George Stevens and his second wife, Harriet Stevens, were very active in educating the 
‘colored community’ in Florida after the Civil War. George volunteered for the war even though he was not required to. Both are part of the founding story of the city of Rushford.
George Stevens and his second wife, Harriet Stevens, were very active in educating the ‘colored community’ in Florida after the Civil War. George volunteered for the war even though he was not required to. Both are part of the founding story of the city of Rushford.
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With March 11 being National Genealogy Day, and February being Black History Month, Laura Deering, a member of Emmanuel Episcopal Church (EEC) in Rushford, shared her findings of the “roots” of Rushford on Feb. 26, during a community presentation.

Deering had spent the last four months researching a piece of information about the history of the construction of the EEC – that it was built with the help of a freed black slave – Lewis Pinkney.

The wooden structure of the church was built in 1867. But in 1889, it was reinforced with the traditional stonework that a person can currently see installed in the building. This section of masonry was performed by Pinkney.

In researching Pinkney’s life, Deering came across some astounding facts that tied him to one of the founding families of Rushford – George and Harriet Stevens.

Who was the Stevens’ family?

Those in Rushford may be familiar with the Stevens family at least in name. Stevens Avenue is named after this family, and their three children, Jesse, Harry and May, all have streets named after them as well.

George Stevens was a very prominent banker who was originally born in Oswego, New York. He moved to Chicago in 1834 before coming to Rushford in 1856.

“What an innovative and progressive man he was,” said Deering. He became “one of the most prosperous bankers in the area.”

Stevens specialized in real estate and land deals and was also co-proprietor of the local general store.

After living in Rushford for a short time, he donated a tract of land to the Emmanuel Episcopal Church where it sits to this day.

Shortly after that the Civil War broke out, and Stevens enlisted despite being well past the age expected for a soldier.

“It was a personal investment, I think, for him to risk (his life),” supposed Derring, considering his age when he enlisted. Stevens’ regiment fought in the infamous Battle of Gettysburg, according to Deering.

After the war, his first wife died. During the war, Stevens had met Harriet, a nurse who served in Vicksburg.

“She was very dedicated,” explained Deering. “Doctors wrote letters about her service as a nurse.”

Harriet went on to become Stevens’ second wife.

Underground Railroad stop

Before connecting Stevens to Pinkney, it is important to know that Rushford has been identified as a staging point for abolitionists and the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a connection of points, spread every 20 miles or so along the Mississippi River primarily, where slaves were able to find shelter and refuge as they escaped their slave owners.

On High Street exists a house across Rush Creek from the mill where an underground storage room was unearthed following the flood damage from 2007.

“When the creek flooded in 2007, the old house suffered extensive damage,” said an archived article in the Star Tribune, Jan. 9, 2016 edition.

“That’s when the contractor hired to gut the place unearthed a 16 ft. by 30 ft. room below the kitchen — accessible only through that hidden door in the closet.”

“Researchers determined that the original owners, Hiram Walker and Roswell Valentine, were more than town founders behind Rushford’s first flour and saw mills in the 1850s.

“They were also Quakers who maintained the secret room to help escaped slaves fleeing to Canada along the series of clandestine stations and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.”

As Deering investigated Stevens’ connection to Pinkney and the Underground Railroad, she had trouble reconciling accounts due to the sensitive nature of the information.

“Due to the very nature of the Underground Railroad, it was against federal law. So, for that reason, there wasn’t a lot of information recorded or written down. It was a bit of a challenge with that,” she said.

Historians have since validated the connection between the house and the Underground Railroad stated in the Star Tribune article, but that doesn’t connect Stevens to the movement or to Pinkney.

Digging deeper into history

Deering looked into other properties owned by the Stevens family and found some remarkable evidence concerning the Stevens’ winter activities.

“I hit pay dirt, if you will,” said Deering. She found their activity in Jacksonville, Fla., as the lynchpin to their true motivation.

In 1880, the Stevens set up their winter home in Jacksonville and began opening their home for a church school. Harriet specialized in teaching African American children and adults how to read.

After the two founded St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in 1888, they also built Emmanuel Church in St. Nicholas, Fla., a church whose targeted demographic was the “colored community,” according to Deering’s research.

In 1894, Harriet started an industrial school for colored children and a schoolhouse adjoining Emmanuel Church.

With such a heavy emphasis on the black community in the South, Deering noted a strong connection between the motivations of the Stevens family and abolitionists.

“After the Civil War, there were a lot of issues; and she’s in the Deep South doing these things for the black community,” reasoned Deering.

The Pinkney connection

Deering found another lynchpin connecting Pinkney and Stevens. Pinkney was listed in a 1905 Minnesota Census as living with the Stevens family.

“To be honest, I always thought he lived with the Stevens, and it showed that in the census,” said Deering.

Deering believes that through this connection and the Stevens’ wealth, they were able to steer Pinkney into the masonry profession and afford him the opportunities that would not typically be allowed to black men in that time period.

Pinkney’s work continued to many other historic stone buildings in the community, including the Rushford Lutheran Church and the R-P High School (the connected elementary school contains no such stone work and was built nearly a century later).

Founding families

In conclusion, it seems as though one of the strongest principals in the founding of Rushford is the belief that all are worth saving, and that a community can come together to make this happen.

Deering said that other founding families came directly from Norway. “(Norwegians) were not supporters of slavery, that was very foreign to them,” said Deering.

The research that Deering conducted gave her a greater appreciation of the Stevens family and the other founding families.

“They could have been in prison because of what they were doing. But as a community, they bounded together to help each other and to help others,” she said.

Several stories were shared where Stevens’ name popped up in abolitionist movements, such as an incident at Overland College in Ohio in 1858.

A slave escaped, and it was later noted that Stevens was the one who provided him passage while 20 to 30 other men distracted the slave owners looking for him.

As admirable as it is to have been an abolitionist, Stevens will hold a special place in Deering’s heart due to all that he risked for the freedom of others.

“Sometimes, we think, ‘They are a rich family, and (it was no problem for) them to build a house or a school.’ But then I think, ‘They had more to lose,’” summarized Deering.

Finding your history

For those who wish to learn about their family history, they should visit the Rushford Historical Society and Depot Museum at 401 S. Elm St, 507-864-7560; in Peterson, the Station Museum at 228 Mill St., 507-875-2222; the Fillmore County History Center and Genealogy Library in Fountain at 202 County Road 8, 507-268-4449; or the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center at 163 W. Main St., Spring Grove, 507-498-5070.