting down a park at the New York farm where the abolitionist's body lies would save taxpayers about $40,000 a year, a tiny chunk of the state's $8 billion deficit. Historians say that's not enough of a savings to warrant the loss of a landmark.

In New York, the state budget crisis is so severe that Gov. David Paterson wants to close dozens of parks, campgrounds and historic sites.

The list includes the farm where abolitionist John Brown is buried. Brown led the raid on Harpers Ferry, which helped spark the Civil War. Historians and activists are fighting to preserve what they see as a national landmark.

John Brown's Story

Brown died before the war, executed in 1859 after he tried to spark a slave rebellion in the South. His body was brought home here to his farm near Lake Placid in New York's snow-capped Adirondack Mountains.

Brown and his wife, who were white, worked the land with a colony of black farmers.

"He so loved it here on this land that in his last jailhouse letter to his wife, Mary, he expressed his wish that she come gather up his and their beloved son's bones and bring them home for burial in the shadow of the big rock where he loved to sit and pray while looking out over the mountains," says Martha Swan, founder of a civil rights group called John Brown Lives!

A statue near that rock farm shows the abolitionist protecting and guiding a young black child. A black civil rights group from Philadelphia donated the memorial in 1935.

A Difficult Choice

Activists held a vigil recently, protesting the state's plan to close the site this spring.

"It's been very difficult. Each spark is special; each park is important. Patrons love all the parks in our system and to try to do this in an ideal way is impossible," says Dan Keefe of the parks department.

John Brown's farm had roughly 60,000 visitors last year — a fraction, Keefe says, of the 56 million visitors to New York's state parks.

"We looked at attendance, operating costs, what kind of revenue each facility generated," Keefe says.

The Loss

Closing the burial site would save taxpayers about $40,000 a year — a tiny chunk of New York's $8 billion deficit. Historian James Stewart says that's not enough to warrant the loss of an important civil rights landmark.

"It was a tremendous struggle trying to get sites designated that were associated with African-American history, and so to lose one that has such important value symbolizing a whole era's struggle is really problematic for me," Stewart says.

Unlike many historic sites in the U.S., John Brown's farm has been preserved almost intact, with the original farmhouse, the fields and woods.

New York's Legislature still has to approve the plan to close the site. Last week, a state senator from Brooklyn introduced a resolution calling for the decision to be reversed. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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