Historic cabin, popular tourist stop remains closed, maybe for good

Mayhew Cabin/John Brown’s Cave still fighting with Nebraska City over responsibility for flood damage

By: - November 30, 2022 5:45 am
Mayhew Cabin

The protest sign at the Mayhew Cabin/John Brown’s Cave complex in Nebraska City went up this fall, right before the city’s annual Applejack Festival. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

NEBRASKA CITY — The sign outside the long-closed Mayhew Cabin museum and John Brown’s Cave is blunt and to the point: “Killed by City of NC.”

“NC” refers to Nebraska City, a quaint Missouri River town that is the home of Arbor Day as well as 10 museums, honoring everything from windmills to Civil War veterans.

“Killed” refers to the closure of the Mayhew Cabin and John Brown’s Cave, one of the most popular tourist sites in this community. For more than eight decades, it has hosted thousands of schoolchildren and other visitors seeking to learn about the history of the Underground Railroad and its connection to a small log cabin, hewn from local cottonwoods long before Nebraska was a state.

Flooding in 2019 closed attraction

But heavy rains over Memorial Day weekend in 2019 flooded a ravine

Mayhew Cabin
The Mayhew Cabin, built in the 1850s, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, according to Cathy Van Winkle, who has identified 10 of 12 escaped slaves who stopped there in 1859 on their way north. But the use of a tunnel underneath it to hide slaves has been disputed by the Mayhew family. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

that runs through the attraction’s property. The flooding damaged a tunnel that runs from underneath the cabin to the ravine, as well as the museum building, which now has mold, mildew and foundation problems.

Lacking insurance, or funds otherwise to fix the damage and reopen, the foundation that owns the site closed it. The nonprofit sued the city, claiming that it was responsible for the flood damage for allowing drainage pipes from the ravine to become clogged and upstream housing development to increase storm runoff.

Three lawsuits fail

But three lawsuits filed by Mayhew Cabin and Historical Village foundation have failed — the last one was dismissed in April — and the foundation now says it needs a miracle to reopen.

The killed-by-city sign went up in September, just before the biggest tourism weekend of the year, the AppleJack Festival.

While both foundation and city officials say they hope the complex can reopen, it appears the hard feelings are far from over, making it difficult to comprehend if the two sides can get together.

We need public support to pressure the City of Nebraska City to do the right and responsible thing and fix the drainage on the Mayhew Cabin site and help us repair the damage that they caused.

– Cathy Van Winkle, head of the Mayhew Cabin & Historical Village foundation

One Nebraska City tourism official said they wished they could put a sheet over the “kill” sign. Meanwhile, Cathy Van Winkle has continued a public campaign, via the foundation’s website and on a Lincoln radio station, to pressure the city to take responsibility for the flood damage.

“We need public support to pressure the City of Nebraska City to do the right and responsible thing and fix the drainage on the Mayhew Cabin site and help us repair the damage that they caused,” Van Winkle states on the website.

The current city administrator of Nebraska City said that the city is clearly not responsible for the flood damage, which the city maintains was caused by the plugging of a private storm drain owned by the Mayhew foundation — a claim disputed by Van Winkle, who maintains that it is part of the city’s infrastructure.

It’s sad that they resorted to this.

– Lou Leone, city administrator of Nebraska City

Lou Leone, the city administrator, expressed regret that the site is closed and that a sign attacks the city.

I don’t know if they’re to draw attention, I don’t know what they’re trying to do. But it’s sad that they resorted to this,” Leone said. “We would like to sit down and talk but without someone screaming at us, and making threats.”

A representative of Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce, Pam Frana, said that visitors still inquire about visiting the Mayhew site and that tourism groups would also love to work with the foundation so it could reopen.

But when all parties are asked if any discussions are underway, the answer is no.

The history of the Mayhew Cabin and John Brown’s Cave has been analyzed and disputed over the years.

Attraction since the ’30s

The site has been a tourist attraction since the 1930s. But over the years, the focus of the site has shifted from the cave and any connection to the famed abolitionist John Brown, to the role of the Mayhew family and of one of its relatives, John Kagi.

Kagi, a correspondent for newspapers back East, was an associate of Brown in helping slaves escape nearby slave states, like Missouri, to reach freedom in the north.

Kagi, who was active in fighting slavery in Kansas, was second in command to Brown during the failed raid on Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, on Oct. 17, 1859. Kagi was killed during the raid.

Several slaves passed through

Four years earlier, Kagi had lived for several months at the Nebraska City cabin of his sister Barbara Mayhew and her husband, Allen.

James Potter, in a 2002 article for the Nebraska State Historical Society’s magazine about the “fact and folklore” of John Brown’s Cave, cited a letter from the Mayhews’ son, Edward. In it, the son said that Kagi had once brought 14 escaped slaves to the Nebraska City cabin, who, after eating breakfast, continued on foot northward.

Van Winkle, in her research, has said that 12 slaves came to the cabin. She said her searchings had led to identifying 10 of them.

Edward Mayhew’s letter refuted earlier newspaper accounts, including one in the Omaha Bee in 1890, that Brown himself had guided escaped slaves to freedom through a tunnel underneath the Mayhew cabin. The son said the cave was dug for storing potatoes, that slaves never used the tunnel and Brown had never visited.

The cabin was moved in 1937 to accommodate the construction of a highway, and Edward Bartling, whose father bought the original Mayhew Cabin site, dug a replica of the famed tunnel underneath it, in hopes of attracting tourists, according to a 2014 article evaluating sites on the Underground Railroad.

Focus shifted to cabin

It worked, but gradually, the emphasis on the Nebraska City site shifted to the roles of the Mayhew family and Kagi.

After initial applications failed to include the Mayhew Cabin as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, the organization “improved its documentation” and the cabin was accepted, without the cave, in 2003.

The Mayhew Cabin was the first site in Nebraska recognized by the National Park Service as part of the Underground Railroad. It was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2010.

In 2002, according to Van Winkle, the nonprofit foundation was formed to take ownership of the site, which includes the cabin, a museum structure and three other buildings, including a historic Methodist church.

A series of calamities

But a series of calamities has beset the historic site, including a 2013 flood that wrecked the underground tunnel’s exit at the ravine and a large tree that fell atop the church. The museum building had a series of sewage backups, and its foundation began sinking.

After the additional flood damage in 2019, the foundation sued the city, first with Van Winkle, a Lincoln real estate appraiser and historian, acting as its attorney, and eventually with lawyer Joshua Christolear of Walton, who agreed to take the case without pay.

But early this year, Christolear asked to be removed as the lawyer, citing health issues. That motion that was granted and the lawsuit was dismissed.

Van Winkle maintains that the real issues behind the lawsuit never got heard in court. The city, though, cited several reasons why the legal effort should be dismissed, including that the drainage pipe was the responsibility of the Mayhew Cabin foundation and that municipalities are immune from such litigation.

Black lives matter

Now, Van Winkle states on the foundation’s website, a new lawsuit cannot be filed because the statute of limitations has run out, and unless a “miracle occurs,” the site will be closed permanently.

During a podcast this year on Lincoln radio station KFOR, Van Winkle and another foundation board member, John Harris of Lincoln, emphasized the importance of the museum and cabin in teaching about the Underground Railroad.

“This is something that cannot be let go,” Harris said.

“We like to promote freedom and equality,” Van Winkle said, emphasizing that the Mayhews and Kagi knew way back in the 1850s that “Black lives matter.”

They said that a “final option” would be for the foundation to dissolve and let the land revert to the city, which would clearly make repairs its responsibility.

Public urged to support foundation

But Van Winkle urged the public to reach out to the foundation and join it in urging the city to take responsibility before that happens.

“Rather than supporting what was the second most visited museum in Nebraska City, Nebraska City turned its back on the museum, refused to take ANY responsibility,” she wrote on the foundation’s website, using the capital letters for emphasis. “(It has) effectively killed an important, unique, and treasured historic site.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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