Ohio Icon: Hanby House

The Hanby House in Westerville
Hanby House, Westerville

Location: In the Columbus suburb of Westerville near the western edge of Otterbein University’s campus.

Provenance: Built in 1846, Hanby House was the home of Rev. William Hanby and his family from 1854 to 1870. Hanby was a bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, a co-founder of Otterbein University, an active temperance advocate, and an ardent abolitionist who used the house as a station on the Underground Railroad. Inspired by the story of a broken-hearted slave separated from his sweetheart, Hanby’s son Benjamin wrote a song — “Darling Nelly Gray” — that he debuted in 1856 at a musical gathering in the home’s parlor.

Benjamin Hanby’s ballad became enormously popular and helped crystallize anti-slavery sentiment prior to the Civil War. Hanby started a singing school in New Paris, where in 1864, he composed the jolly tune “Up on the House Top” for a children’s Christmas program. Hanby wrote more than 80 songs before dying of tuberculosis at age 33 in 1867.

In the 1920s, Otterbein graduates John and Dacia Shoemaker rescued the dilapidated house from the wrecking ball and organized a renovation that turned it into a museum. Hanby House opened to the public in 1937.

Significance: Operated by the Westerville Historical Society, Hanby House is part of the Ohio History Connection’s statewide system of historic sites and museums and is an identified destination on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Currently: Hanby House honors Benjamin Hanby’s musical legacy as well as his family’s efforts to aid freedom seekers. The exterior of Hanby House recently was painted, changed from white to its original butternut color. According to the site’s manager, Pam Allen, “A paint specialist determined that color by using an electron microscope to analyze all the layers of paint on the house.”

It’s a little-known fact that: Christmas open houses at Hanby House feature tours led by guides in period costumes, traditional refreshments such as mulled cider and ginger snaps, and live performances of “Up on the House Top” and other holiday songs.