The secret stories of the Underground Railroad

Posted: 4:01 AM, Feb 15, 2015
Updated: 2019-12-11 15:05:25-05

The exact number isn't known, but it is believed that tens of thousands of slaves escaped to freedom through the secret network of the Underground Railroad. Many made it by crossing the Ohio River, the boundary between slave-holding Kentucky and free Ohio. Jessica Noll and Emily Maxwell tracked down stories of people who guided, protected and harbored fugitive slaves. They unearthed fascinating locations and documentation to support these stories. As we celebrate Black History Month, we remember and honor those who took risks to stand up for the rights of others.

Legend has it that a Kentucky landowner chasing an escaped slave who eluded him across the Ohio River declared that that the escapee must have fled through an "underground road" somewhere.

The story of how it got its name may be only legend, but the Underground Railroad was a real network of people and places that moved slaves on a dangerous journey from bondage to freedom. Getting across the Ohio from slave-holding Kentucky into free-soil Ohio was the prize.

The two states were essential links of this hidden network. It was underground because it was secretive and illegal. Some of the stories and places have been lost to time because they weren't documented. But in Clermont and Brown counties in Ohio and Bracken and Mason counties in Kentucky, remnants still exist. Some are places that people pass by every day without knowing the stories behind them. Here are some of those stories.

Historian Carol Stivers discusses how refugee slaves were hidden and transported to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
A map of locations featured in the stories that follow.

Slaves marry, begin tradition and record keeping

<figcaption>Historical photo of the Rev. Elisha Green. Courtesy Caroline Miller

In 1835, freed slave Elisha Green married fellow slave Susan Young, who was a servant in Mays Lick.

In 1866, Mason County began allowing slaves to record their marriages. This was rare, as slave marriages were not permitted in most states.

Slaves could go to the county clerk and pay 50 cents to record their nuptials. For another 25 cents, they could get a marriage certificate. The clerk, however, was required to keep all marriage records for blacks and whites separated.

It was also during this time when the African-American wedding tradition of jumping over the broom started, symbolizing freedom from slavery.

In the clerk's office in Maysville, the records for slaves and freed slaves from that period are labeled "colored."

Sources: Caroline Miller, author and Bracken County historian and the Kentucky Historical Society.

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Escaping Kentucky

<figcaption>Addison White, a slave who traveled through Kentucky, still has descendants in Maysville. Courtesy Caroline Miller

Addison White was born in 1821 and was a slave who traveled through Maysville after escaping from Fleming County, Ky. A group of 100 citizens from Mechanicsburg, Ohio bought his freedom for $950.

White is buried in Ohio.

A descendant of White's, Jerry Gore, 68, still lives in Maysville and gives Underground Railroad tours in Mason County. As an Underground Railroad historian and descendant of at least seven slaves, he's the owner of more than 600 artifacts from the slavery era, including 24 sets of shackles. He made his first trip to the historic Rankin House, a major Underground Railroad stop in Ohio, when he was 5 years old.

"Slavery was more than wrong, it was inhumane," Gore said.

Jerry Gore, a descendant of several area slaves, sings a song that his ancestors may have sung in the early 1800s while they were enslaved.
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"Lord, make me an abolitionist"

<figcaption>Present day location of the Fee family farm. Courtesy Caroline Miller
"Lord, if needs be, make me an abolitionist."

- Rev. John G. Fee

That's what history records Rev. John Gregg Fee praying, and indeed, that's what happened. Known as the "father of abolition in Kentucky," Fee grew up on a farm at 1708 Hillsdale Road in Germantown in Mason County.

Although his father owned several slaves, as most Mason County landowners did in the early 19th century, Fee grew up to preach against slavery and even took the bold step of barring slave owners from joining his congregation.

Fee's wife, Matilda, was a protector to those seeking freedom

For his outspokenness, he was beaten and tarred and feathered more than once. He was banished several times from both Mason and Bracken counties, and his churches burned.

Fee founded Berea College, creating the first Southern co-ed and interracial college. He also founded the Free Church and School in Germantown, Ky., for both blacks and whites.

Abolition became personal for him in 1847 when he bought and emancipated the slave who raised him, Juliet Miles.

Fee died in 1901 and is buried in Berea, Ky.

Sources: Rita Thomas, historian and professor, and Caroline Miller, Bracken County historian and author of "Grapevine Dispatch: The Voice of Antislavery Messages."

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"Ask me no questions"

<figcaption>Present day at 1294 Feagan Ridge, Germantown, Ky. Courtesy Caroline Miller

Betsy Hamilton was one of at least 20 accused conductors of the Underground Railroad in Bracken County.

She helped with the escape of Ed Morford, a servant of her sister-in-law, Mrs. Theodore Hamilton. Morford was being taken to Brooksville, Ky. to be sold by the sheriff when he broke loose and ran away. He ran to Hamilton's home in Germantown, where she hid him in the stairwell.

When the sheriff and others searching for the slave came knocking at her door, she told them she didn't know where he was but to look in the wells and the barns. After a few days, he was nowhere to be found. Her husband came to her and asked if she knew the slave's whereabouts.

She said, "Vincent, ask me no questions and I will tell you no lies."

Hamilton is buried in Germantown.

Source: Caroline Miller, author and Bracken County historian.

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Freed, then jailed

<figcaption>Present day at the Augusta jail of 1811. Jessica Noll | WCPO

In 1847, Juliet Miles was bought, then emancipated four years later by the Rev. John Gregg Fee. But freedom didn't end her misery.

She fled from Kentucky across the Ohio River to Felicity, Ohio, where she met up with her husband, Addison.

In October 1858, she traveled on a small skiff four miles west of Augusta, Ky., then traveled 17 miles inland in Kentucky, and secured her 10 children and grandchildren from the Fee farm and a farm in Mason County.

They were captured before they made it back to freedom in Ohio. Mother and children were thrown into the Bracken County jail.

"In this dungeon, they cried and they wailed and they screamed, and the children were just miserable," Caroline Miller, author and Bracken County historian, said. Juliet was imprisoned for the next four months until February 1859, when she was tried and found guilty of "enticing," or trying to steal, her own family.

She was sentenced to the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort. That's where she died.

"She died of a broken heart," Miller said. She lasted about a year in prison before dying in her late 40s. She is buried in a prisoner gravesite.

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"Crazy" slave outsmarts law enforcement

Historian Caroline Miller tells the story of "Crazy Milly"

The Augusta jail, built in 1811, is the oldest in Kentucky. Sitting on its original foundation, it served as Bracken County's jail until 1976. Located just blocks from the Ohio River, it's where "Crazy Milly" could be found in 1830 to 1833.

<figcaption> Present day outside the the Augusta jail. Jessica Noll | WCPO

“If people of color were walking or traveling through and they didn’t have their certificate of freedom, or papers with them… they could be arrested or, in fact, jailed for roaming free,” Caroline Miller, author and Bracken County historian, said. “And this is what happened to a young lady named Milly.”

“Milly was quite cantankerous and she did not fit the mold of a person who could be let out of the jail to work for people in the town, which was common custom,” Miller said.


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A slave who purchased himself

<figcaption>A list of freed slaves, including "Doctor" Perkins. Jessica Noll | WCPO

"Doctor" Perkins, who wasn't actually a doctor but a baker, was a slave who was freed after purchasing himself in 1824. The heirs of Constant Perkins, his owner since 1815, gave "Doctor" Perkins a certificate of freedom after purchasing himself, according to Caroline Miller, author and Bracken County historian.

In 1824, he emancipated his wife, Anna, and two daughters, Eliza, 6, and Lucinda, 3, and moved to Augusta, Ky.

In the 1850s, he was caught for helping another slave, named Alfred, escape from 301 Elizabeth St.

Perkins was arrested and charged with "enticing," convicted and sentenced to the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort in 1852. He died there two years later.

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Blazing the trail, giving freedom to 15

<figcaption>Arthur Thome signed several emancipations to free slaves. Jessica Noll | WCPO

Abolitionist Arthur Thome, father of James Thome, was an abolitionist who, along with his slaves, built the "White Hall" in Augusta, Ky. in 1809. They finished the mansion, located on Elizabeth Street in Augusta, four years later.

During his time in Augusta, Thome released 15 slaves between 1832 and 1836. He gave them the choice to cross the Ohio River or stay and become employed by the family.

Thome died in 1855 and is buried in Athens, Missouri.

Source: Caroline Miller, author and Bracken County historian.


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Hidden in the attic

<figcaption>Present day at 205 West Riverside Dr., Augusta, Ky. Jessica Noll | WCPO

Abolitionist and son of Arthur Thome, the Rev. James A. Thome was born in 1813, and became vice president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

A slave, Judy, and her daughter hid in the Chalfont family's attic, located on West Riverside Drive in Augusta, for two weeks before Thome led them across the Ohio River via the Underground Railroad to freedom.

Thome died in 1873 and is buried in Cleveland, Ohio.

Source: Caroline Miller, author and Bracken County historian.

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Teen frees hundreds

<figcaption>Maysville, Ky., circa 1848. Courtesy Caroline Miller

Arnold Gragston was just a 17-year-old living on a farm near Dover, Ky., when he started helping slaves on the Underground Railroad.

He became one of the most active conductors, helping slaves across the Ohio River to the Rev. John Rankin's house in Ripley, Ohio. He is credited with eventually freeing 300 slaves and became one of nearly 20 accused slave conductors.

He is now buried on the Rankin property in Ripley.

Source: Caroline Miller, author and Bracken County historian.

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"I never lost a passenger"

<figcaption>The historic John Rankin House sits on top of a hill that overlooks the town of Ripley, Ohio. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

The historic Rankin House in Ripley, Ohio is one of the most important Underground Railroad sites in the country, once owned by Rev. John Rankin and his family, who helped saved thousands of slaves.

Born in Tennessee, Rankin studied to become a Presbyterian minister in his home state before moving his family to Carlisle, Ky. A few years later, Rankin accepted a position as the minister of the Ripley Presbyterian Church, which brought him across the river in 1822.

"As a young, married man, he and his wife Jean made the decision that they could simply not raise their children in a state that would allow slavery," said Betty Campbell, site director of the Rankin House.

When Rankin moved his family to Ripley, he openly denounced the practice of slavery from his pulpit, which made growing a congregation difficult.

Betty Campbell talks about the Rankin House

Despite the resistance from some of the townspeople, the Rankins continued to shelter fugitive slaves. He moved his family to a small brick house that sat on top of a hill overlooking the town and the Ohio River. That home is what's now known as the historic Rankin House.

"In his autobiography, Rankin says that he and his family aided about 2,000 fugitive slaves passing through this farm setting. By all accounts Rev. Rankin is a modest person, but we believe he took a lot of pride when he wrote in his autobiography 'I never lost a passenger, '" said Campbell.

In the 1830s, a slave woman named Eliza escaped from Bracken County on a cold winter night after learning she was going to be sold away from her children. She took her youngest child and crossed the icy waters of the Ohio River, and managed to make it across to Ohio.

A man named Chancy Shaw, who made extra money by catching slaves trying to escape to the Ohio side, had been watching her the entire time. But after watching her fall into the river and get herself back on ice cakes, he decided she deserved her freedom. He pointed to the Rankin House and told her to go there for help.

"The Rankins do not lock their doors and they're all in bed and this woman comes inside and warms herself by their stove, wrings out their wet clothes and when the Rankins hear this disturbance they come down and find this woman with a small child. They take care of her needs and then as soon as she's able, they move her on north. Through research, we know this woman made her way to Canada," said Campbell.

A few years later, the woman hired a French-Canadian trapper who helped her bring more of her children from Kentucky to Canada.

While much remains unknown to this day about the Underground Railroad, many of the stories historians have documented today have been based on Rankin's autobiography and stories that were documented by his sons and peers.

Eliza's story was preserved by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Source: Betty Campbell, historian and site director of the John Rankin House.

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The bold invader

<figcaption>The historic John Parker House in Ripley, Ohio. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"The things that he did were not natural. You couldn't call it heroism because a hero wouldn't think like this."

That's how Dewey Scott, a longtime docent at the John Parker House in Ripley, Ohio describes the legacy of Underground Railroad conductor John Parker. Parker was one of the few people who would cross the Ohio River to rescue slaves in Kentucky.

<figcaption>Dewey Scott, docent and longtime historian at the historic John Parker House in Ripley, Ohio. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"When you went across the river to Kentucky and you were armed, you were actually invading that state. The states aren't like they are now. These states considered themselves independent. To be an abductor, as John Parker was, was very, very dangerous," said Scott.

Historians continue to unravel Parker's stories. While they know, based on accounts in his book, that he most likely didn't shelter fugitive slaves in his home, he went above and beyond to help them find ways to escape.

"The things that he did and why he did them, that's what we don't really know. What drove him to do these things, that's the mystery of the whole thing," said Scott.

Born into slavery to a black mother and white father in Virginia, Parker was sold to a doctor in Alabama at the age of eight. Despite laws prohibiting the education of slaves, one of the doctor's sons taught Parker how to read and write as they grew up together. As Parker got older, he convinced a widow to buy him so that he could purchase his freedom from her in return. By the age of 18, he saved enough money to buy his freedom. He eventually moved to Ripley, where he ran a successful foundry, among other endeavors.

In his autobiography, "The Promised Land," Parker depicts one of those missions when he helped a slave escape from the Strove plantation across the river.

After taunting from one of the Strove sons who worked at his foundry, Parker decided he had enough and would rescue a slave from the plantation.

In the middle of the night, he went across the river and found a male slave who wanted freedom but refused to leave his wife and child behind. The slave owner and his wife took the slave couple's baby into their bedroom each night as a way to deter them from escaping.

Parker sneaked into the slave owner's bedroom and took the baby in the middle of the night. He took the family across the river to Ripley, where they remained safe and out of sight.

"These feats that I thought were so impossible, that I thought they were contrived and that he dreamed these up and made things up — but they're documented," said Scott.

Source: Dewey Scott, John Parker House, Ripley, Ohio

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Mysterious underground room

<figcaption>This underground room is located along Ohio 52 in Utopia, Ohio. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

In the tiny town of Utopia, just a few feet off Ohio 52 in Clermont County, is a mysterious, underground brick room that some believe was a station of the Underground Railroad.

It's likely the room was built by a spiritualist community that settled for a time in Utopia, but historians are still looking for proof that it was a station.

One possible link to the Underground Railroad was Augustus Wattle, who had a history of activism in the movement before moving to Utopia. He was the brother of Jon Otis Wattle, who led a group of Christian spiritualists who believed in communicating with spirits to settle there.

See more photos of the underground room.

The tiny town is known for it's unorthodox history, as it was founded on a series of radical communes that settled in the area during the 1840s. Some historians believe the room is a remnant of one of the "Utopian" settlements. They also included followers of the French philosopher Charles Fourier, who rebelled against the cultural effects of the Industrial Revolution.

WCPO was given permission by the property owner to take photos inside the room. A locked gate leads to a wooden staircase that enters what looks like a large room made of brick, similar to a basement of a church. What appear to be fireplaces line the room.

Source: Gary L. Knepp, author, "Freedom's Struggle: A Response to Slavery form the Ohio Borderlands."

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The start of an abolitionist

<figcaption>Moscow Landing. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

The Fee family was a prominent family involved in the Underground Railroad on both sides of the river. Moscow resident Robert Fee was one of the most active in the abolitionist movement in Clermont County, so much so that he had a warrant issued for his arrest for "stealing slaves" from slave owners.

<figcaption>Clermont County historian Gary Knepp holds a brick from Robert Fee's home. The home was demolished in the 1970s. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Historians attribute Fee's dedication to the movement to an event that took place on Oct. 30, 1842.

In the middle of the night, a group of proslavery Kentuckians broke through the doors of Vincent and Fanny Wigglesworth's Washington Township home. Fanny and her four children were abducted and disappeared across the river into Kentucky.

The town was in an uproar over the kidnapping, as Fanny had been a resident of Washington Township for 16 years with her freed husband. All of her children where born in Ohio, where they were considered free.

The 45-year-old woman, however, had been born into slavery in Maryland, where she was considered an asset of an unnamed woman's estate. When the woman died, her estate was passed on to William Moore and William Middleton, who organized a group of men to take back their "property."

Vincent moved to Lebanon, where a group of supporters helped raise money for the rescue of the family. They enlisted Fee's help, who found the family in Independence, Missouri.

Fee made arrangements with the town to purchase the family for $150. He paid $20 as a down payment and returned to Ohio to raise more money. After his departure, Fee learned that Moore and Middletown moved Fanny and her children to Plate County, Missouri.

With indictments in hand against Moore and Middletown for kidnapping, Fee traveled to Plate County, but was met by a hostile group that threatened his life, forcing him to return home. No one ever found Fanny and her children, but the experience prompted Fee to dedicate his life to the abolitionist movement.

Source: Gary Knepp, author of "Freedom's Struggle: A Response to Slavery in form the Ohio Borderlands"

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The voice of the movement

<figcaption>Historical marker of where The Philanthropist was located. It's now a parking lot. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

The influential antislavery newspaper The Philanthropist was headquartered in New Richmond.

Publisher James Birney was originally an attorney, state legislator and slave owner from Danville, Ky. After a change of heart, he joined the Antislavery Society and planned to publish the newspaper in his hometown, but was pushed out, so he traveled to Ohio, where he had been invited by the New Richmond movement.

The Philanthropist debuted on Jan. 1, 1836. After a time, he moved the office to Cincinnati, where he and his wife lived (they had moved there at her urging). But there was no welcome in Cincinnati. He was greeted by outrage and the office was destroyed by a mob.

The paper was relocated to New Richmond, where it continued to publish until 1843.

The original building has been torn down, but Birney's paper served as a strong voice for the antislavery movement.

Source: Gary Knepp, author of "Freedom's Struggle: A Response to Slavery form the Ohio Borderlands."

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Shallow waters

<figcaption>A work boat tries to break up ice at the Meldahl Lock & Dam. Photo courtesy the Clermont County Park District.

The waters of the Ohio River signified a new life for many. But the river is not the same as it was 200 years ago, when it was the dividing line between slavery and freedom.

The Ohio River that fugitive slaves and Underground Railroad conductors encountered was drastically different in depth and width, says Kevin Robinson, chief naturalist of the Clermont County Park District.

"Prior to the locks and dams, the river of the entire length would have been almost completely dry sometimes during the times of summer... It was not uncommon for it to be two to three feet deep in the summertime during most years," said Robinson.

Keith Robinson explains the changes to the Ohio over the decades and how it affected the Underground Railroad.

By 1929, there were 53 locks and dams on the Ohio River. While not all of those dams still exist, the river was raised as much as 30 feet in some places.

"Today it would be a much more difficult task trying to cross the river on foot," said Robinson.

While the water was shallow enough at times to cross, another natural obstacle still stood in some slaves' way. Trudging through the thick mud along the riverbank could pose just as much a threat. "There were parts of it that were like quicksand and you were likely to get stuck out there and not get out," said historian Dewey Scott.

In the video above, Robinson explains the changes to the Ohio over the decades and how it affected the Underground Railroad.

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Healing a community

<figcaption>The home and office of John Rogers in New Richmond, Ohio.  Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Dr. John Rogers, a physician in New Richmond for more than 60 years, is best known as the doctor who delivered the infant who grew up to be the general who won the Civil War and, ultimately, a president, Ulysses S. Grant.

But he was also a leader of the antislavery movement, and was the first elected president of the Clermont County Antislavery Society.

Rogers was one of the few who stood guard at the antislavery newspaper "The Philanthropist" when it was threatened by a proslavery mob shortly after its location in Cincinnati was destroyed.

Source: Gary Knepp, author of "Freedom's Struggle: A Response to Slavery form the Ohio Borderlands."

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Shipped to freedom

<figcaption>The Ohio River bank in downtown New Richmond. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Slaves routinely risked their lives to break free from slavery.

Jim and Joe were enslaved in Louisville, Ky. under different owners. Joe suffered under a cruel owner and sought escape. Jim's owner was tolerant, even allowing him to visit his parents' house in New Richmond.

<figcaption>The Ohio River bank in downtown New Richmond. Emily Maxwell | WCPO.

Jim agreed to help Joe escape and together they devised a plan to hide Joe in a shipping crate and send him by boat from Louisville to Cincinnati.

"He waited in the sun and if you can imagine the sun and the fear of waiting on the dock for a number of hours," said historian Gary Knepp.

After nearly 36 hours, he was finally shipped to Jim's parents' house in New Richmond.

After hearing of Joe's escape, Levi Coffin, the president of the Underground Railroad, wanted to help him get further away. "Unknown abolitionists escorted him back to Cincinnati, and there Levi Coffin arranged his transit to Canada," said Knepp.

Soon after, Jim and his wife followed in Joe's footsteps, meeting him in Canada.

Source: Gary L. Knepp, author of "Freedom's Struggle: A Response to Slavery form the Ohio Borderlands."

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Ringing out for freedom

<figcaption>The Felicity Wesleyan Church still stands in downtown Felicity. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

The small town of Felicity, just five miles from the Ohio River, was the site of a vigorous antislavery movement.

The issue of slavery had split the Methodist church, and the Wesleyan Methodist church was built in 1857 out of a rebellion against proslavery supporters.

Ralph Adams explains the founding of the Felicity Wesleyan Church.

The tallest structure in the community, it featured a bell tower that reached over 100 feet in the air, topped by a steeple. The bell tower was designed to face Kentucky and the Ohio River. Its ringing signified to slaves and slave owners that Felicity was ready to help those seeking freedom.

"It was sending a message to both slaves and slave owners that we're up here and we're opposed to slavery," said local historian Ralph Adams.

A few years before the outbreak of the Civil War, other Wesleyans in Clermont County joined members of the Weselyan Church in Felicity to declare July 4, 1858 as Independence Day for slaves.

"It helped give Felicity this nickname of the 'Hell Hole of Abolition,'" said Adams.

While there's no evidence the church was used as an Underground Railroad station, many of its members served as conductors.

After the Civil War, the Methodist community reassembled its original congregation and joined the two churches. The historic building was used for community events, but was eventually closed to the public. It still remains in its original location, except for the bell tower, which was removed.

Source: Ralph Adams, author of the walking tour book "Felicity, Ohio: A Small Town with a Big History."

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"Freedom's Divide" came about from six months of work by WCPO multimedia journalists Jessica Noll and Emily Maxwell. They interviewed historians, experts and residents, researched documents and visited locations to produce the stories, photos and videos to bring the Underground Railroad history alive.

Jessica has been a reporter and photojournalist for and since 2007.

Emily has worked as a web producer, web editor and photojournalist for WCPO since 2010.

Photos, videos, text: Emily Maxwell, Jessica Noll

Multimedia Producers: Libby Duebber, Brian Niesz

Editors: David Holthaus, Christine Graves