DENMARK, Iowa — Nearly two centuries after helping runaway slaves flee north, abolitionists and Underground Railroad operatives buried in the Denmark, Iowa, Cemetery are being nationally recognized.

Denmark Historical Society members received word the National Park Service has accepted the cemetery into its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

"It's really an honor. I am really proud of our small town, to be a recipient of such an award," said Denmark Historical Society member Sherry McKee, who gathered evidence, such as letters, of secret Underground Railroad activities in Denmark for the application.


The designation places Denmark Cemetery in a permanent database available to researchers and local historians wanting to pursue grants and technical assistance.

More than 600 locations so far are in the network, including the Denmark Congregational Church, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Burlington Hawk Eye reports the Lee County cemetery joins 12 new listings from the 40th round of applications.

"I think people often don't realize how many Underground Railroad stories are in their backyards," said Diane Miller, the National Program manager.

"I am eager to see how communities representing these new listings work together to continue to share these stories with the public," she said.

This, McKee is happy to do.

New England Congregationalists, who believed God created mankind equal and slavery was inherently wrong, settled in Denmark and established the cemetery in 1837.

"Fifteen to 20 families were directly engaged in either harboring or conveying the slaves to places of safety just in Denmark," said McKee.

Twenty of 33 signers of the Iowa Anti-Slavery Society, launched in Denmark by the Rev. Asa Turner and church members, have graves in the cemetery, and some, including Samuel Houston, an original church member born in 1815, have descendants who live in Denmark.

Buried there with his wives is twice-widowed Denmark Congregational Deacon Theron Trowbridge, whose ride to the aid of one runaway slave is legendary.

The woman arrived at Trowbridge's Denmark home weeping uncontrollably. She had to leave her baby behind when she fled a farm in northeast Missouri. An angry Trowbridge strapped on a gun and headed south on horseback, returning two nights later with the baby.

"Trowbridge was clever in his attempts to hide freedom seekers," said McKee.

He had built in his children's room a bookcase with a removable back that led to a small crawl space and the roof.

In 2004, then-owner of the Cape Cod-style house, Gayla Young, told The Hawk Eye that her grandparents, Robert and Ethel Riddle, bought the vacant house at 603 Seventh St., for back taxes in the 1940s, and during renovation found the long-forgotten hideaway.

Inside were a woman's blouse, a pair of burlap shoes and a Nov. 15, 1851, copy of the Salem, Ohio, Anti-Slavery Bugle.

McKee said the blouse had leg o' mutton sleeves and the hideaway also yielded some worn blankets and ladies pantalettes.

A display by the historical society in the basement of the Farmers Savings Bank has photos of the artifacts. The little museum currently is closed due to COVID-19.

The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom already had accepted the Trowbridge house to its database.

Denmark was part of an extensive network of stations and stops on the Underground Railway in Southeast Iowa.

Historians say way stations also were in Columbus City, Crawfordsville, Mount Pleasant, Salem, Birmingham, Keosauqua, Farmington, Croton, Burlington, Pleasant Grove and Mediapolis.

In this corner of the state, brave yet fearful runaway slaves typically arrived in Denmark under cover of darkness after Quaker operatives hid them in Salem, and then went on to Burlington and further north, said McKee. Abolitionists had many tricks, such as wagons with false bottoms, in response to Missouri slave catchers who were always on the lookout.

The Skunk River bridge between Denmark and Augusta often was guarded by slave hunters, who considered the slaves as stolen property.

Underground railroad conductors were breaking federal law and risked imprisonment or death, McKee said.

Slave owners offered a reward for Trowbridge, but McKee said there is no evidence anyone — fugitive slave or helper — in Denmark ever was caught.

Twice a year, the Network to Freedom reviews and accepts applications from sites, facilities and programs with verified connections to the Underground Railroad.