Two Men Named Maris

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Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center

For those of us of a certain age, the name Maris conjures up memories of some of the most exciting times of major league baseball.  Long before the era of steroid-enhanced performances, Roger Maris assailed –and eventually broke—one of the most cherished records in baseball: Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 home runs.  For most of that season, Roger and teammate Mickey Mantle were neck-and-neck in the race, while all of the sports world ( and many usually uninterested in baseball) followed the relentless pressure and publicity that made Maris a nervous wreck.  On the last day of the 1961 season he hit his 61st home run.  Finally the pressure ended.  

More than a century earlier, Norris Maris worked in an atmosphere quite different.  There was no “season of achievement” for him and his family, but a steady yet unpredictable demand on their time and dedication.  The cheers of the crowds for doing good work was the very last thing they would have wished for.  Freedom-seekers throughout the 1840s and 1850s came to him for aid, first as he worked on the farm of Esther Lewis and her daughters, and later after he purchased his own farm in Kimberton.  Dr. Smedley writes that the Quaker Maris “never looked upon it as a trouble; scarcely as a duty; but simply as a blessed privilege to secure the freedom and happiness…of an oppressed and down-trodden people.”  While on the Lewis farm, he once helped those women feed, comfort, and move along toward freedom a party of twenty-one fugitives—a major undertaking, but done in silence and out of the public eye.  

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Unlike some stationmasters, who tried to keep their own children ignorant of their activities, Maris taught his children to embrace the cause as well.  His son George was apparently well-schooled at drawing maps for the freedom-seekers, and all the children “looked upon providing for them with the same calm, cheerful, ‘matter-of-course’ feeling” they demonstrated in doing their daily chores (Smedley, pp. 191-92).

Last week’s column in this space spoke of the fact that Dr. Smedley had died before he completed his invaluable book, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester County…The editors who finished the book noted that Smedley’s original inspiration for compiling these stories came from listening to Norris Maris talk about the great work of the Lewis sisters.  Happily, Smedley made sure to celebrate the man himself, who died in 1893, at the age of 90.

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If there were a Hall of Fame for those promoting freedom and justice, Norris Maris would certainly warrant a plaque.  Perhaps there should be such a Hall.