MAPLE GROVE – This small Quaker church just two miles from the Canadian border was likely the last stop on the Underground Railroad for many runaway slaves making their way to freedom, according to historians in the Fort Fairfield area.

But it isn’t always easy to find references to it among historical accounts of the Underground Railroad, which helped tens of thousands of slaves gain freedom before slavery was abolished in 1865.

Those who helped the slaves faced jail and heavy fines, so they didn’t tend to leave written records of what they did.

Documenting the role of the Friends Church and many other sites means relying on oral records passed from one generation to the next.

The Friends Church was part of a new Quaker community in Fort Fairfield, founded by Wingate and Mary Haines in 1858. They were “conductors” for the Underground Railroad.

Today, the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its anti-slavery role, in large part due to extensive research by Art Mraz, 88, and his late wife, Ruth Reed Mraz, who was a native of Fort Fairfield.

The Maine Underground Railroad Association also contributed to the research. Mraz said it took years of research to assemble the documentation needed to get the church listed.

Mraz said his wife became fascinated by the church’s Underground Railroad history after hearing stories about it from her mother and from Quakers descended from Wingate and Mary Haines.

Mraz said his mother-in-law, Eva Seeley Reed, lived next door to the Haines family, and their grown children would tell stories about their parents’ efforts to help slaves escape. As children, the twins would creep out on the balcony to listen to their parents talk, he said.

“Well, they’re safe tonight,” Wingate Haines would tell his wife after a slave rescue mission, the Haines children told Reed.

This kind of oral history often is all that is available from the Underground Railroad era. Although Quakers were anti-slavery, they didn’t want to be discovered breaking the law, so their activities were not openly discussed, let alone recorded.

This lack of documentation has proved to be a challenge for members of the Frontier Heritage Historical Society, who now own Friends Church and are trying to preserve the building and its history.

“One member of our group said we should go up in the attic or cellar and see if we can find a sample of Afro-American hair and have DNA testing done on it, but we’ve just never done it,” said Bill Findlen, 83, who has been a member of the historical society since 1980.

The Friends Church is one of about 100 sites in Maine identified by the Maine Underground Railroad Association as possible Underground Railroad stations.

Other Underground Railroad ties to Maine include the home of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe in Brunswick, where she wrote the 1852 anti-slavery book; and Portland’s Abyssinian Meeting House, the only official site in Maine listed as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom maintained by the National Park Service.

At the Friends Church, a likely hiding place was uncovered when the historical society made renovations to the building in 1995.

When the church was being finished in 1859-60, Miles Hilton, a skilled Quaker carpenter from the town of China, built a raised platform with steps on it in the main meeting room.

Later, in 1906, stained-glass windows, pews and a bell tower were added.

During the 1995 renovations, workers removed wood that covered the raised platform and found an unusual space under it, as well as a trapdoor.

“Underneath this platform is probably the hiding place where the slaves could be hidden,” explained Findlen. “They boarded over the trapdoor with wood used to construct the crate (that a) stained-glass window came in. You can see the words that say ‘stained glass’ on them.”

Mraz agrees: “It’s not as likely the slaves were hidden in the cellar or attic — those areas would have been easy to inspect, so the most likely place to hide the slaves was directly under the platform, but it wasn’t a place you would want to keep them for a very long period.”

And if the Quakers had been caught aiding fugitive slaves, the penalties were stiff — the Compromise Bill of 1850 established penalties of $1,000 fines and six months in jail.

“You have to remember how it was,” Mraz said. “Right up until 1860, 11 of 16 presidents had owned slaves and most of the Supreme Court justices had slaves. The power structure in Washington was all for slavery.”

“But then you had this new movement spreading through the country to free these people. It’s interesting — especially when you realize how few blacks we had here. So you would have to be a special person to go out and take risks and to really fight for someone you didn’t know, and who you didn’t have as friends. It’s wonderful!”

From this church, in the heart of potato farming country, it was a short hike to Canada and freedom.

Where the freed slaves went was uncertain, but black families did settle in Upper Kent and other places along the St. John River in Carleton County, New Brunswick, not far from Fort Fairfield, said Mraz, a retired science and math professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

“Right across the hill over here, there’s a little place called Tomlinson Lake,” Mraz said. “The Tomlinson family was very friendly all the slaves who came through the area were welcomed by the Tomlinson family over in Canada.”

Brenda Jepson is a freelance writer.