The John Rankin House Historic Site sits on a hill overlooking the village of Ripley, the Ohio River and the state of Kentucky.
The house was the home of the famed Underground Railroad conductor, Rev. John Rankin. He and his family aided approximately 2,000 fugitive slaves during a 40-year period.
Rev. Rankin, a Tennessean by birth, accepted the call to become the minister of the Ripley Presbyterian Church in 1822. It remains an active congregation today and is known as Ripley First Presbyterian Church.
His first permanent home in Ripley was located on Front Street along the Ohio River. A historic marker identifies that home today. The Rankin family moved to the house on the hill in 1829.
Rev. Rankin spoke against slavery from his church pulpit, wrote anti-slavery material and believed no one had the right to own another human being.
As Ripley’s role grew as a stronghold of anti-slavery activity, Rev. Rankin and other area conductors faced very real danger. in 1838 some Kentucky slave owners offered a reward of $2,500 for the abduction or assassination of these conductors
The family of Rev. Rankin and his wife, Jean, was large and included nine sons and four daughters. It was the nine sons as they became teenagers who were given the responsibility of escorting fugitives from the Rankin farm to the next location. Many times they traveled to Red Oak a distance of five miles. Other times the route would take them to Sardinia.
The Rankin family developed a reputation of keeping a light burning in one of the front windows of their home. That light served as a beacon for fugitives crossing the Ohio River at night. Fugitives learned to look for the house on the hill and the light in the window.
Among Rev. Rankin’s supporters were Dr.Lyman Beecher and his family.
Dr.Beecher came to Cincinnati to serve as president of Lane Theological Seminary. Several of the Rankin sons attended Lane. Dr.Beecher’s daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, incorporated several of the Rankins efforts into her best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the novel, her character, Eliza, is based on the fugitive woman who carried her child over the thawing Ohio River and found shelter at the home of Rev. Rankin.
As an older man, Rev. Rankin wrote his autobiography and several of his sons wrote their remembrances of their time in Ripley. This is the basis used by tour guides as they share the Rankin story with visitors.
The Rankins write of sheltering fugitive slaves in a large barn that once stood on the west side of their house. The barn had a wooden floor and a secret door in the floor and space dug out underneath where several people could be hidden.
Rev. Rankin took pride when he wrote in his autobiography that he “never lost a passenger.” Meaning fugitives in the care of the Rankin family were never caught by their owners or bounty hunters and taken back into slavery.
In 1997 Rankin House was named a National Historic Landmark. This is the highest federal designation given to historic sites.
An August 2014 ceremony was held unveiling a major restoration that brought the house back to an accurate 1840s interpretation. The research revealed the walls in the two downstairs rooms overlooking the river had been stenciled. The stenciling has been recreated in the vibrant colors that first adorned the walls of the Rankin home.
Other families owned Rankin House after the Rankins left Ripley in 1866 and the Ohio Historical Society (now known as the Ohio History Connection) purchased the home in 1938. The house was not restored and opened to the public until 1948 due to World War II.
The John Rankin House Historic Site is open to the public from May through October, Wednesday through Sunday. Hours are 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and 12:00 p.m. noon to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday.
In 1981 a local history group, Ripley Heritage, Inc. assumed management of the site through an agreement with the Ohio History Connection. The phone number at the site is 937-392-1627 and the website is ohiohistory.org.
Recommended reading for more detailed information about the Rankins and other Ripley area conductors should include Beyond The River by Ann Hagedorn and Bound For Canaan by Fergus Bordewich.